Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

When Your Church (or Hobby, or Club, or Country) Leaves You

This is a lament.

Four years ago, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) ran a story of mine called “When Your Church Leaves You.” The story reflected on situations—like the one in my own church at the time—when staying put in the midst of conflict might be the best choice.

I should have known better. All too often, what I write comes back to bite me. So it is now, when my two primary sources of community—the same church and a hobby whose members I have loved and trusted for years—are enduring massive upheaval.

The church may suffer irreparably from the looming showdown in our Episcopal diocese, whose bishop is defying a mandate for marriage equality from the U.S. Episcopal Church. The hobby is more personal. A deep clash of personalities, set alight by controversy and accusations and Facebook posts that would set your hair on fire, has severely damaged the sense of family we have long enjoyed.

I wonder if this is what divorce feels like, especially for children. The constant sadness. The loss of something cherished. The sense of betrayal. The deep grief you’d expect in such circumstances, and the bitterness that sometimes accompanies grief.

I know that members of my church and my hobby are experiencing similar things. So are millions of other people. Many Americans (me included) look at the events of the past two years and see a homeland they do not recognize. They feel their whole country has left them. I believe the toxin in our public discourse has infected many corners of our life together.

The ESA article, as I mentioned, included some helpful insights, some ways to make sense of the disasters around us and move forward. This time round, I’ve got nothing.  Just sorrow. Just bitterness.

So I’m stuck with lament. Which may be the best thing I could be stuck with.

Lament—at least the way I’m understanding it—is not about blaming or shaming or even whining. It’s not another missile in the war of words. It does give voice to hard, honest things from the core of our being. It provides space to grieve without trying to fix. It gazes unblinkingly at the mess before us.

From what I’ve read, lament can lead to happier things, like hope and dialogue and a turning away from wrongdoing. The big challenge is to let lament do its work. It’s easy to jump to reconciliation or proposed solutions, and those are wonderful things. But sometimes the sorrow is deep enough, and the situation grave enough, that the happy stuff is out of our reach.

So it is here. And so I will leave it here.

If You Ever Wished You Could Quit the Human Race…

…join the crowd.

I’d be happy to take a long hiatus from the current version of homo sapiens, because we’re a hot mess. The rage and hatred in the public square are becoming unbearable. As if that weren’t bad enough, I see this same spirit infecting other parts of our life together. Even in my beloved hobby, whose members are family to me, the charges and countercharges, white-hot social media fury, choosing up sides and fighting are on full display.

Now, with the news of the past couple of weeks—pipe bombs in the mail, lives lost at a Pittsburgh synagogue—all of this has shaded into a new level of violence. As it had to. Spew enough words, create enough rage, and weapons often follow.

Bottom line, we’ve done a lot of damage in the past two years. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. The damage will take time and space and work to heal. And until we heal, we’ll be very vulnerable to further pain. No wonder people are hiding out, keeping to themselves, refusing to converse, bowling alone.

With all my heart I want to join them. Two things give me pause, and they both came up in silent prayer recently–where so many things come up, courtesy (I believe) of the Spirit.

Thing 1: notice the pronouns two paragraphs above. We’ve done a lot of damage. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. Like it or not, I’m one of them—one of us—which means I have to own my own inner dross. It’s true that I make a point of not spewing rage and drama. But the seeds of it live in my heart too, just like they live in most everyone’s heart.

In short, I’m stuck with us. We’re stuck with us.

Thing 2 comes from my orientation as a Christian. Just by our species’ status as still alive and walking around, it’s evident to me that God has not given up on the human race. Quite the opposite when you consider Christianity’s central story: that God, in the person of Jesus, became every bit as human as you and me. That he drank the human experience to its dregs, right down to a humiliating public execution. God is quoted as saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and the Christ story proves it.

If God’s sticking with us, and I have to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1 from the Christian scriptures), that obliges me to stick with us too.

Do I have enthusiasm for this? Oh hell no. Sometimes, though—especially in the chaos that rage and hatred inevitably cause—it’s good to throw a stake in the ground and say, “I have to stand here. I cannot do otherwise.” Then, with that stake keeping me tethered to the good and true, I can do the inner work to figure out how on earth I’m going to follow God’s call with a whole heart.

 

Can Love Cast Out Fear?

Last week in this space, I suggested that most of us Americans—conservative and liberal, coastal and middle America, urban and rural—share a weird type of common ground: fear. We fear the white-hot public square, in which anything we do or say might incur wrath. We fear our leaders, our institutions, and our systems, often with good reason. This came up in conversation with a good friend of mine, a conservative Christian and reluctant Trump supporter.

Another of my friends might have an answer to the fear crisis.

She is one of the wisest women I’ve ever known. I’m tempted to call her a mystic and a prophet, but even that doesn’t capture the depths at which she lives every day in her tough urban neighborhood.

Right now she’s focused on two desires. She wants everything in her life to be a prayer, a continual communication through a continually open channel to God. And she wants to be so full of divine love and light that it just floods out from her and suffuses every person in her wake.

Skeptics might scoff at her. But I don’t think they understand the true nature of love. It’s not what passes for love in our culture: romance, or flirtatious fancy, or concern only for family or tribe. Rather, it’s a commitment to seeing every last human as having surpassing worth and dignity—a commitment to tend to their needs as diligently as we tend to our own.

The fourth chapter of 1 John, a book in the Christian scriptures, makes a bold claim about this kind of love. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.

That feeds right into our crisis of fear. What are so many people fearing? Judgment, shaming, disparagement—all forms of what that verse calls punishment. If we made the effort to flood our adversaries with God’s love, to listen openheartedly, to gain their trust, would their fear melt away in time? Would they someday be able to trust the love they receive from us and respond in kind? Then could we talk and listen and respect one another?

This sort of thing is easily dismissed as “holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” It is nothing of the sort. It is hard, excruciating work that involves vulnerability, pain, the shame of looking squarely at how we’ve been wounded and how we’ve wounded others.

Love doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything. It does provide a way to live and work together in a way that benefits our species and our planet. It is certainly better than what we’re doing now.

I think it’s worth a try. You?

The Weirdest Common Ground Ever

Many people are bemoaning America’s vicious public square. Few are discussing the weird common ground that most of us share—and what might be the best way to address it.

Two recent conversations brought this into focus for me. The first—with a conservative Christian friend who reluctantly supported Donald Trump—fulfilled a longing I’ve had since the 2016 election: to talk with people like her and understand their thinking. Over the past two years, I’ve asked my Trump-supporting friends for a conversation, but almost none of them would engage with me.

I thought I knew why, and my friend confirmed it: they’re scared to death. They’ve been disparaged and harassed and even attacked by some people on the left, or they’ve heard reports of such abuse, and they don’t want to get hurt.

If you’ve listened to progressives, you know they’re scared to death too. Their fear (from what I’ve heard) seems to focus more on the damage Mr. Trump might wreak on our rights, our system of government, and our world. I’m sure some of them also fear being attacked by members of the right.

It’s not a big stretch to say, in the colorful language of my father, that we’re all scared shitless. Fear is a weird common ground, but common ground it is.

Yes, we can argue that one group or another has a lot more to be scared about, or has endured more decades of disparagement and harassment. In many cases, those claims deserve careful reflection and appropriate action. But what if we also focused—in a separate context, or just for a while—on our common terror? What if we admitted that the person on the other side who makes our blood boil is likely as fearful as we are?

Have you ever noticed what happens to your heart when a child tells you she’s scared? Mine melts. I want to hold her and let her know she’s safe. My love for her overflows. Could the same happen when an adversary says she’s scared?

That leads me to the second conversation, which contains a weird idea for addressing this fear. I’ll post about it next week.

The Other Reason “Spotlight” Is Still Relevant Today

Every year my wife goes off on vacation, and I use the time to catch up on Oscar-winning movies from years past. This summer I saw maybe a half dozen, all of which were superbly made, one of which stood out: Spotlight.

In case you haven’t seen it, Spotlight chronicles The Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It can be painful to watch, as we viewers get to relive the horror of the successive revelations—starting with a handful of priests and blossoming into a worldwide scandal.

Horribly, that scandal is with us even today, which makes Spotlight still relevant. But it’s still relevant for another reason too: its in-depth look at investigative journalism. The sources I’ve read (in The Atlantic and The Washington Post, to name two) attest to the movie’s accurate portrayal of the drudgery, doggedness, and gems of discovery that make for good investigative journalism.

If anything, that portrayal is more relevant in 2018 than in 2015, when the movie hit theaters. It carries two lessons that we desperately need to hear nowadays, long and loud and often.

First lesson: we need good journalism. None of us have the time, means, or energy to gather the full picture on all the news stories that impact our lives one way or another. That’s why we have journalists: to find those stories, explore them in depth, and report them to us.

In another era, this assertion would be dismissed as obvious. It’s not so obvious anymore, thanks to our post-truth culture, and that carries ramifications for all of us. Journalists must prioritize accuracy and thoroughness and fairness in their reporting (as, I think, the vast majority of them do now). Those who would pervert good journalism—the purveyors of deliberate misinformation masquerading as news—need to get their slimy fingerprints off the internet, NOW.

The rest of us get the second lesson: we must stop denigrating good journalists. If they are our source for the stories that impact our lives, and we have trained ourselves never to trust them—worse, to consider them the “enemy of the people”—who else do we have? The default, nowadays, is to revert to the sources who agree with our current beliefs. It’s as if we think, “All media are the enemy, except my media.”

Can anyone else see the absurdity of that?

Is there bias in the media? Sure. The media are comprised of humans—from corporate owners right down to reporters— and humans have biases. Should that prevent us from listening to them? Not at all. We can listen skeptically, pay attention to several sources from different perspectives, read international media as well as that in our own country, suss out who provides the greatest depth and balance. By doing so, we can get as close to a full, accurate picture of the issue as it’s possible to get.

This process is time-consuming. But it’s doable. It may also be essential for the health of our world.

What’s the State of YOUR Nation?

How are you feeling about the country you live in?

Last week, in North America, we had two celebrations of nationhood in four days: Canada Day on July 1 and the U.S. Independence Day on July 4. That got me thinking about a custom followed by all U.S. presidents in one form or another: an annual State of the Union report. Each January, the president comes before the U.S. Congress and declares that “the state of the union is…,” then details an agenda for the coming year. Almost always, the president declares that “the state of the union is strong.”

But why should the president be the only one to assess the nation? Wouldn’t it be good for us to pause, reflect, and assess our own feelings about where we live?

So let’s do it—Choose Your Own Adventure® style.

Here’s what I mean. I have my own thoughts about the nation where I live (the U.S.) and I’ll share them below. If you want to read my thoughts, scroll down. If you’d rather skip them and speak out, go ahead. Pause. Reflect. Then try out these questions: What’s the state of your nation—the one you live in, or your country of origin? What moves you? What distresses you? Use the Comments link below, or email me privately, or join my Facebook feed.

 

* * *

If you decided to read my thoughts, here you go:

The state of my union, today, is ambivalent. Deeply ambivalent.

On the plus side, I’ll start with me and baseball. Every baseball game in America begins with the national anthem. Everyone who attends is asked to stand in respect and remove their caps. When I’m at the ballpark, I take an extra step that many others also take: I put my hand over my heart.

I do this in remembrance of the attributes that, to me, truly make America great.

They include the vast expanses of wilderness and open space and fields and unutterable beauty in so many corners of the U.S.

They include the can-do spirit exhibited in abundance by Americans when we are being our best selves. The spirit that has led to so much innovation and productivity and moving humanity forward.

They include the dedication to liberty that is our nation’s bedrock. When humans are free to pursue their own dreams and visions—more than that, when they are free to embark on the journey to become their best selves—so much good can happen.

And yet…on the minus side, America today is so far from its best self.

One could say it’s always been far from its best self, because of the oppression baked into our DNA: the racism, sexism, marginalization of anyone who is different.

But I think we’re further away than in most times. For one thing, I see outrage and overt hatred in abundance. There is a white-hot intensity in our public square that makes it treacherous to navigate. We respond to tweets and posts in social media at our peril, particularly if our own opinion is even slightly different from that of the original poster.

This makes us less free—ironic, considering our supposed dedication to liberty. When we are not free to act or speak out or explore, the path to our best selves is blocked. Many people, weary of the battle, simply decide it’s no longer worth the effort to speak up or listen or keep abreast of the news. We lose their hearts, minds, and voices, and we are the poorer for it.

That’s just what we’re doing to ourselves—let alone what our leaders and institutions have done to fray our social fabric with policies that demean the humanness of individuals and actions that foster cynicism.

That’s why I’m ambivalent, here, now, in this particular nation. What about you? And if you’re ambivalent, have you found a way forward, a way that works for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that too.

Downsides of the News Blackout

Two months ago I wrote about my latest idea for a news blackout. (It’s more of a dark-brownout, really.) So how’s it going?

Well, my blood pressure’s probably down. My anxiety level certainly is. I’m more focused on what I’ve been called to do: prayer, writing, spiritual direction, the occasional money-making project. There’s also an emotional buffer in place: I can scan the news these days with more resilience than I could in the past.

Lately, though, I’m seeing some downsides. For one, I catch myself thinking things like “Seems like the president has calmed down in the past few months.” Or “Congo is in trouble again? Who knew?”

Of course, it’s not that the president has become more stable, or that the Congolese conflict popped out of nowhere. It’s just that I haven’t read about them.

Even more distressing: On two compelling, heart-tugging stories of the past month or so—the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the package bombs in and around Austin, Texas—I barely noticed until several days into the crisis.

That does not sit well with me. These are teens we’re talking about. I have friends in Austin.

Beyond not sitting well, this newfound obliviousness presents a larger quandary. My faith tradition calls me to stay engaged with the world, to care about the lives of all people, especially the most vulnerable. (I’d put high school students and Congo’s poverty-stricken masses squarely in that category.) If there’s one theme in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that’s almost impossible to ignore, it’s God’s passion for the poor and at-risk.

And yet…and yet…there’s the lower blood pressure. The easing of anxiety. The healthier state of mind, which not only benefits me personally but equips me to engage with others more deeply.

So it looks like neither extreme—near-total news blackout, near-total news immersion—will work for me. But I’m wondering where the middle ground might be, and whether it’s too delicate a balance for any human to hit with precision. If I let a little more news in my life, it’s almost automatic to let in a little more, and then even more. Before I know it, I’ve reopened myself to the toxic maelstrom that our public life has become.

I’ll probably continue to tweak my current approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore the longing that maybe we all have: for a less intrusive world, a less chaotic world, less toxin in the news stream.

What about you? How are you managing the news these days?

Dialing Down the News Intake to Sane Levels

I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. That’s because, well, they sort of made me, bubbling to the surface early in the morning of January 1. And they quickly coalesced into a catchy slogan:

More zazen. Less input.

Zazen is a form of Zen meditation in which you sit and focus on the breath. We can talk about that some other time. Today it’s the less input that occupies me, because it drew my attention to an aspect of media that drives people crazy—and, possibly, a simple way to manage it.

I like news. Typically, my wife and I would wake up to NPR, check headlines during the day, and settle down in the evening to our daily dose of BBC World News America and The PBS NewsHour. In between we’d read our excellent local newspaper and a newsmagazine or two.

Last year it all became too much. The daily drama. The endless coverage of the daily drama. The extraordinary depth of punditry over a presidential tweet.

For someone who’s hypersensitive to mental overload, this was like a tidal wave. So when less input came to mind as a resolution, it pushed me to consider ways to reduce the input. And I realized something about today’s news reporting:

There’s a lot of repetition.

Take the current Russia investigation. In a hypothetical week, media outlet X might kick off Monday by reporting what happened over the weekend. On Tuesday, you hear analysis of the latest developments from a U.S. senator. Wednesday brings three historians drawing on the lessons of past investigations. On Thursday someone from the White House leaks a small detail relating to recent developments, and reporters interview other reporters to find out what it means. To wrap up the week, the president tweets about the investigation, and the analysis machine goes into overdrive.

Does your head hurt yet?

Very little of this is bad in itself. Each bit of reporting can be invaluable to someone, sometime. But no one needs all of it.  

So I’m trying a different way to consume news—to stay aware and save my sanity—by eliminating the repetition.

In this new regime, we’ll focus on a concise weekly summation of the world’s news from The Economist. If something calls us to dig deeper, there’ll probably be an article on it in that week’s issue. Or a segment on the NewsHour. We can lightly scan the headlines, educate ourselves on local news, and screen out the rest.

These are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. I’m sure we’ll vary it once in a while. And obviously, I don’t know if this approach will work. But it’s simple to try. What do you think?

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

Change Making for Introverts, or, Is There Only One Way to Address Injustice?

I have this friend who’s, well, colorful. He’s a simple fellow, tells you exactly what he thinks, makes me laugh like hell, cusses like an unrepentant sailor, and is as openhearted and generous to his friends as anyone I know.

He’s also a racist.

His attitudes toward people of color have always felt like a thorn in my finger: sharp, painful, dipped in poison. I know I should say something direct, but confrontation is my weakest suit. Instead (in my better moments at least) I deflect: my responses don’t confront him, but they do let him know I stand somewhere different. When he says, “This neighborhood’s changed since the blacks moved in,” I say something like “Oh, that’s cool” or “So it’s more interesting now.”

In today’s zeitgeist, such an approach would brand me as complicit in racism. Perhaps that’s true. But there might be another way to think about it.

All of this came to mind when a TED Talk appeared in my inbox yesterday. The speaker is Sarah Corbett, an activist and introvert, who explains that traditional activism is typically loud, quick to react, assertive, confrontational—an introvert’s version of hell, in other words. She goes on to describe ways in which introverts can engage in activism.

At about the 7:10 mark of the video, she uses the term intimate activism to describe a style that’s nonconfrontational, that involves lots of listening and bridge building, that speaks directly when needed. It allows introverts to serve as (in Corbett’s words) “critical friends, not aggressive enemies.”

It’s like she designed it just for me.

OK, so I’m still not good at the “critical” part of “critical friends.” But I hear Corbett validating an insight that keeps nagging at me: name a social problem of our time, and there’s more than one way to contribute to the solution.

In fact, there may be as many ways to contribute as there are people. When you contribute from your strengths—no matter how inadequate they may seem to you and others—you may make an impact that can’t be made in any other way.

I’ve been wondering about this ever since riding in a car with my friend this past fall. For the hundredth time, he made a disparaging comment about people of color, and for the hundredth time I deflected. And he said to me, quietly, “Are you OK with them?”

I didn’t say much: something like “yes” or “absolutely.” But in his question I felt something shift, something important and deep within him. Maybe all my “lame” responses had, over the years, made a not-so-lame impact.

What I’m trying to say is that every form of activism has value. All those folks who call people out and march in protest and speak loud and angrily in news reports—we need them to do what they do best. But it’s a mistake for me to try doing what they do best. Doing what I do best, on the other hand, might just make a difference.

What about you? How do you address big social issues like racism when they come up in your life?