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

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: The fight goes on

The courage displayed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their fight to protect their sacred land and water and the treaty rights of Native Peoples has given heart to people throughout the U.S. and around the world. The ramifications of the struggle are local, global, and ongoing. The issues are legal, economic, political, and theological. 
            On June 8, 2017, the Wallace Global Foundation awarded the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe the inaugural Henry A. Wallace award "for its brave resistance in defending sacred land and water against the Dakota Access Pipeline." The HAW award is given in recognition of "extraordinary examples of courage in standing up to abuse of corporate and government power." I highly recommend that you check out the website and the powerful video narrated by Bill Moyer. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman, Dave Archambault II, accepted the $250,000 award. In addition to this award, the Foundation pledged up to one million dollars in investments to support renewable energy projects led by the Tribe. 
            On June 14, 2017 , Judge James Boasberg, U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., wrote a 91-page decision finding that the U. S. Corps of Army Engineers did not adequately consider the impact of oil spills on the environment and on people. The judge did not halt the flow of oil in the Dakota Access Pipeline, however. This decision awaits another hearing.
            The trend toward increasing the militarization of law enforcement is disturbing enough. When we add to that the criminalization of dissent and equating protest with terrorism it is imperative that we address questions of corporate wealth and power and the rights of dissent from a religious and theological perspective. When corporations are treated better than human beings, we need to claim higher moral ground. When profits matter more than people, we need to claim higher moral ground. On June 4, 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about "The Power of Nonviolence" to an audience in Berkeley, California. In his address he spoke about the need to be "maladjusted." He said, "I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things. . . . As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth  who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man [sic].  God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization."
 David Phillips Hansen

Friday, June 16, 2017

Witness, Presence, Unconditional Love

     Perhaps about 15 years ago, after the birth of our grandson, our second grandchild, I had the experience of feeling absolutely overwhelmed with the love I felt for the two beautiful young souls who were being entrusted to their parents and to us for as long as we would have time to be in their lives.  I hardly knew what to do with the feelings I had;  what to do with the awareness of what an incredible privilege and responsibility came with being a conscious grandparent.  So - I prayed for some guiding wisdom for how to go about the awesome task of loving these two precious beings and for how to be a strong and positive influence in their lives.   In the deep silence of prayer, I heard “You are to be a Witness, a Presence, and Unconditional Love.”  15 years later, I am still grappling with what these words mean, but I took this  wisdom as my marching orders for grand-parenting.  It turns out that they were marching orders for my life as well as they have continued to echo in my spirit over the years that I have been a grandmother.   You are to be a Witness, a Presence, and Unconditional Love.

        The words put me in mind of attributes of the Source of All Life, partially revealed in the story of Moses in his encounter with the Holy One of Being at the bush that burned but was not consumed (Exodus 3:1-15): 
 “I have observed the misery of my people...I have heard their cry . . . I know their suffering . . . I have come down to deliver them from slavery . . .  .I will bring them to a good land . . . "
     The Divine Voice further instructs Moses to tell the people that "...the God of your ancestors,the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you." 
       The beautiful story of the beginnings of humankind found in the Book of Genesis affirms that humankind is created in "the image and likeness" of the Creator.  While I am not a Biblical literalist, I take this to point to the notion that we all carry the attributes of the Holy One to some degree - we have the capacity for creativity, for curiosity, for profoundly loving relationships.  We also have the capacity to observe, and hear and know - - the capacity to Witness the lives of others.  We have the capacity to "come down" - to be a Presence in solidarity with those who suffer.  We have the capacity to BE the Unconditional Love alluded to in the affirmation that "I am the God of your ancestors" - the source of creative loving that has accompanied humankind through thick and thin since the beginning of creation.
These attributes lead us to a high calling in our life together as a community of human beings committed to living nonviolence in our personal lives and in the world beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones. The good news is that we are already familiar with these attributes.  Indeed, we practice them every day when we witness, we notice, we observe, we see.   We witness one another’s lives in the joys and the sorrows, the challenges and celebrations, the fears and concerns, the illnesses and the healing that we go through together in community.  We witness the effects of stress and joy, suffering and well-being, wholeness and brokenness on each other - and we learn empathy and compassion. This attribute of witnessing is what makes the center hold in our personal spheres of influence.  It is also what makes us more effective as we take our caring into the world.

When we are present to one another, we become the holy attribute of Presence. Some times we are called upon to take action - to make a phone call in behalf of an important cause, to check in with each other when the news is stressful, or when an action is in need of support,  to attend to one another when one of us is suffering.  Sometimes we are called upon to  be present to one another in profound grief when there are simply no words to be said.  We each have the capacity to be a Presence in each other’s lives - whether through actual physical hands on  help or through prayer, through words of encouragement and comfort.  Being a Presence means saying “Hineini” - - here I am - - my spirit and my energy are available to you - - I am part of your life.  Being a Presence means being a little bit of God available to the life of another person. 
     And then there is the attribute of Unconditional Love. We know from the long saga of God’s journey with Israel that God does not give up when the going gets tough - - and the texts are full of reasons why God could have just thrown up the proverbial divine hands and walked away in frustration and disgust.  But that did not happen.  The love of the Holy One for all of creation does not depend upon how faithful humans are,  or how good or cooperative or thoughtful or sensitive or caring or patient with each other we happen to be.  Unconditional Love is just that - it unaffected by the conditions of our lives.  Being created in the Divine Image, we have the capacity to love one another through thick and thin - - even when we aren’t sure we like each other very much - even when we disagree about how things ought to be done, even when we hurt one another’s feelings - even when things go terribly wrong.  Being Unconditional Love means being in our holy center where we do not get shaken by the dramas and ups and downs of our daily interactions, by political differences, by our knee-jerk reactions to the most recent inflammation in the news - it means being Love even when we don’t feel particularly loving.
     To embrace the command, if you will, to be a Witness, a Presence, and Unconditional Love, is, perhaps, a partial answer to the questions "How do we access soul force?"and "Where do we find the strength to live nonviolently in our world?"  Accessing "soul force" and strength for living nonviolently in the world begins with the practice of living out the Holy Attributes in community: practicing witnessing the lives of those around us; practicing being a Presence in the midst of joy and celebration and suffering and sorrow; practicing being Unconditional love that does not waver when the going gets tough.  With practice, we may yet become the influence that will transform the world.

Vicky Hanjian


Friday, June 9, 2017

Reason for Hope?

       In the midst senate hearings in Washington DC and parliamentary elections in England and reports of numerous terrorist attacks against a variety of homely sites like ice cream parlors, it would seem as though confusion and chaos, dishonesty and violence, subterfuge and obstructionism are the values that rule the day.  It becomes a spiritual discipline to begin each day with a re-connection with what is good and true and hopeful even when awaking into the ongoing nightmare.  Even our small town island politics reflect the larger milieu as a local CEO is fired without adequate public explanation and a popular school teacher leaves the system leaving many questions unanswered.
         It is tempting to wonder if something akin to Lyme Disease is affecting the entire neuro-muscular system of our culture, both national and local.  Lyme is a pesky, often chronic, and occasionally lethal infection - a gift of the deer tick, which seems invincible - a gift that keeps on giving.  It causes all kinds of symptoms from chronic headaches and muscle pain to fever to neurological disturbances and more, all in varying degrees of severity.   The medical establishment's struggle to recognize, diagnose and treat Lyme is ongoing and not yet fully dependable and accurate.  There are days when, for many folks, fear of the deer tick rules the day.
         And so it seems with our human ability to  come to terms with the far reaching effects of dishonesty and violence and subterfuge and obstructionism - along with the confusion and chaos they generate. 
         BUT!  and it is a huge BUT!  Along with the onset of the most active tick season in the month of June also comes the month of celebration of another generation of young people preparing to make the long walk to the podium to receive their diplomas.  All around the world the possibility of an antidote to the infections that stalk humanity is donning its robes and "mortar-boards", or, as is also the case on our island, throwing off their shoes and donning flower garlands on their heads, preparing to step out and make a difference.
         A high school guidance counselor describes the Class of 2017 this way: “Since their freshman year, they have volunteered for every event we’ve asked them to volunteer for, helping with the eighth grade transition, the Race-Culture Retreat." She highlighted the Stand With Everyone Against Rape (SWEAR), for this volunteering spirit, particularly among the young men of the senior class.
“We collaborated and created a training program for boys. They talk about how sexual assault is not just a women’s issue but a men’s issue as well, and how it’s time for men to step up and accept their privilege.”   Seventeen and eighteen year old kids did final research projects on innovative treatments for debilitating diseases and on the effects of gender bias on education in the classroom.  Once again, members of the graduating class, along with a few thousand other kids from around the world, attended a Model UN Conference in New York City for a simulated learning experience that helped them to train their minds to think critically and do problem solving in collaboration with people from other cultures.
     So as the tick season hits its stride and when high profile hearings seem to uncover ever more of the presence of a long suspected disease, it is a reasonable comfort to sit in the crowd as "Pomp and Circumstance" begins and another generation of young adults, far more savvy than the previous generation was at the same age, prepares to make its influence felt. 
     They send a strong message of hope and resilience to the rest of us who feel outrage, sadness, weariness, and often, fatigue, with the enormity of the dis-ease that confronts us on a daily basis, that the "research and development" for an antidote is well underway. 
Vicky Hanjian

Friday, June 2, 2017

To what shall I compare the kingdom....

            This morning’s news is disheartening.  The headlines shout that the USA will withdraw from the Paris Climate agreements.  Follow-up articles tell the story of  conflicting opinions about what this will mean economically and politically for the country.  Concern, outrage, resistance, and resolve are words that appear again and again as business people and politicians seek to find a solid place to stand - either in solidarity with the administration or in opposition.   The international community shakes its collective head as the leadership in efforts to offset or contain the effects of climate change shifts away from the USA and other nations strengthen their commitment.  Once again, high drama makes the headlines.
            Meanwhile, back on my beloved island, my morning email contains a note from a church member asking for time in morning worship to make an announcement.  She writes from Haiti where she is on a brief trip to assess the state of health of PeaceQuilts, an island non-profit initiative to support women’s art and creativity by helping them to form small businesses to market their craft in the form of beautiful, colorful  quilts of all shapes and sizes. PeaceQuilts provides an opportunity for Haitian women to build their own businesses and earn a living wage.
            The announcement will provide information to the local church about several other island non-profit groups that are partnering to kick-off a summer of events that promote global aid initiatives focused on women’s empowerment and economic development. Representing work in Haiti, Zambia, Tanzania, and India, they hope to raise awareness about their organizations and the work they are doing as well as to showcase the resulting art and bring the crafts of the people they work with around the world to our island community.
            The African Artists’ Community Development Project, is a non-profit organization based on the island. Raising money for disabled children, orphans and women’s groups in Zambia by selling crafts here in the U.S., AACDP’s mission is expressed in the motto, “Buying African Crafts, Strengthening African Families.”  This group continues to explore empowerment commerce and has started a doll-making project with the mothers and grandmothers of the children at the Mama Bakhita Cheshire Home for Disabled Children.
            Maasai Partners, also based on the island, promotes health, educationwelfare, and economic development focusing on the Ngorongoro Conservation Area of northern Tanzania to combat the extreme poverty in the region.  Maasai Partners (working under NCN), believes the most successful development programs rely on the villagers themselves to determine what is most necessary for their own success. Collaborating with the villagers, identifying the resources needed to further community development and help alleviate poverty, Maasai Partners networks and collaborates with area nonprofits to establish effective programs within the villages, while also providing independent support. 
            Also participating as a local non-profit, will be a “The Invisible World”, a collaboration between a local plankton ecologist and Her Future Coalition. Her Future Coalition is a human trafficking rescue, recovery and prevention organization based in India. Plankton are not seen, but play a crucial role in the ecology of our planet, supplying 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Human trafficking goes on every day but is overlooked. The Invisible World reminds us to look at what is not seen on the surface, to change our way of thinking and how we see the world. 
            The email is a timely message of hope that antidotes my sinking feelings of incredulity and frustration.  The headlines seem always to carry the worst of the news of the state of the world, while, like plankton, the life blood of human resourcefulness and kindness and generosity and creativity go largely unnoticed.
            So - without a doubt, time will be given in morning worship for a woman to speak and for the congregation to hear the word of grace that will come - - the word that echoes the words of Jesus: “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?  It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Luke 13:20,21).  Yeast is a homely metaphor - but it works.  I bake bread.  I am not a truly patient person by nature.  I am constantly checking the dough to see whether the yeast is doing its work.  It really does seem to have a mind of its own and does its best work in secret - invisibly.   It seems as though it waits for me to turn my back for a moment and then - VOILA! - the dough is ready to be baked.  
            So on this glorious day, with so much sunlight after so much gray rainy weather, I anticipate the word of grace - - that there is much “yeast” at work in the world - - that it is in the nature of yeast to grow and spread throughout the dough; -- that, indeed, while our attention may be focused on the dreary headlines, there are other forces at work - - and eventually we may enjoy the unspeakable delight of the aroma of fresh baked bread.

Vicky Hanjian