Friday, April 23, 2021

More Than Just talk


On this date, in 1999, I returned home after living by choice for nearly seven weeks on the streets of Columbus, Ohio. As we recounted in The Emptiness of Our Hands, my friend James Murray and I had taken to the streets to “practice presence.” For a season of our lives, we offered the chronically homeless people in our city as much nonjudgmental attention and compassion as we could muster.
On Easter Sunday, reduced to shells of our old selves, we abandoned the camp on the riverbank where we’d lived “on the land” among homeless neighbors. Thus began our slow re-entry into so-called normal life.

I remember my homecoming well. That April afternoon was warm and sunny. I didn’t want to be in the house. After forty-seven days away, mostly outdoors, I felt like a stranger inside it, and cooped up.
I relaxed with Jihong on the back deck, eating pizza. I was still wearing my grubby clothes, except for my cumbersome shoes. I’d yanked them off, first thing, upon arriving home. Freed of them, I was as light and clumsy in my stockinged feet as Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz after Dorothy slipped him off his pole. My feet had logged hundreds of miles on the streets, through snow and ice and puddles and mud. They’d never been without shoes except when in bed. They didn’t know how to go unshod. Now, back on familiar but unsettled ground, I had no solid footing.

 Let’s rewind this story a couple of months. A few days before our departure from my house on February 17, James and I received a note from Jack, a Jewish friend aware of our intentions. He concluded his well wishes by offering us a blessing in Hebrew: “Yashir koach. Grow in strength.”
As I understand it, yashir koach (יישר כוח) is a traditional blessing among Ashkenazi Jews. Try saying the Hebrew with me: YAH-sheer KO-ach. (That last syllable is the guttural “ach” that clears your throat.)
I can’t tell you how much Jack’s blessing sustained and rallied James and me throughout our time on the streets. Starting our very first night, we always said “Yashir koach” to each other before hitting the sack. We never decided to do that; it simply had to be done. Jack’s blessing would consecrate the day we’d just endured. It prepared us for the torments we so often suffered in the dark hours. It fortified our spirits to press on when we were tempted to give up.

Now, over two decades later, residing hundreds of miles apart, James and I still close every phone conversation with “Yashir koach.” When texting or emailing, we always sign off “YK.” This Hebrew blessing breathes in our bones.

Grow in strength. But what kind of strength are we talking about?
I’ve learned that yashir koach is a traditional way of blessing or someone for doing a mitzvah, a good deed on behalf of others. More than merely an expression of gratitude, it’s also an affirmation, and a form of encouragement. It reinforces the moral impulse to serve what’s right and just, even holy. To my mind, saying it unites in righteous intention the one who blesses, the one blessed, and anyone who bears witness.
Yashir koach obviously refers to inner or spiritual strength. But we needn’t limit our interpretation to that. Why? Because strength of spirit can actually increase strength of body.

Think of the woman who hoists a BMW off a man pinned beneath. Or the bystander who rips the door off a wrecked vehicle to rescue the unconscious driver. Or the teenage sisters who lift the John Deere tractor off their father’s body. What accounts for such superhuman deeds?   “Hysterical strength,” it’s often called. But we could also say it’s the power of moral intention transmuted into physical action.

Not ready to think of yourself as superhuman? Consider the research conducted by Kurt Gray at Harvard University. It suggests that strong moral intentions are potent triggers of physical power. His experiments showed that even thinking about doing good, let alone doing it, significantly increased the physical stamina of his subjects. (Unfortunately, the same proved true in the case of malice. That’s worth pondering, too.)

Grow in strength. These aren’t just words. Not if we mean them. When we bless others, we quite literally empower them, spiritually and physically. At the same time, we empower ourselves. The act of blessing, when performed with sincerity, opens wider the tap of energy that enables all of us to do the tough, beautiful work that needs doing.

In short, when we bless, we love with words so that together we may love in deeds. And what love can accomplish is beyond superhuman. It has no limits.
So, bring on the burdens that must be borne that we don’t yet know how to bear. Yashir koach! Together, we’ll carry them.

Bring on the tasks that must be done that we don’t yet know how to do. Yashir koach! Together, we’ll figure them out.

Bring on the visions of what the world must become that we don’t yet know how to bring about. Yashir koach! Together, we’ll live into them.

All this is more than just talk. This is blessing. This is love at work.
Yashir koach, my friend. Grow in strength.

Deep Peace,

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Friday, April 16, 2021

Broken and Blessed

An Inquiry into the Gospel of John 20:19-32

    In light of recent events I have started reading the above passage from the Gospel of John with new eyes. I now understand this passage as the conclusion of a training manual in nonviolence written for a community under extreme duress. The author of John’s gospel has placed two stories together, side by side, or better, the author of this gospel has put one story inside of another story. The first story is wrapped around the second story. This means that the stories are connected. One story interprets the other. The stories share a common theme. The capstone of this literary edifice is verse 32, where John tells us that he has written the text in this way so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, and believing in him might have new life in Christ.
    The first story is about the disciples gathering in a closed room because, “They were afraid of the Jews.” It wasn’t actually the Jews they were afraid of. They were afraid of the Romans. The Romans had launched a counter-insurgency operation against the Christians. Just a few days ago they had arrested and executed Jesus. Now the Romans were going to start pressuring the Jews to get them to identify Jesus’ followers. It wasn’t a question of “if” the Romans were going to do this. The only

question was how soon they would start the next round of arrests. Who would be next? That is the question that was on the mind of those who met behind closed doors.
    We can think of this meeting in the room behind closed doors as the first strategy meeting of the disciples following the crucifixion. The disciples had to figure out how they were going to respond to the next wave of violence that was about to sweep over them. Would they disband? Go underground? Or, would they organize some kind of nonviolent resistance?
    Let’s imagine. Feelings were running high and the fear was palpable, and then Jesus comes and stands in their midst. But Thomas is not there. He shows up in the second story. Verse 23 is the bridge that connects the first story and the second story.  It reads: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any they are retained.” The message is clear--human beings, people like you and me, have the power to forgive sins. But what exactly does this mean? What does this have to do with nonviolence?
    It is important to know what kind of “sin” we are talking about here. In our tradition there are at least four ways to understand sin. Perhaps the most common way we define sin today is in terms of morality. We have all heard that it’s a sin to tell a lie. Specific actions that violate a moral norm and are called sinful. That’s one understanding of sin. According to a second understanding, sin means “missing the mark.” It is a sin to love something so much that it takes control of your life. Think of the story of King Midas. His love for gold consumed his life and destroyed his family. That’s an example of this second meaning of sin.
    Paul Tillich gave us another insight into the meaning of sin when he defined sin as estrangement. Tillich’s definition is existentialist. For Tillich sin is not about being right or wrong, good or bad. Sin is a description of the human condition. We are estranged from the earth--we are experiencing a global pandemic and an environmental crisis. We are estranged from each other--think of the unaccompanied children coming across the border. How can this be happening? What in the world are we doing to each other? The Bible says that the little children will lead us, but are we willing to follow them, to learn from them? Are we so estranged even from ourselves that we are simply unable to accept responsibility for our own policies and actions that contribute to this situation?

The fourth definition of sin is “broken.” Like Tillich’s estrangement, here sin is not a moral judgement of guilt, but a candid recognition of the human condition. Leonard Cohen wrote a song entitled, “Anthem,” in which he said, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That is what John is telling us in this passage. There is a crack in everything. We can go behind closed doors and curse the breakage and all that is wrong, or we can let the light in. We can educate, organize, and mobilize. “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”
Let’s turn to verse 22, where we read that Jesus breathed on the disciples. How do you think he did that? How did he breathe on the disciples? Do you think that he got them all together as you would gather people for a group photo and then he blew on them, like you would blow if you were blowing out candles on a cake? I think there is more to the story.
When I lived in Hawaii, I learned that white people were call “haloes,” which means “a people without breath,” because when we, white people, greet each other we are polite. We don’t exchange our breath, we shake hands. We smile and say, “Nice to see you.” It is all very proper. The French greet each other cheek to cheek, which is a little more intimate. Among Native Hawaiians who greet one another in the traditional way, it is much more intimate.
    For a brief period of time I was privileged to be part of a Native Hawaiian community that greeted each other in the traditional way. When we exchanged greetings, we exchanged breath. Each person put a hand behind the head of the other person. We held each other close so that our foreheads and noses touched and we exchanged breath. We breathed on each other and into each other. Every time we met, we greeted each other in this way. Every person in the room greeted every other person in the room in the same way, and we did this every time we met.
     I think that this kind of greeting is what John is describing. I think that Jesus and the disciples had a similar ritual greeting. They exchanged breath with each other whenever they met each other. In the room saturated with fear, the disciples greeted each other in the tradition of Jesus. They breathed on each other.
This form of greeting reminds us of the story of creation found in the Second Chapter of Genesis, the sixth verse. Here we read that God scooped up dust from the ground and breathed into our nostrils and we became living beings. Biblically speaking this is when life begins--life begins when we take our first breath, and life ends when we breathe our last breathe. When the breath of life enters into us we become living beings, and when the breath of life departs from us we are no longer alive.
    Johngives us an image of the church as a new creation brought into being by the Spirit of the living God. In a trauma filled and broken world, the church is a community called into being to demonstrate what the Apostle Paul called the “more excellent way of love.” That is what this first story is about.
    In the second story, Thomas shows up. He was not in the room in the first story. Thomas represents the world. Thomas represents the people who want to know what kind of community this Jesus movement is. Do the followers of the way of Jesus walk the walk, or do they just talk the talk. Is this real, or just hot air? That’s what Thomas wanted to know. That’s what the world wants to know.
    I recently read Andrew Young’s book An Easy Burden.  He tells the story of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He describes how the SCLC educated, motivated, organized, and mobilized people to march against the forces of fear, intimidation and violence to bring an end to Jim Crow and win the right to vote. Even death could not stop this movement, which was grounded in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. As Andrew Young tells the story, the SCLC was started by a small group of ten black pastors who knew the Gandhian principles of nonviolence and who were prepared to teach them to others. In the language of John, they breathed on each other, and with their breath they gave birth to a new creation--the SCLC and the Civil Rights Movement.
    I believe that we are living in a time of collective trauma--the environmental crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis of children on the border, the trauma of what President Biden called an “epidemic of gun violence,” and the trauma of police violence that is putting our communities and our nation on edge and on trial. One senator has gone on national television to encourage people to buy assault weapons in preparation for the coming battle. Gun sales in this country are literally and statistically a booming business. But can we really believe that preparing to kill each other is the way to build a better society?
      I believe that the Gospel of John teaches us that there is another way--a more excellent way. We must learn the philosophy and the methods of nonviolence. We need rituals that can bring us together in healing ways. We need rituals that restore our trust in each other and give us hope for the future. In his last book, Dr. King asked the crucial question that we have yet to answer. What will we choose, Chaos or Community? I want to borrow a phrase from our friends at Habitat for Humanity, and say that we need to “put love in mortar joints.” Dr. King said we need “strength to love” one another. Apostle Paul said, “Love bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Which is just another way of saying there is always a need for love. Let’s get to work. 

Rev. David Hansen

Friday, April 9, 2021

Too much room in the elephant...

 If it wasn't clear before, it should be now. We're at a historical turning point in this country. We will either go forward into a new and inclusive future, or we will disintegrate into an exclusionary past, where White makes right. The confederate flag amidst the mob in our nation's capitol was the symbol of the divide. And the insurrectionists with the "Civil War" shirts, spoke more loudly with their visual than any words might have done. What was at stake in the continuation of a Trump presidency is White supremacy. Many refuse to admit this elephant in the room, but unfortunately, White supremacy has taken up way too much room in the elephant.

It wasn't so long ago the Republican party was on a mission to become more inclusive. There was a recognition, especially after the Obama election, that the country was changing, becoming more racially and religiously diverse. The message was that to be relevant as a political party, with opportunities to occupy the White House, the party would have to change too. A Black man, Michael Steele, became Chairperson of the Republican National Committee. That effort only lasted for two years, from 2009 to 2011. Apparently, one Black face at the top didn't mean much at the bottom, devoid of a meaningful

platform. Then the inclusive intention seemed to dissolve. Instead of inclusion, the party tried exclusion, with extensive gerrymandering and voter suppression. The crowning event for exclusion was the election of Donald Trump.

Trumps' intention was clear from the very beginning. We knew his history and he was open about his intentions. We knew he lied and spread misinformation, as he did his best to keep the Obama "birther" issue alive. And who could forget his "crooks and rapists" dog whistles, about our southern neighbors during the 2015 campaign.

Once in office: Muslims were banned; the wall was built; dreamers were threatened; refugees were limited; temporary protected status was diminished; Charlottesville had "good people" on both sides; and now, the former President "loves" those people who trashed our capitol, threatened the Vice President with lynching and Congress members with God knows what. Wherever he was able to limit the growth of a population of people of color or encourage White supremacists, he did it; even separating children from their parents and putting them in detention centers, a morally unspeakable act.

Trump, unable or unwilling to understand racial dynamics, continues to profess his love for Black people. "Well, my message is that I love the Black community and I've done more for the Black community than any other president, and I say with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, and I mean that, with opportunity zones, and with criminal justice reform, with prison reform, with what we've done for historically Black universities, colleges, schools, what we've done. It's nobody's done more. Abraham Lincoln, let's give him the nod, but beyond that, nobody's done more. I love the Black community."

One wonders if the former President's love extends to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, or any number of Black Lives Matter marchers? One wonders if he would ever kneel to honor the life of just one Black man? It wouldn't have to be for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Just touching one knee to the floor like a Colin Kaepernick would do.

At the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee, Nikki Haley suggested the party might want to embrace "inclusion" in the future, given the drubbing the party took in Georgia. At the same meeting, Governor Noem said the recently elected Senators from Georgia were "communists." After the former President, the Republican party faces a choice and an uncertain future. But the choice is clear from the remarks of these women, inclusion or exclusion.

The other party facing a choice is the Christian church, one of the significant supports for the Trump presidency. If the church is not inclusive, it is not the church of Jesus Christ. How you can represent one of the most inclusive and welcoming persons in human history by remaining exclusive is beyond comprehension. If your church community is not racially diverse, welcoming of all sexual orientations, and open to dialogue and friendship with other faith communities, you shouldn't call yourself a "Christian" church. And it doesn't count to make excuses based on location or past  efforts. Change the racist or exclusive infrastructure of the community you are in!  The church's mission is to build the Kingdom, the beloved community. That includes all!

And please, don't ever tell us again an apostle of exclusion is sent to us by God. That's definitely using God's name in vain. 

Carl Kline

Friday, April 2, 2021

"Picture a Face"


Your phone rings in the middle of the night. As you reach blindly to answer, do you fear that someone you love has been in an accident? Has suddenly died?   For a time, early in my marriage to Jihong, such calls would often wake us. The phone was on Jihong’s side of the bed. He’d lift the receiver to his ear and mumble a dazed hello.

“Go back to Japan!” a loud male voice would yell, or something worse.  Jihong would hang up. We nestled in each other’s arms. You’re paying a sad price for living `in freedom,’ I said to him, in my mind.

Jihong was born in China, not Japan. He was among the very first students that the Chinese government allowed to study abroad after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). He arrived at the University of Maryland in 1982, ill prepared to study chemistry there. He spoke very little English and was totally unfamiliar with Western culture. (“That’s an understatement,” he says, with a laugh.)

Then came the tragedy of Tiananmen Square. For months, students in China had occupied the Square, demanding democratic reforms in the government. On June 4, 1989, the volatile episode ended in a massacre perpetrated by the People’s Army. Estimates of the death toll ranged from the hundreds to several thousand.

After the massacre, President George H. W. Bush realized that the Chinese authorities would view any students returning home from the U.S. with extreme suspicion. The students might even be in danger. Thankfully, he removed from their visas the requirement that they leave the country upon graduation. He granted them eligibility for green cards.

That was Jihong’s first step toward becoming a U.S. citizen. He took it with gratitude, though it meant leaving his birth family behind.

I met him only a couple years later. By then, he spoke and wrote English better than most homegrown Americans. He worked hard. He paid his taxes. He was law abiding. He was a living definition of “a good man.”

After our marriage, when the crank calls were waking us in the night, we’d wonder: Did the caller pick our name out of the phone book? Or does he know us somehow?

Sometimes, as we strolled through our suburban neighborhood, I’d gaze at the houses. Do you live here? I asked the bully. Do you live there?

Whoever he was, he probably looked as white and “ordinary” as me. Heck, he was probably considered a “good person” by those who knew him best … just like the person who, on the eve of my wedding, called me a “racist” for expecting him to readily accept my marriage to a man born in China. Or like those in my family who just couldn’t seem to learn how to spell or pronounce Jihong’s name.

“It isn’t difficult,” I wanted to tell them. “J-I-H-O-N-G. You spelled much harder words in your first spelling bee. You say much harder names while reading your Bible or watching your ball game.”

For the last twenty-one years, Jihong has taught chemistry at South Dakota State University. Several students work in his laboratory. One (whom I’ll call Kendra) is African American.

Last week Kendra approached Jihong. “I’m aware,” she said, “of the increasing violence in the country against Asian Americans. Is there anything I can do to support you and others?”

What a kindness that was!


“Kung-flu,” “Chinese coronavirus,” “the Wuhan virus”… such horrible xenophobic language for Covid-19 has only inflamed anti-Asian sentiment that has long existed in the U.S. In 2020, as the number of hate crimes fell overall across the country, crimes against Asian Americans surged by nearly 150 percent. The actual number is likely much higher, but the victims (mostly women and elders) are reluctant to report.

The fact is, Asian Americans as a group are living through an especially traumatizing period in their history. Racism has long been a great stain on this country’s character. But the current level of bullying and violence against persons of Asian descent is new.

That Kendra, an African American woman, spoke up as she did, offering her active support to Jihong, is a bright ray of hope. Her concern moved him. Her questions opened a significant conversation between them.

Another ray of hope is the group Compassion in Oakland. Seven hundred volunteers from diverse races and backgrounds have organized to accompany and protect Asian American elders. They also offer translation services and technological expertise to Asians isolated by language differences and complicated information systems.


Now, I’d like to invite you to offer your own ray of hope. Right where you are.

Get comfortable. Close your eyes. Settle into the rhythm of your breathing.

When you’re ready, picture an Asian face, whether a stranger’s or someone you know. The face might even be yours.

What might that person be feeling in this time of unrest? Allow your body to share that emotion. Breathe in the unease, the fear, the anger, the helplessness, the betrayal, the grief …

Now, breathe out. On your exhalation, send that person the soft light of remedy: love, calm, healing, courage, resilience, hope …

Continue this cycle awhile, breathing in the pain, breathing out the peace.

Eventually, you might wish to deepen the practice by gradually including more people in your meditation: every person of Asian descent … every person of color … every person who has ever suffered trauma … every person who has ever done harm out of fear … all who are alive … all beings everywhere …


Deep Peace,

Phyllis Cole-Dai