Friday, February 24, 2023



We don’t go to the movies much anymore. The last one we saw was, “Where the Crawdads Sing.” That movie was well worth the time and cost, even without popcorn. But increasingly, the only ones I seem to be attracted to are so called “children’s’ films; you know, the animated kind.  Nevertheless, we decided to go see “A Man Called Otto,” playing now at a local theatre. We had read the book it was based on, “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, a long time ago, and were curious what the filmmakers would do to the novel.

Tom Hanks plays the main character and he presents us with probably the grumpiest old man you will find on film or in real life. He put me to shame, and I can be grumpy. The story line eventually lets us know why he’s the way he is and the healing dimensions of relationships with caring people. I came away believing you never know who we might help heal with a kind word or a loving deed, or who might heal us. Although the movie can cause a lot of teary eyes, you can’t miss the best medicine for grumpiness and grief.

My body can make me grumpy! I mentioned to a 96 year old friend that she gets out of a chair better than I, her several years junior. She shrugged my compliment off, saying how often she works out every week. That’s enough to make a person even grumpier. The body is not working right, so you have to work and sweat to make it function better; a double whammy!

I have in front of me a book from 1977 with mobility exercises for the “older” person. (We decided a few weeks ago with friends, that for us, from now on an “older” person was anyone over 100). The book is called “Be Alive as Long as You Live.”  There are pictures of lots of exercises; even those you could do in bed; and those to prepare you to be ambulatory after lengthy bedrest. If I can begin to discipline myself to do some of them, it may help my disposition and screeching joints.

But an aging body is not what makes Otto grumpy. I would probably name his problem unresolved grief. That’s all I’m going to say about Otto or the movie, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. But I do want to say a bit more about unresolved grief.

There are a good many things in Lakota culture that are worth investigating and even integrating into mainstream society, should there be Lakota permission and oversight. One is their treatment of, and reverence for, the deceased. I once had a Lakota woman say to me with frustration, “I wish you white folks would take better care of your dead,” after a sleepless night where her family struggled with an unsettled spirit of a white man.  And then there is the Lakota “Wiping of the Tears” ceremony. I was able to observe one once on the Rosebud Reservation in the context of a Wacipi.


The idea is that when a loved one dies, you have the permission of the tribe to withdraw from normal social life for a year to remember and grieve the loved one. When that period of time is concluded, you are welcomed back into the larger society with ceremony. In the one I witnessed, the leader of the ceremony symbolically wiped the eyes of the one who grieved, which was followed by a long line of community members who shook hands with the person, welcoming them back into normal social life. There is no sense of “get over it and get back to business.” Grief work can take time; and it can be “work.”
Just ask a friend of mine who does grief work counseling. How long does it take a person to “get over” an automobile accident that takes the life of a thirteen year old daughter? What is the process for coping with and accepting the suicide of a parent or spouse? Where do you go and what do you do when the four year old shoots his six year old brother with your gun? How many tears should be shed when losing a loved one to fentanyl? How should you best remember your mother who died of cancer, after long months in your care? How do you rectify a broken relationship when the other person is dead?

Grief can be just as painful, or more, than the aging joints of the body, and there is no healthy over-the-counter medication; though people will try to use the drug and liquor stores to blanket their grief. Grief needs both attention and intention. Just as I won’t reduce joint pain by ignoring it, neither will we reduce the pain of grief without attending to it. And with attention can come a new intention to change; to live life more fully; to incorporate the love for the lost into our love for life.  

See the movie, even without popcorn!

Carl Kline

Friday, February 17, 2023

Crossing the Boundary of Otherness

 I never really got to know my father-in-law.  He was killed 60 years ago this January 25th just passed.  We had only been married for a little over a year and a half so I remember only a few things about him - - the way he fanned the charcoal in the grill to get it to just the right heat for grilling shish-kabob;  his soft way of speaking; the way he bounced our 6 month old son on his lap on the morning he died;  the homely wisdom he gave  my husband when we told him we intended to marry: “If you want to see what the calf is like, look at the cow.” 

After reading the story of Yitro/Jethro and Moses (Exodus 18:1-27) I found myself wishing I had had more time with him as a father-in-law.  Partly because I realized so long after the fact, that my father-in-law was a bit of a boundary crosser. My father in law welcomed me without hesitation into the Armenian embrace of the family.  I guess his ability to live with a permeable boundary rubbed off on my husband as well because I was the first non-Armenian in the family - - our marriage was witnessed by a long list of wedding guests with  unpronounceable names. We managed to cross the boundary of “otherness.”

Moses, a powerful figure in the hierarchy of Egypt, flees for his life when he realizes that his killing of an Egyptian slave driver in defense of an Israelite slave has been witnessed.  He runs to the land of Midian, and encounters the clan of Yitro.  Yitro is a priest of Midian, a non-Israelite.  He is the father of Zipporah, a Midianite woman who subsequently marries Moses. The story does not admit of any bias or prejudice against Moses, a foreigner in the Midianite camp. 

Following the narrative of the Israelite/Amalekite war,  Yitro fulfills a role as father-in-law, by bringing his daughter and son-in-law and their children safely back together as a family.  His role as father-in-law of Moses is mentioned 12 times in this part of the text!  That tells me that there was something very significant about his role in relationship with Moses.

In the earlier parts of the narrrative, there is also almost no acknowledgement of Moses’ father except in Exodus 2:1:  “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman…” At least in this part of the text Moses’ father is nameless and not referred to again.  While he is the father-in-law, Yitro fulfills the role of a wise father for Moses.

Central to this part of the narrative is Yitro’s observation of how Moses is handling his responsibilities as leader of the Israelites.  Moses sits as judge and prophet and teacher, arbitrating the issues the people bring to him.  He works alone.

Yitro asks:“What is this thing you are doing to the people?  Why do you alone sit while all the people stand about you from morning until evening.”  Subsequently, Yitro suggests another way of structuring Moses’ responsibilities so that the burden of judgement is shared: “Now listen to me,  “I will give you counsel: and God be with you! In a wonderfully wise father-in-law way he tells Moses that what he is doing is not sustainable.  Moses cannot indefinitely fulfill  this triad of roles without burning out - and maybe burning out the people as well.  

Yitro says to Moses “What you are doing is not right .  In his wisdom, he doesn’t tell Moses he is wrong - - - just that he is not right.  He could be much more effective.   Yitro proceeds to offer Moses a possible structure of leading that will spread out the burden, and suggests a kind of model for judicial organizational structure that Moses then implements.   

I wondered if Yitro was a bit prescient.  The Utterances on Sinai are not given until the next part of the narrative- but those words would eventuate in all kinds of questions and judgements about how to fulfill them.   Practically speaking, no one person could begin to be the interpreter and arbiter of all the questions and issues that would eventually ensue.  Yitro’s appearance on the scene is so timely.   

Yitro and Moses were  boundary crossers.  Each was willing to encounter the “other” in his own way.

Moses was “the other” when he ran to Midian as a fugitive.  He literally crossed a cultural boundary. Yitro, a Midianite priest, welcomed him - - to the point of  welcoming him into the clan as his son-in-law.  In the process, some kind of transformation happened to Yitro - - when he hears the history that Moses told him about all the HaShem had done - Yitro says “Baruch HaShem!”  and acknowledges Israel’s God as greater than all the gods.  Yitro makes a burnt sacrifice and shares in the ritual with Aaron and the elders.  Yitro is a non-Israelite, recognizing the religious customs of another culture, blessing the name of the Israelite God, honoring Israelite religious practice.

Yitro’s willingness to be open to “the other,”  the Israelites, perhaps opened the way for Moses to be open to the “otherness” of  Yitro - - so that a certain kind of wisdom could be shared and received.   In being open to the “otherness” of Yitro, Moses also experiences a transformation, becoming a more effective leader, as he receives the wisdom of Yitro and goes about setting up the organizational model that Yitro has advised.

Yitro tells Moses, “Make it easier for  yourself by letting some others share the burden with you.  If you do this, and so God commands you” you and the people won’t be so tired. And the text says “Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he said.”

As Rabbi Sarah Basin writes: “A pagan priest saved our community from implosion and gave us a blueprint for how to function.  In that moment, Moses could have rejected Yitro’s advice.  After all, what does an outsider know about our community that gives him the right to weigh in?  But Moses teaches us that an encounter with “the Other” can be an asset for our evolution, not an obstacle to our survival.  His encounter with the Other made Moses a better leader.”

Rabbi Adam Spilker adds a couple more insights: While Moses learned something from Yitro about management, Yitro on the other hand “rejoiced over all the kindness the eternal  had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians.”  Moses shared his story of HaShem’s goodness and Yitro’s heart opened to HaShem’s teachings.  The learning went both ways.

From Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher: “The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me. The face is what forbids us to kill.”

So the story seems to me to be a challenge to allow for crossing boundaries - whether religious, cultural, or political - - to meet the Other - - to Face the Other - - and see if some learning can go both ways.  I wonder what it would be like - - sitting for conversation over a cup of tea with an “other” like Marjorie Taylor Green...?

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, February 10, 2023

To tell the truth...

 I’m not sure if clergy still use them. Mine weighs a ton. I inherited it from my father and his name is still imprinted on the cover. It has been a handy resource over the course of my ministry, especially before the days of google; back when you had to look things up in books.

This resource I’m describing is called a Concordance. Mine is published by Nelsons and is “complete.” In other words, if you turn alphabetically to the word “truth,” you will find a list of all the places the word truth is found in the Revised Standard Version of the English speaking Bible. The total listings in my Concordance comes to 146, beginning with Genesis 42:16 and concluding with 3 John 1:12. Of course there are also listings for Truthful, Truthfully, Truthfulness, and Truths. (Google says there are 167 passages where the word truth is found.)

If “the truth will set you free,” as is often quoted, a good place to begin understanding what the truth really is, might be those 146 (or 167) passages in Scripture. And if you really want to understand Truth with a capitol T, it might be well to check out its opposite. There are even more references to “lie” and “lies” in the Scriptures. Reading them will make the distinction between truth and lies even clearer, as we humans seem to have a tendency to minimize the difference.

Unfortunately, Scripture has been used and abused by charlatans, who interpret it to justify their own purposes, have sullied its inherent wisdom, and turned off potential seekers. But just as the internet has replaced books for many, people may look elsewhere for their understanding of truth and lies, if not to Scripture. 

One understanding that has been helpful to me has been Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. It has been translated into English as the “force of truth,” our concept of nonviolence. But the word Satya has deeper implications than this simple rendering. The origins are in the ancient Sanskrit language, probably the second oldest language on the globe. “Sat” is the word for “Being” with a capitol B, and “Satya” becomes “Truth,” with a capitol T. One comes away from this understanding thinking perhaps there is such a thing as “God’s Truth.” And that force is more powerful than all the weapons of the nations, if only we grasp it and use it.

Revealed in Scriptures, understood in different cultures as something to aspire to, complete Truth may be humanly impossible to realize; my truth or your truth will never be God’s Truth; but we’re meant to strive for it, rather than succumb to lies.

Usually when we think of lying, it’s a rather stark denial of reality. It’s the child telling his mother he didn’t take a cookie, while the chocolate smears are on his face and hands. It’s a George Santos event! It’s the “Big Steal” lie told again and again by an ex-President.

But we can be more subtle about truth and lies as well. There is such a thing as a half truth. The one that comes to mind from my childhood is offered by my sister. My parents were away, leaving childcare in the hands of my grandmother. My sister was older, more daring and stronger than I. She got upset with me, knocked me onto the coffee table and broke the glass top. When my parents came home and wanted to know what happened, she told them I did it. Well, yes! It was my body that broke the glass, but how did I get there? 

Then there is the tendency to neglect the whole truth, to forget things. It’s hilarious how we are finding classified government documents all over creation. First it was Trump, then it was Biden, and now it is Pence. Who is checking on Obama, Bush and Carter? What about Cheney? Shouldn’t we be checking on cabinet officials? And think of all those folks called before the House Committee investigating January 6, who couldn’t remember things, or took the fifth! At least they resisted lying outright!

The other difficulty we face in our culture, besides political lies and half truths, is a constant barrage of advertising. I like 7Up! But I will never forget the ad they used years ago that said, “7Up Is Love.” It didn’t say 7Up Is “like” Love. It claimed the drink for the real thing! Or I think of the fossil fuel companies, knowing for years their activities were warming and threatening the climate, but denying it publicly in their advertising.

Leviticus 19:11 reads “You shall not lie to one another.” John 8:32 reads, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” And from Gandhi, “Only Truth quenches untruth, Love quenches anger, self-suffering quenches violence. This eternal rule is a rule not for saints only, but for all.”

Carl Kline

Friday, February 3, 2023

"Thought, Speech, Action!"

 A friend from a 2017 Institute on alternatives to violence we both attended, contacted me awhile  ago and said she would like to talk sometime. We decided on a day and hour that would work for both of us. Our conversation became intense within the first few minutes as she described enormous suffering in her family over the last three years, along with a dogged determination to carry on and move forward. She mentioned how some of her friends called her "bulldog."
She was also feeling pain because her commitment to nonviolence was being betrayed by some friends in the streets of Chicago, demonstrating for social change and excusing some of destruction and violence. Although she attributed some of the violence to instigators, she understood the anger some probably felt who were trashing businesses and setting fires. Still, for her, it was inexcusable and counterproductive behavior. She believed that if her friends were thinking any kind of violence was OK, and told her so, it simply opened them up to being a participant in violence.
 The conversation made me recall the concept of "ahimsa." This is a sanskrit word important to Mahatma Gandhi and his followers. Ahimsa means respect and reverence for all living beings and avoiding violence to any. An especially meaningful corollary is that you avoid violence in thought, word and deed. There is a very thin thread that connects the three. If you are thinking violence, if you verbalize it, there is only one small step to doing violence.

When I was in campus ministry at SDSU, I received an invitation to teach a psychology class on the subject of suicide. I don't remember much about my presentation but remember vividly the survey I took. There must have been close to a hundred students in the class. I asked how many of them would approach a parent or extended family member if they were thinking about committing suicide. One or two raised their hands. Then there was the same question for teachers, for clergy and for respected elders. Once again, one or two hands. Would they talk with a friend? The whole room exploded with hands in the air.

This experience made me lament the disconnect these students felt with their families and their elders. But it also emphasized the importance for them, and me, of understanding ahimsa. If a person is thinking of suicide, it is only a small step to verbalizing it. If they verbalize to you, you need to act, because committing suicide is only one small thread of life away.

This understanding in ahimsa is one of the things that troubles me deeply about our gun crazy society. So you have a gun for "protection." You let others know that if you have to, you will use your gun to protect your property, your family, your male privilege. (Research shows a gun in the home makes it hundreds of times more dangerous for a woman in a domestic violence situation.) So maybe in the dark of the night, you shoot and kill a lost drunkard trying to get in your back door. Or you shoot your wife who has made you angry for the last time. Or maybe you are a police officer and you put seven bullets in the back of Jacob Blake.
Or, maybe you are a Kyle Rittenhouse; bullied in school; a police cadet in training; practicing your marksmanship in the back yard; and then, finding a fitting use for your practice, killing two protestors at the age of seventeen as you "aid the police" in Kenosha. If you have a history where you need to get back at someone for the damage you suffered at the hands of others, the thoughts may be repressed and the spoken word unformed, but the action can still spill out. Thought, speech, action!!

It's hard to imagine anyone purchasing a gun though who hasn't "thought" they would use it. Sometimes they will "say" they intend to use it, perhaps on a deer or a pheasant or maybe on a person. A former President has verbalized how he "could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."

If that isn't disturbing enough about that President, look at what transpired when he accepted the nomination of his party for "four more years." He encouraged the crowd to chant "twelve more years" instead, saying that would drive people crazy; and the crowd chanted, "twelve more years"!

Maybe his supporters were thinking how good twelve more years would be. We know the President was! He had mentioned before how he should remain in office indefinitely, Now others were saying it. We should be forewarned by ahimsa there is a thin thread between thinking, saying and doing.

 Anticipating the 60th  anniversary of the March on Washington in a couple of months, I appreciate the "bulldog" in my friend and so many others. They think, speak and act nonviolent social change. They articulate a way of ahimsa even in the midst of a culture that seems to have a love affair with violence. My friend has her eyes on the prize. With bulldog determination for our constitutional democracy and the promise of liberty and justice for all, that can make all the difference.
Carl Kline