Tuesday, April 25, 2017

By Schisms Rent Asunder

some big changes are coming in our lives, my wife and me.  our home has been on the market for about three months, and this weekend it sold.  we are planning to move about 250  miles north of here to where we have relatives that we enjoy spending time with in an area that has great scenic beauty, an area where we've always wanted to live.  all of our close family here is gone, either through death or from moving away, and we want to enjoy our last years near relatives we hold dear.

during the past week, we have been preoccupied with a difficulty in our church which has taken precedence over our big move.  the relationship between our minister and another member of the staff has taken an ugly turn, and the head of the personnel committee of the church has taken the minister's side in this very personal conflict.  the staff member under attack is a kind and gracious person who is much beloved in our church, and the situation has become critical enough that a large number of us have felt that we must intervene on his behalf.  Trying to find a solution to this conflict and protecting his job has been at the center of our lives even with the upcoming major change in our lives.

now we are fearful that the divisions created by this crisis will be the death knell of our congregation.  this morning i am using this post as a meditation on what steps we might take to help heal those divisions before i go later in the week to meet with the minister to make some parting suggestions before we leave for our new home.  there have been an increasing number of participants in our church who oppose the minister, and she seems to have been unwilling to reach out to those who oppose her.  the first thing that must happen is that the hurts and acrimony caused by her attempt to remove another member of the staff have to be put aside.  she and the church secretary who has become her ally against him must go to him and ask his forgiveness and his assistance in leading a "save our church" campaign, honestly admitting that past differences have increased already-deep divisions in the church.

the lay leaders of our church must adopt policies that allow for greater input from the members-at-large in the decision making process, holding their monthly business meetings in a location that is large enough to accommodate more people and encouraging members to come to those meetings with their suggestions and comments, even if the meetings last longer and conducting business is slowed down.

a committee that is not made up of the official leadership must be formed, though one respected elected leader should chair it, someone who is viewed as being on neither side of the pro- and anti-minister factions.  this committee needs to focus on reaching out to those who have stopped attending and stopped contributing to the church.  one of the few ways our members can express their disapproval of the actions of the minister and leadership is to withhold their presence and their financial support, since most matters are decided by the elected leadership, rather than by the whole membership of the church voting on important decisions beyond the election of the leadership.  in reaching out to the congregation, the members of the committee need to listen rather than trying to convince the disaffected that they are wrong.

the church leaders need to look for ways to reduce the church's expenses without placing essential programs in jeopardy, and they must ask the congregation for suggestions as to how to do this.  we are on track to run a deficit of $100,000 or more for the year, and the depletion of the church's reserves is on everyone's minds, regardless of which faction one is a part of.  knowing that the church is undertaking a major belt-tightening program would go a long way towards convincing those who now withholding their contributions that the leaders are serious in addressing the problems we face, particularly if more of the general membership is given the opportunity of make suggestions.

more than anything else, the leaders and staff, particularly the minister, must begin to listen in a non-judgmental way.  much of the anti-minister sentiment has been created because people don't feel that their objections are heard or their view valued.  there is a sense, largely justified, that those in power have run roughshod over those who disagree with them because they could, so those who haven't been heard feel that they've been ignored and marginalized.  in a recent congregational meeting intended to convey information about the minister's contract with the church, one member rose to ask questions about the finances of the church and was told that, since her concerns were not pertinent to the purpose of the meeting, she was out of order.  she hasn't been back to church, and who can blame her.

the chief process for input from the congregation to the leadership is a system of advisory committees that deal with various aspects of the church's life.  the leaders need to make certain that those committee's are made up of congregants who are not elected leaders, with an elected leader chairing each committee to be an intermediary between the committee and the leadership.  as the committees are now constituted, one particular elected leader serves on four of the seven church committees, chairing one of them, and is also the church's treasurer.  this is too much power for one person to have.  the personnel committee is made up of four of the elected leaders, with only two members-at-large serving on the committee, leaving little opportunity for congregational input or a diversity of views.  these practices reinforce the sense of being ignored that many who are not in positions of leadership feel.

it pains my wife and me to think that we will soon leave this church where we have found so many friends, so many loving people who, like us, feel adrift in the midst of the controversy.  some have stopped attending because it is upsetting to them to walk into the strife every time they go through the church doors.  we understand their feelings and often have to force ourselves to be present, knowing that this undercurrent of animosity runs through the church.  we have little to lose by offering our suggestions, in view of our imminent departure, even if those suggestions are unwelcome.  we can then leave knowing that we have done what we could to end the church's divisions and move it toward healing.

may we learn to listen, to seek common ground, and to demonstrate genuine concern for the well-being of others.  may we not view questions about our decisions as attacks on them.  may we seek to step into the other person's shoes and look at things from another's point-of-view.  may we see differences of opinion as opportunities to learn rather than as threats.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

To Be a Friend

Last week i wrote about the "flame of care," and this week i find that the demands of my life are keeping me from posting this morning as i usually do.  i hope to find time to complete a post for my blog later in the week, but the needs of a friend for support are more important right now.  i hope those who read my blog regularly will check back in a few days and find that i've found the time to post.  if that time doesn't present itself, i plan to get back on schedule next tuesday.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Who Will Light the Flame of Care?

there are days when the responsibilities of life seem to close around us and weigh us down.  i had such a day yesterday, and i am hoping that this day won't be a continuation of it.  my wife and i have decided to make a move so that we can be near some of our family--all of the family that we moved to the place where we now live some thirty years ago are gone, either having died or moved away.  after so long in one place, living in the same wonderful house that has brought us so much joy and that is filled with wonderful memories, it is hard to leave.  yet we know that we will enjoy being near loved ones that we've longed to spend more time with, and we are excited about the prospect of beginning another chapter in our lives.

we've found that, since we've retired, we are called on to do a great deal of volunteer work.  it's difficult to say no because we know that the work we're asked to do is worthwhile, and we feel strongly that we should do our part to make our community a better place.  now we've reached a point where the work we are doing for others is consuming an inordinate amount of our time, so that we have little time left to take care of our personal responsibilities.  we struggle to make time for our household duties--washing, cleaning, making repairs, shopping for and preparing meals, tending to the yard--and have to sit down and prepare a weekly schedule to fit it all in.  yesterday, when we made our list for the week, we saw that there didn't appear to be time left for our own enjoyment of life; our obligations to various organizations and to keeping our home running would consume almost every waking minute.

i went to bed feeling overwhelmed, and, as i sit and write in the dark of the early morning, i'm not certain how we will fit everything in this week.  i know that it will all fall into place if we take one day at a time, but, from the perspective of looking at this week's list, the challenges of the week ahead are daunting.  this, coupled with our anxiety about selling our home and controversies in our church that don't seem to be moving toward any satisfactory resolution, makes me want to throw up my hands and declare myself no longer responsible for the commitments i've made.  i won't do that, though, because i'll let too many people down.

in the back of my mind, i know that the frustration i feel at this moment is temporary.  as i check items off the list, the sense of being buried under too many chores and not enough time will dissipate.  my normal sense of optimism will assert itself more and more each day.  at the end of the week, i'll look back with satisfaction at all that was accomplished and wonder how i allowed myself to feel discouraged.  even as i write these words, some of the burden is lifted, and i look forward to tackling some of the items on our list.  i can't solve everyone's problems, i can't force our realtor to go out and find a buyer for our home, i can't fix everything that's wrong in the world or even in my little corner of it, i can't step into the breach every time some job needs doing.  all i can do is keep plugging away, doing my part, helping where and when i can, leaving those things i don't have time for until another day.

may i recognize my limitations.  may i look beyond the mundane tasks to the good that results from doing them.  may i accomplish what i can each day and fall into bed exhausted with a sense of satisfaction at having done my best.  may we all find balance in our lives and reserve time to take care of ourselves in the process of caring for others.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

E’er Since by Faith I Saw the Stream

one of the things that draws me to buddhism is the teaching of the buddha that one should not accept anything that is contrary to reason or that is not beneficial to all.   this is in contrast to the emphasis on blind faith in many christian traditions.  one often hears something like "God's ways are not our ways, so we must have faith and believe that God has a purpose in allowing, or causing, [something] to happen."  as christians, we are often told that we must place our faith in the bible as the word of God and accept the most absurd claims that it contains, seeking convoluted explanations to reconcile its contradictory teachings.  we are told that we should suspend reason and believe that, since God's mind is so much greater than ours, we must accept what seems unreasonable on faith.

if i had my way, i think i'd throw out all of the bible except the gospel of mark and the epistle of james as the bases for the christian life; the rest would be considered outside the canon.  certainly, there are helpful passages throughout the bible, but there are many books that are helpful to us, like the writings of ralph waldo emerson, but those other "uninspired" books can be taken for what they're worth, while christians are taught that we must uncritically accept every word of the bible as being the inspired word of God.

in buddhism one finds the founder of the religion encouraging a scientific approach to how to live.  gautama suggest that one examine any proposition critically, rejecting that which is unreasonable and not beneficial, and accepting that which proves to be reasonable and beneficial.  he teaches that we should accept nothing, no matter how sacred we are taught that it is, on blind faith.  because something is often repeated and believed by many, because something is found in a sacred book, because something is commonly taught by respected teachers, or because something is a part of long-held tradition is no reason to incorporate that something into our lives and beliefs, the buddha says.  instead, we must carefully observe the effects of a practice and analyze its reasonableness to see if that practice is a valid one.

there are many christian teachings that are incorporated into the tradition of which i am a part that fail to measure up to the buddha's standard, but the one i find most troubling in my advancing years is the teaching that humankind is inherently evil and worthy of God's wrath, that it is only by placing one's faith in the "saving blood" of jesus that one can be spared that wrath.  it seems to me that immeasurable harm has been done by this belief, including using it as justification for the most terrible child abuse, as a reason for terrible wars and persecution, and as grounds for unwarranted discrimination.  yet, i continue as a dissenting member of the tradition, because i find so many loving and lovable people in my community.  there may come a time when those who use the bible and the teachings they arbitrarily deem valid as weapons to so dominate our tradition that i can no longer remain a part of it, a time when i can no longer be a christian with buddhist leanings.  when that time comes, i will become a buddhist raised in a christian tradition, a buddhist who reveres the teachings of jesus rather than a christian who reveres the teachings of the buddha.

may we use our minds to reason and analyze.  may we not be afraid to reject that which is unreasonable and not beneficial.  may we go where the truth leads us.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Not All the Blood of Beasts . . . Could Wash Away the Stain

the idea of sacrificial killing to assuage an angry god or gods seems to be implanted deep in our psyche.  we look at the vagaries of life, and we seek a reason for the good and bad things that happen to us.  the unexplained causes of drought, of catastrophic weather, of debilitating or terminal illnesses beg for underlying reasons.  we can see that our ancient ancestors who had no scientific understanding of natural phenomena that seemed senseless and threatening turned to supernatural explanations: the flood which drowned our kinsmen or the strong wind that destroyed our homes and crops must have come because the gods are angry with us, so we must make sacrifices to make amends.  the spilling of blood as a mark of repentance and reverence for the gods is common to many cultures, a way of pushing back the darkness of inexplicable mysteries.  the impulse to do something to ward off misfortune is natural to our species.

we persist in confirming the ancient myth when we affirm the necessity of an atoning death to "wash away our sins."  many of us who call ourselves christians perpetuate the belief that an angry god required the sacrifice of jesus to allow our sins to be forgiven.  during this season of lent we are constantly reminded of the intense suffering of jesus during his crucifixion.  we hear the scriptures which speak of an innocent lamb being sacrificed on our behalf, of the suffering servant, of one who was despised and rejected, and hear the beautiful choruses from messiah which tell us that "surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him," and "with his stripes we are healed," quoting the words of isaiah 53:4-5.

we are reminded that jesus and that angry god that required the death of jesus to atone for all of humanity are one, so that it was god who died on the cross in roman palestine.  we are told that this horrible death was necessary so that we could see how much God loves us.  yet, isn't this a continuation of the age-old story of unfathomable deities who afflict us with random acts of violence and destruction in order to explain away that which seems impossible to understand, gods who require blood to be spilled to quell their anger, when we have to invent reasons for that anger and methods to alleviate it?

wouldn't it be simpler to believe that bad things often happen randomly or because we have interfered with the natural order of things, that floods come because we have destroyed the vegetation that slowed the flow of the waters over the land or because we have built dams in the wrong places, that our abuse of the environment has created storms of increasing frequency and intensity?  we repent of the wrongs we have done by taking steps to undo the harm we have done.  we accept that sometimes bad, or good, things happen for no reason, and we seek the tools to deal with them.  if we believe in a loving God, that God doesn't require the spilling of blood by way of atonement, rather God requires us to share the love that is poured out on us.

may we cease participating in a myth rooted in our ancestors' inability to explain that which happened to them.  may we embrace a God of love, if we embrace any God.  may we accept that bad things happen for no reason.  may we support one another when those bad things come.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Our Earthly Rulers Falter

during the past several days donald trump has continued to claim that he was spied on by president obama during the last presidential campaign.  the director of the fbi and other security officials past and present have denied this took place, and members of mr. trump's own party are convinced that this spying never happened.  next mr. trump's press secretary repeated a report from fox news that the british government tapped mr. trump's phones at president obama's behest, an action vehemently denied by the british.  when meeting with angela merkel, mr. trump said that one thing the two had in common was that their phones had been tapped by president obama, repeating his false claim.

these falsehoods are the latest in a long series of lies that mr. trump has repeatedly put forward.  he claimed that president obama's presidency was illegitimate because the president was not "native born," and repeated this lie over and over.  he claimed that he had not supported the invasion of iraq, even though he did so publicly and his taped words were played back ad nauseum.  he repeatedly insisted that the crowd for his inauguration was the largest ever, though live coverage of the event proved otherwise.  after claiming that the electoral system was rigged against him, donald trump was the winner of the election, only to claim that the reason he lost the popular vote was that millions of "illegals" voted for hilliary clinton, an unsubstantiated claim denied by members of his own party and for which he could offer no proof.

mr. trump has a skewed view of the world because of his reliance on news sources that are biased in the direction he favors and is ready to accept as fact any preposterous conspiracy theory these sources put forward.  he relies on advisors who have been a part of the "alt right" rumor mill and has the former head of breitbart news installed in an influential position.  his lies have damaged and continue to damage the credibility of the united states in the world, and his willingness to repeat absurd claims put forward by unreliable news media and propagandists makes the country an object of ridicule on the world stage.  one wonders how long the congress can allow this state of affairs to continue.  how can other governments trust what he says when lies fall so easily and readily from his tongue?  His disingenuousness in making false statements and then saying that he's not claiming to believe them, but only quoting other sources, make him all the more culpable in perpetuating lies because it is the president of the united states who is bringing them to the attention of a wider audience.

he claimed to be on the side of working people in the united states, but the cabinet appointments he has made belie that claim.  he promised a new health insurance law that would provide coverage for everyone, but he is promoting a plan that will actually decrease the number of people who have insurance.  he has proposed a budget that will harm the most vulnerable segments of the population in order to increase spending on the military and security, taking food out of the mouths of the elderly to build instruments of war.

may we call donald trump what he is: a liar and a charlatan.  may we have compassion for him, but may we oppose his policies in every lawful way we can.  may we acknowledge that only someone with great suffering at the core of his being can be so insensitive and callous and wish that his suffering would be assuaged, while at the same time working to prevent his harmful policies from coming to fruition and to counter his lies with truth.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Justice Lingers into Love

i've been trying to imagine what it would be like to be an undocumented immigrant in the usa now.  i read of a young woman in mississippi who came here as a child, a mother in chicago, a father in arizona, and think what it might be like to be in their shoes.  the young woman grew up in the usa and is one of the "dreamers" protected from deportation under the deferred action program instituted under president obama.  the mother is married to an american citizen and her children are american citizens, and the father's children are american citizens.  i read, too, of another father who was taken into custody as he walked his daughter to school.  to be undocumented and to live in constant fear that one will be ripped from one's family, from all that is familiar, must be terrible.  to put a face with these fears, that of the young woman in mississippi, daniela vargas, makes the terror much more real.  she watched as other members of her family were taken into custody while she was left.  only after she spoke publicly of her plight was she apprehended by immigration control and enforcement and sent to a detention facility.  she has since been released, but it is unclear why or if she will be deported at some point in the future.

i am trying, too, to put myself in the place of those who are apprehending undocumented immigrants and beginning the process of deportation.  i find this especially difficult to do.  i know that these government employees have families that love them and, like most americans, they are doing what they can to support themselves and those they love.  what does one feel when one's job is to arrest fathers, mothers, and young adults whose only "crime" is to have entered the country illegally, when one is responsible for taking parents away from their children?  certainly, it's easier to apprehend those who are known criminals and take part in their deportation.  but do the "ice police" have difficulty taking into custody those who are living normal lives, free of criminal activity, caring for and supporting their families, being good neighbors, doing honest work?  could i convince myself as one of those "immigration enforcers" that the work i did benefited the country or anyone in it?

on the one hand, we say that undocumented immigrants are in the country illegally and are therefore criminals, they have broken the laws of the usa simply by being here.  on the other hand, we see that the vast majority of these "lawbreakers" are living productive lives and have come here to help their families.  they are contributing members of society, often doing jobs that many native-born citizens don't want to do.  perhaps one's attitude toward these "illegals" is driven by one's worldview, whether one sees the world in blacks and whites with no gray shading: "the law is the law, and, if we don't enforce it, society breaks down."  or whether one sees the law as the servant of a just and merciful society that looks out for those who are disadvantaged and judges each case on its own merits, considering all the mitigating circumstances.

i think of draconian laws in the past that made criminals of those who stole food to feed themselves and their starving families, that sent those who could not pay their debts to prison, that sent the poor and orphans to live in squalid "workhouses," that put the children of those who could not support those children on "orphan trains" to be sent to other parts of the country to meet an uncertain fate, that seized the land of native americans and sent those natives to live on reservations.  history is rife with instances of laws that blamed the weakest members of society for their situations and that took advantage of the powerless.  just because something is "the law" doesn't make it right, nor does failure to abide by unjust laws make one a criminal, except to those who hold "law" to be more important than humanity.

in the name of securing our safety, we are treating others inhumanely, making criminals of those whose greatest concern is the well-being of their loved ones.  one has to ask if such a course truly makes us safer, or are we creating enemies that did not exist before.  the surest way to create terrorists is to corner the helpless so that their only choices are to give up or to lash out.

may we see the humanity in every person.  may we never see a great mass of criminal "others," but may we see each individual as worthy of our compassion and respect regardless of where each was born.  may our laws protect the helpless and the powerless, and may justice always be tempered by mercy.  may the law of love be our highest law.  shalom.