Friday, January 27, 2017

Love Conquers Fear

The shooting at a Charleston, S.C. church has been back in the news recently. As always seems to happen in these circumstances, the news media tries to help people understand what led up to the killings. What kind of person would kill nine people at point blank range at a church Bible study? Who is this Dylann Roof and what led up to this murderous act? What were his family, school and work life like? Can friends shed any light on his motivations?

It now seems evident that Dylann had even larger intentions. There is some evidence he had several other black churches in his sights and wanted to be the spark to set off a race war. There is also testimony that in his later years, (there is no record he attended school after the ninth grade), he spent lots of time alone in his room and on the internet. You don't have to look long or hard to find racially divisive and hateful internet sites. Some are not bashful about advocating murder.

In a time when hate crimes in the U.S. seem to be on the rise, it's appropriate to ask the question why? What's happening in the society, or even around the globe, that is fueling divisiveness and hate? Thinking about that question led the publisher of the journal "The Christian Century," Peter W. Marty, to address it in an editorial in the January 4 issue. 

As Marty says, there has always been divisiveness and hate in the human community. But if we are seeing more of it these days, Marty attributes the rise to the skillful use of the internet by hate-filled individuals and organizations, fomenting fear and violence. Think not just of Dylann Roof and the racist web sites available to him, but think also of the cyberspace sophistication of an ISIS. Intelligence experts agree the internet is the most successful and most used recruiter for terrorism outfits. 

The impact of technology on human beings and their interaction with each other is a major concern in the recent encyclical from Pope Francis, Laudato Si', "On Care for Our Common Home." We have allowed technology to shape our lives in a way that the world becomes one dimensional. We are in control of almost anything and everything through our phone, our watch, our computer. The object of our control is increasingly faceless, lifeless, certainly soul-less. When the object is not controlled, our fears abound.

Marty tells us "more than 300,000 members are now registered at the largest white supremacist forum, 'Stormfront.'" Check out the KKK or the White Knights or Alt. Right on the internet, even on YouTube. Hate is a click away in all forms of electronic media, including video games like "Ethnic Cleansing."

Whatever the source, according to Marty, hate and divisiveness are fueled by fear. As our fears escalate, so does our suspicion and disillusionment about the humanity of the "other."

Another source of hate and divisiveness is likely the worsening sickness of creation. As creatures of the Creator, we depend on the land and the seas and the myriad creatures. But instead of water that brings health and wellness, our faucets too often flow with lead, with toxic fracking wastes, with high levels of nitrates from agricultural runoff and all manner of substances that make us sick, or fearful or angry. 

Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader of the Lakota, said it so well after 9/11. A sick Mother produces sick children. And our Mother Earth is ill and getting worse. We fail to recognize how the poisons we put into our soil and our water eventually poison us. They also poison us in our relationships to each other and to all of our relations, whether human, creaturely or in the form of other life forms that sustain us. We fear for the future and the survival of a livable planet. It's hard not to detest, even hate those, who knowingly and willingly further the earth's destruction in the name of profit or political expediency. A fear for the creation's sustainability breeds hatred.

More than ever before in my lifetime, I believe we need fearless individuals. We need those who are willing to speak truth to power. We need those who are willing to stand with the "others" who are products of people's fears. We need people of conscience who choose to be whistleblowers. We need people who will risk out of obedience to a loving God. We need proponents of unity not division. We need lovers instead of haters.

The first letter of John says it well. "There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear." The antidote to hate fueled by fear is love; love that's fueled by a passion for the Creator and the good creation we have received.

Carl Kline

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Singing Across a Chasm in Time

Someone I have known for many years came up to me after a recent Black Lives Matter vigil, song still lingering in the cold air from our closing, and with hand extended wished me a “happy new year.” I am ashamed to say that my response in kind was not immediate. As has become a reflection of the times, even simple greetings of hope and joy seem to become fraught. Struggling to find words, as in “a happy new year in spite of it all…,” my response was more of gloom than of a simple returning of good wishes. I hadn’t really intended it that way, but that’s how it came out, how a simple and good human interaction became twisted by the larger context of fear and despair, indeed, of gloom. 

My friend stammered, as though feeling he had erred in seeking simply to wish me well. Feeling his distress as my own, discomfort flowing into the space around us, I realized the truth I had forgotten, that the nature of our day-to-day interactions affects the quality of our efforts to foster justice and peace in the world. Whether words bring approach or reproach, whether they join from heart to heart or collide in the air between is the challenge in the first word and name of that week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27). The same root can form lageshet/to approach, or it can form l’hitnagesh/to collide. The choice is ours, daily renewed.

Allowing the simple and the good, the human way of approaching each other to be shunted aside, to become victim to our own despair, is not good. To respond reflexively from out of gloom is not the way that we will meet and overcome the challenges that beset us. When we are worried and in despair, we need to reach out and to sing out, raising our voices in deep soul song to help guide us across the chasm and give light to the path. I think of a beautiful agada/a telling that emerges from Parashat Vayigash. It is a telling that emerges from one word, from one name in the portion, as an entire song rising from one note, as a flower from a seed. In a genealogy of Jacob’s sons and grandsons, there is mention of two women. Jacob’s daughter Dina is mentioned. And with the sons of Asher the Torah tells of their sister Serach. Appearing directly two times in the Torah, we only know that Serach is the daughter of Asher, learning here, as well, who her brothers are. From this tantalizing seed, this first note, hints drawn by the rabbis from elsewhere in the Bible (2 Samuel, 20:16), a great song flowers, a song that sings the wisdom of this wondrous woman. Legend tells that she lived from the time of Jacob through the four hundred years of enslavement, who on the verge of the Exodus and freedom told Moses where to find the coffin of Joseph, whose descendants were bidden to carry his bones from Egypt to Canaan. 

The link in all of this is one of song and the wisdom needed for song to rise and guide us across the divide, from one place of being to another. As Joseph’s brothers returned from Egypt to their elderly father Jacob, they suddenly wondered how they would ever tell him that his beloved son Joseph was still alive and was the viceroy of Egypt. As they approached home, they saw their niece, Serach, and then they knew how they would avoid overwhelming their father with the shocking news. Known as a singer of songs and player of the harp, Serach would sing the news to her grandfather Jacob. As the telling goes, she sat down before Jacob and sang, “Joseph, my uncle, lives, he rules over the whole of Egypt, he is not dead!” She sang the words many times until her beloved elder became calm and began to smile and sway. We are then told in the telling, “His joy awakened the holy spirit in him, and he knew that she spoke the truth. The spirit of prophecy never visits a seer when in a state of despair or in a state of grief; it comes only together with joy.” 

That is the “torah,” the teaching of Serach that we need to hear. We are going to need the spirit of prophecy in the days and years ahead, the spirit that makes clear the way and helps us to see each other along the path. In the way of Serach’s song, I think as well of a song I loved as a kid, perhaps needing its wisdom in times of struggling to find my own way. From the singing of Pete Seeger, it is a song to keep singing, the “Worried ‘Man’ Blues:” “It takes a worried ‘man’ to sing a worried song. It takes a worried ‘man’ to sing a worried song. It takes a worried ‘man’ to sing a worried song. I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long.”

In his notes to the song, in a worn old song book that Pete signed so many years ago, he says the song probably “goes way back in slavery days,” and he points out that the tune is a relative of “This Little Light of Mine.” So we sing, that song might become light, soul tune and soul light guiding the way, lifting us from despair to do the work that needs a-doing, as Pete might have said it, that we find the strength, as he did say, to “keep on keeping on.”

In the openhearted way of Serach, singing across a chasm in time, if we would get there and re-embrace each other, as in the way of Jacob and Joseph reunited, we need words to help us approach and not collide. And we surely need the ability to offer and receive the simple blessings of another’s greeting, as in the sincere good wishes for a “happy new year.”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Monday, January 9, 2017

We Have Forgotten

Sitting and watching the first real snow of the season, my mind drifts back a number of years to a sunny prison courtyard at a State Prison in South Dakota.  I recall my anxiety about approaching the prison grounds, wondering what it would be like on the “inside.”  The group I was with was focused on “Learning Nonviolence with the Lakotas.”  We were visiting the prison to hear from a couple of inmates about their experience of trying to live nonviolence in the prison milieu.

Needless to say, we were only given access to the outermost areas of the prison campus. We entered the courtyard and two young men arranged some picnic tables so that our group could sit more or less in a circle for conversation with them. 

We listened as they told their stories .  Both had been tried and sentenced for crimes that would have received much lesser sentences and perhaps probation if they had been white.  But they were not.  They were Native American.  They told stories about how long the process had been to be able to have a Sweat Lodge and a Medicine Man available to them in prison so they could practice their spiritual lives and begin to heal the deep wounds of racism.

This all happened a lot of years ago.  Many of the details of their stories are lost  to me now, but one story vividly remains in my memory.

One of the young men told the story of  being a young boy and asking his grandfather “Why are white people the way they are?” referring to his experience of white prejudice and racism and indignity at the hands of white citizens and local bureaucrats in his brief life span.

His grandfather answered: “They have lost their drum, they have forgotten the dance, and they do not know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.”

Those words and the truth and wisdom they convey have stayed with me.  As I continued on my own spiritual path, I kept searching for what the metaphors might mean and gradually they became clear.

We white folk have lost our drum.  We have become disconnected in so many ways from the rhythm of the heartbeat of Mother Earth.  This disconnection is what allows us to act in rapacious ways against the earth, to mine and drill and frack and deforest, and over-fish and pollute without regard to how deeply wounding this is to the fragile integrity of this planet.

We have forgotten how to dance - - how to move about in shared space with grace, taking each other into account, respecting  one another’s dance style, cooperating to create beauty.  We have forgotten that moving together in  dance teaches us how to move together in life - - how to cooperate  for the common good - - how to live in response to  the deep music of life.  Instead we move in isolation and non-cooperation.  We disregard the beauty of another’s dance moves and avoid learning new steps and rhythms.  Indeed we work very hard at eliminating the diverse beauty of the dance of life when the steps are  unfamiliar. 

We don’t know where the bones of our ancestors are buried.  So many of us of us can’t go back more than 2 generations, 3 at the most, when we try to tell our kids their family history.  Without the deep connection to “the bones of our ancestors” we become uprooted and ungrounded.  We lose a strong and healthy sense of who we are.  We are a nation of immigrants.  Our forbears, at some point in our history, came from elsewhere.  When we don’t know where the bones of our ancestors are buried we lose our own history, our own sense belonging to a great stream of life.  As ungrounded and rootless people without a firm grasp on our own stories, we find threat to our fragile sense of ourselves where none exists.  Everyone becomes “the other.”  

My mind often goes back to the lesson learned in that prison courtyard.  Those two young men were strong and free in ways that we as white folk may never understand.  They owned their drum, cherished its meaning, and cared for it with deep respect.  They danced with respect to heal themselves and the planet.  They honored their ancestors and could sing and recite their family history going back 7 generations.  They knew who they were. 

As we move into the fear-filled uncertainty of 2017, may we spend time searching for the drum we have lost.  May we honor the rhythms and the heart beat of the earth and cease wounding her.  May we begin to learn how to dance with grace again.  May we search for and find “the bones of our ancestors” - - fleshing out our own stories so we can see how they blend with the stories of  the rest of humankind.

A prison courtyard  seems like the last place to look to find hope, but there it is in the story of a young boy and his grandfather’s wisdom: find the drum - - learn the dance - - re-collect the bones of our ancestors - - and learn to live in the world in greater peace.

Vicky Hanjian

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

People of Place

My wife was busy cleaning out the cubby hole. That's what we call the space under the eaves in our 1890 Brookings home. Over the years it has become the place of last resort for all manner of "stuff." My stuff takes up half the space, mostly my important papers and resources I may need once more in another lifetime. But besides my stuff, the other things my wife pulled out of that space after 37+ years were amazing.

One that caused a certain degree of nostalgia was a poster. It's large, framed, in black and white. It shows two people walking down a hill in the winter, bare trees on both sides. I purchased it years ago when we lived in Worcester, MA. It reminded me of the hill we lived on and the dirt road going down the hill. You didn't drive it in winter. It was hardly passable in other seasons: rutted, rooted and just plain rough.

I started thinking about that place we called home: the way we laughed when we signed the mortgage papers, unable to envision living anyplace 15 years and paying $14,000; the beautiful gardens in the side yard, left by the previous elderly owner; the rounded wall in the upstairs bathroom, making it large enough for our yearly Christmas tree; the vegetable garden on top of the garage, where we "planted" the kids dead guinea pigs; the old time street lamp, sitting by the fireplug in front of the house; the 12 days of Christmas open house we held for friends and neighbors, coming and going as they were able.

Annie Dillard has a beautiful essay in her book For the Time Being where she reflects on dust. You know, the layer of who knows what on the bedroom dresser. She names the "what," as flakes of dried skin and all manner of other matter that eventually covers whole cities and our homes. Still, after 37+ years, digging in the dust and dirt of our back yard we will recover glass shards from the original owner of this property, Dr. Hyde. And who knows what memories live deeper, buried under concrete.

We're a mobile population in this country. Always going someplace. Always in a hurry. Never in one place long enough to get to know it. And then when we are present for a while, there are those who want to change it, grow it, develop it, bulldoze it for something better.

I still remember with some grief those years during the "farm crisis," listening to SDSU students relate losing the family farm after three or four generations. And I look with awe at the home a west river rancher built, the inside walls constructed as outside walls by his forebears, as squatters and settlers generations ago.

There's something about "place" that's essential to the human condition. We are people of place, whether we know it, or acknowledge it, or not. For Christians, it may go back to the Genesis story  where we are created from the "dust" of the earth, where Adam means "dust creature." Place connects us to earth. We may think we are winged creatures, flying from one place to another, but our final destination as dust creatures is a place in the earth. We should get to know it!

All of this makes me wonder why it's so hard for us to understand the respect Indian people have for a field in North Dakota, recently bulldozed for a pipeline.

In his book World Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions, Houston Smith writes about how first peoples are people of place. They are the bluff, the pine tree, the bison, the stones, the water of their surroundings. There is no spiritual separation. And when a young woman at the Sacred Stone Camp says she is there to protect the water because we are water, it's not just a spiritual statement but a scientific reality. Science gradually catches up to ancient knowledge.

I'll always remember that picture of laying the first keystone pipeline. The label said no sacred sites here. The picture showed the pipe being buried a foot from a human skeleton.

I'm becoming averse to bulldozers, even the name. I keep seeing them destroying Palestinian homes and running over and killing Rachel Corrie. Now I watch them deliberately tearing up sacred sites in North Dakota. Even the one leveling the earth by the meeting of the Interstates near Sioux Falls is troublesome. Bulldozers have no respect for the earth, for the dust of generations, for our place on it. 

Let them dig the Dakota Access pipeline with hand tools, like the archaeologist. Maybe by the time they finished that process, we would be sufficiently recharged with renewable energy, and the earth and our water and Gods good creation would be treated with the respect it deserves. 

Carl Kline