Tuesday, December 16, 2014

May We Walk Hand in Hand

my thoughts keep returning to the great divisions in american society, to our inability to look at life through the eyes of another.  during the past week, i listened on public radio to a review of a book about the horrors of the slave trade.  i thought of how many americans defended the institution of slavery by citing passages from the bible.  i thought of recent comments by conservatives and neo-confederates suggesting that american slavery was a benign practice that actually benefited those who were enslaved.  i thought of how easy it is to assign those who are different from us into a category of "others," thereby relieving us of the necessity of viewing those "others" as completely human since they are unlike us.

i wonder, too, if it isn't too simplistic to see the police who have been involved in the slaying of unarmed african-americans and, by extension, all police as being a class of "others."  can we have compassion for those who commit acts that we view as immoral and try to see life through their eyes?  should we try to understand what motivated them to kill before trying others avenues to resolve the situations in which they found themselves?  i think we should.  how did we allow our society to become so fearful that we see persons whose skin is a different color from ours as being dangerous.  we must find out why we have become a "shoot-first-ask-questions-later" people.

we are so separated by economic status, by region, by ethnicity, by religion, by sexual orientation that we no longer see ourselves as "one country indivisible."  these thoughts about our alienation from one another caused me to think of jesus' words in the the seventeenth chapter of john's gospel.  in this prayer just before his arrest, jesus repeatedly refers to "oneness."  first jesus prays that the disciples would be one just as jesus and the Father are one.  next he prays that all those who become followers of jesus would also become one: "the glory that you have given me i have given them; so that they may be one, as we are one.  i in them and you in me, that they may become completely one."  finally jesus prays that "the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and i in them."

the only solution to our divisions is to see that we are all the same.  there is no jew or greek, no male or female, no black or yellow or white or brown, no straight or gay.  there are only sentient beings, and we are one.  may we change our thinking so that we will become not just one nation indivisible, but one world indivisible.  may we let go of the fear we have of one another.  may we stop condemning each other to categories that exist only in our wrong-thinking minds.  may we all be well, may we all be happy, may we all be at peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Just Imagine

the protests against the killing of unarmed african-american men in the united states continue, becoming more widespread each day, it seems.  white americans often seem baffled by the strong emotions these killings have aroused in the african-american community.  no white person can claim to share the experiences of african-americans that lead to such a response.  regardless of how sensitive some of us wish to be, we white americans have not shared the years, the generations, of repression that has been the reality of our black brothers and sisters.  it seems that many anglos go out of their way to diminish the angst that those most affected by these senseless killings are feeling; this insensitivity seeks excuses, justifications for what amounts to legal murder.

this state of affairs must not continue.  we must not continue to imprison, discriminate against, and kill unarmed men of color.  we dare not perpetuate a predisposition to assume a person is dangerous or criminal because of the color of his skin and his gender.  conservative white americans in general, and the republican party in particular, have pandered to the racism that is endemic in our society.  it's time that we stop standing by and treating this thinly veiled racist political posturing as a legitimate expression of american values that should be treated as a reasonable point-of-view. 

every white american harbors some racist attitudes.  we are all guilty of failing to try to imagine what it must be like to be an african-american, no matter how liberal our politics.  white america needs to be quiet and to listen to the outpouring of rage that is coming from the african-american communities in feguson, in new york, in cleveland, and across the nation.  we must hear the angry voices and all of us must work together to end these attacks on black americans, especially on young black men.  It is time to face up to our shortcomings as a society.

may we have to courage to speak out against those who try to justify police who shoot first and ask questions later.  may we have the compassion to hear the cries of mothers whose sons are killed before a police officer looked for other alternatives to diffuse a situation.  may we understand that some of us assume guilt based on ethnicity and that whites in similar circumstances to the black men who have been killed would have been treated very differntly.  may we imagine what walking in the shoes of another is like.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

With Liberty and Justice for All?

one evening during the recent american thanksgiving holiday we sat with several relatives around our kitchen table.  somehow the conversation turned to the issue of prayers before high school football games.  one person said, "just because one atheist complains, all the rest of us have to give up pre-game prayers in the name of political correctness."  others agreed.  when my wife asked why there should be prayers before any athletic competition, another relative said, "we should pray that the players would escape injury."  i pointed out that these prayers didn't seem to work, since high school football players were always being injured, prayer or no prayer.  one couple felt that this "discrimination against christians" that is exemplified in banning public prayers at school athletic events was just an example of a societal prejudice against christians.  when my wife and i persisted in our position that the purpose of such prayers can only be to impose one religion's beliefs on everyone in attendance and should therefore not take place at a clearly secular activity, a tense silence prevailed for a few moments before someone introduced another topic.

as i reflect on this conversation, i am pained that the couple who played the "christian discrimination" card sincerely believe that the majority religion ought to be able to impose its will on the minority that follow other religions or no religion.  here in our part of the country, it's difficult for members of a religious minority to speak out against such a point-of-view, lest those who protest be ostracized or ridiculed.  the "one atheist" remark is typical of the attitude of many christians here; inherent in such a remark is the belief that non-believers are rare, and that the followers of religions other than christianity are not much different from those who follow no religion.  how must adherents of judaism, hinduism, buddhism, or islam feel when forced to be participants in christian prayers at activities where public prayer is inappropriate?  why do some christians believe that they have the right to turn secular events into opportunities to impose their religion on others against the will of those others?

may we embrace the multi-cultural, multi-religious society in which we live, a society that developed because children of the enlightenment struggled to create a system that prevents minorities from being tyrannized by the majority.  may we espouse tolerance and mutual respect for followers of all religions and for those who follow no religion, and may we acknowledge that none of us has the right to impose our beliefs on another.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Give Me That Old-Timed Religion

as i was driving home the other day listening to the radio, an advertisement for a hospice care service came on.  i was struck by the phrase "care with a christian perspective."  i wondered, "what does that mean?  how would care from a christian perspective differ from care from a jewish or a buddhist perspective?  is care refused to non-christians?  are attempts made to convert non-christians receiving hospice care so that in those last days of life those being cared for can go to heaven?"  a "christian perspective" can mean so many things, and my experience is that it is often a very narrow perspective when an enterprise advertises their adherence to christianity.

a few days later, i read an ad for a hair salon in our local newspaper.  the ad touted the christian-based service the salon provides.  again, a warning light began flashing in my mind.  are christians more adept at styling hair than non-christians?  are muslim stylists less skillful or less honest than christian stylists?  should one avoid a hair stylist who's an atheist?

i remember many years ago when my wife had major surgery.  when an acquaintance learned who the surgeon was, she said, "you're so fortunate.  he's such a fine christian."  my wife and i both had the same reaction: what does his religion have to do with his skill as a surgeon.  the surgery was successful, and the surgeon was a kind person who provided excellent follow-up care after the surgery.  however, the woman in his office that took care of billing was anything but caring.  as we tried to work out a plan to pay for the care not covered by insurance, she was rude and insensitive to my wife during a time when my wife was dealing with a serious health crisis, suggesting that we were trying to avoid paying for the services provided because we were unable to pay the entire bill in one lump sum.  My wife left the doctor's office in tears, saying that the doctor might be a fine christian, but he didn't expect his staff to act as one would expect a christian to act.

the wearing of one's religion on one's sleeve, the use of one's religion to promote one's business, is an arrogant sort of self-promotion that suggests that somehow "my religion is superior to all others."  if it is necessary to advertise the "christian-ness" of one's business, i wonder whether the services provided are very good.  i know of nothing in any religion that causes one to be a better care-giver to those in the end stages of life, or a better hair stylist, or a better physician.

may we all let go of the idea that our religion somehow makes us better than others.  may we accept the fact that there are highly skilled service providers who are followers of other religions and of no religion.  may we ask first how proficient the service provider is, rather than questioning the person's religious beliefs.  may we turn from the arrogance of believing that being an adherent of this religion or that religion (or no religion) makes us better in any way that another.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Forgive Us Our Debts

we have been watching a series of video lectures about st. paul's letter to the ephesians in our wednesday night family bible studies.  last wednesday night, as my wife and i talked about our reactions to this series while driving home, we were both struck by how often we are told, not only in these videos but also in so much of the rhetoric in church, how inadequate we are, how we need to try harder, to do more, to strive more.  we both wondered what effect all this constant nagging had on our perception of ourselves and of humankind in general.

this idea that God is perfect and we constantly fail in the face of God's perfection is at the core of much of what we think of as christianity.  every sunday, we read a corporate prayer of confession where we enumerate some aspects of our inability to live as God wishes us to live and ask for forgiveness.  after the prayer, we are assured of God's forgiveness and sing a short response.  i find it increasingly difficult to participate in these acts of contrition.  my evolving understanding of God is quite different from what my long-held faith once led me to believe.

if God is indeed all-knowing, if God is the essence of unconditional love, if God is the creator of all that is, and if we are created in God's image, how can we be so imperfect?  why would God create us to constantly fail?  God surely understands our imperfections and loves us anyway without the need to constantly grovel and beg for forgiveness in order to escape God's wrath.  instead, God must expect us to be kinder to ourselves in the same way that we believe God is kind to us.  God must expect that we will work to become kinder, more compassionate beings and to accept the fact that we will stumble and have to pick ourselves up again, rather than constantly wallowing in our inadequacy and beating ourselves up over our missteps.  perhaps it is ourselves we need to forgive rather than seeking God's forgiveness, which is surely inherent in God's nature without our asking for it.

may we resolve not to allow ourselves the luxury of wasting time feeling guilty for our imperfections, but may we instead learn from our mistakes.  may we accept the fact that we are imperfect, that we're all in this life together, and then be as compassionate towards ourselves as we are towards others.  may each of us be gentle with our failings and not cling to them.  shalom

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

May I Not Get Angry or Think Bad Thoughts about Another

this corollary to "may i think kindly of others" reminds me each morning that i cannot think kindly of others and be angry with them at the same time.  to think kindly means that i try to understand the underlying motivation of others rather than wasting time being angry with them.  there is a reason for harmful actions directed at me by others that has little to do with me and everything to do with their motives and intentions, and it is my responsibility to discern the why behind those actions objectively, without anger or thoughts of retaliation.  i must think, "how do i defuse the anger this person feels now," without becoming a doormat for another's anger and frustration.

we waste so much energy on anger.  how much more productive it is to use that energy to develop compassion for those who anger us or who direct their anger at us.  once i am able to see that those with whom i could become angry are like me and that their anger often stems from a hurt deep inside it is not so difficult to end bad thoughts about them.  when i forget that another is allowing his impulses to direct his actions rather than thinking through a situation and responding to it in a rational way, i may act with the same impulsiveness and respond to his anger thoughtlessly.  on the other hand, if i stop the bad thoughts which are propelling me headlong toward an angry response or when i refuse to allow my frustrations to cause me to act in anger toward another, i have saved myself much wasted energy, harmful emotions, and hurtful words directed at another.

anger and the bad thoughts that flow from anger are responses that have no productive value.  they poison the mind and cause our bodies great harm.  may we think before we act in anger.  may we remember how much others are like us and remind ourselves that thinking bad thoughts about others are the same as thinking bad thoughts about ourselves.  shalom

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

May I Think Kindly of Others

[my life has been harried over the last several days, with more tasks than i have time to complete.  my apologies for not getting this post completed by my self-imposed deadline.]

the title phrase of this post has become less difficult for me over the past couple of years.  as i've aged, it is not as hard for me to see that each of us often becomes so involved with the artificial construct of "self" that we look for others to blame when things don't go right in our lives.  we fail to recognize that life just happens, that mistakes are made by us and by those around us, that we're all in this life together.  once we are aware of how everyone fails sometimes and accept that this is part of living, it becomes more natural to think kindly of others, to forgive their faults, just as we must learn to forgive our own faults.

it's not nearly as important to figure who's to blame when things go wrong as to figure out why things go wrong.  i have a friend who is always saying "someone put this in the wrong place" or "someone" didn't do this or that correctly.  the friend knows full well when he blames "someone" who that someone is, yet he can't bring himself to say that "you" failed, and I want you to know that you failed.  it's easier for him just to correct whatever was done wrong without letting the guilty party know that things are not as he wants them to be, but in the process he must assign blame.  we're all like that, but as we come to realize that each of us is less than perfect, determining where blame lies is not important; fixing what's wrong is the significant action.

this clinging to the need to look to others to find fault and the craving for revenge for those faults, even if that revenge is nothing more than giving voice to our disappointment in the failures of others, wastes our time and energy; it keeps us from accepting our own limitations and embracing our shared humanity.  may we make the effort to think kindly of others so that we may think kindly of ourselves.  shalom.