Fear Not

Several years ago, I went into a bookstore and saw several rings with sayings engraved in them. The one that caught my attention said simply “Fear Not.” I bought it on the spot.

At the time I was going through a very difficult time at work. There were some major restructurings taking place and–as can be imagined–the rumor mill was very active. It was already clear that there were going to be significant job losses, and none of us were certain who would survive and who would be leaving. One of the things that made the whole situation even harder was that this was at the headquarters of my faith tradition, so it was more than simply losing a job. Many of us had had a sense of calling to those jobs.

I needed something to help me deal with the situation. This way I could simply look down at my finger and be reminded that I did not need to be afraid. I could be reminded of my belief that I would not be walking alone…that God would be walking with me.

I didn’t always remember that. Sometimes the stress got to be too much. Sometimes I felt like no one cared.

Even then, I would glance down at my hand and see the ring…and be reminded that I was not alone.

Things have changed since then.

I have retired–and am enjoying my retirement. I have new people and projects that keep my busy. I’ve picked up some old dreams that I had set aside for many years.

But I still wear that ring–because even though I’m no longer dealing with the situation that was occurring when I bought the ring, there are always other situations that can cause me to fear if I allow it. Some of them concern family members I love very much–but who have made unwise decisions. Those are the hardest ones to deal with. I want to make the situation right…want to “fix” things…want to make it so that life doesn’t have to be so hard for them. I can’t. I can be a support, but they have to decide to make those changes.

And so I still look down at my ring for the reminder that I don’t need to be afraid. I believe that God will walk with me…and I believe that God walks with those I love as well. So…

Fear not!

Badge of courage

There are many ways to be a hero.

As a child I think I was pretty typical in seeing firemen, policemen, and nurses as heroes.

But as I grew older, life became more complicated. I came of age during a time of significant change and controversy….and determining heroes became more challenging.

What about the young people my age who risked–and sometimes lost–their lives in order to force us to see the cruelty of the discrimination we so routinely practiced against people for no reason other than the color of their skin? And what about John Howard Griffin, the auRuby Bridgesthor of Black Like Me, who took the step most of us would not have dreamed of…working with a doctor to take medicine that ultimately was a factor in his death that would allow him to darken his skin enough to pass as a member of this oppressed minority…so that he could share at least a part of their story from the perspective of having lived it.

I remember seeing this iconic picture and thinking about the bravery of this 6-year-old girl who walked through a wall of hate so that she could get a decent education. She was a hero as well.

Then we found ourselves embroiled in an unwinnable war in Vietnam. Who were the heroes there? the young people who protested? those who fought? Or did I have to choose? Wasn’t it possible there were heroes on both sides in various ways?

Later I began to hear and read stories about other people from World War II that I considered heroes, although they didn’t see that they had done anything special. There was Corrie ten Boom, whose book The Hiding Place told the story of her Dutch family’s decision to protect Jews…their capture and experiences in the concentration camps…and then her willingness after the war to travel to Germany to bring a message of forgiveness and new possibility. There was Oskar Schindler, a flawed human being who still chose to take risks to rescue Jews from certain death. Many of us experienced his story through the movie Schindler’s List.

There have been others whose names have come forward as the years have gone by…Irina SendlerNicholas Winton…the entire village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

And now today.

The controversy over who should be considered heroic has reached a fever pitch with the giving of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage to Caitlyn Jenner. Is she really a hero?

I believe she is.

I have heard a number of people who knew Bruce Jenner who have said they didn’t really like that person–who seemed to be rude, obnoxious, not really willing to acknowledge others. I didn’t know Bruce that well, but spent a little time with him and his wife–my cousin–when they came to visit after winning the decathlon. He was nice, but didn’t really share much of himself.

Now I know why. How can you share of yourself when you aren’t really sure who you are? or whether people will accept you if they really know who you are? I can’t imagine spending 60 years of my life in that kind of self-imposed cocoon.

But now Caitlyn has become who she has always felt herself to be…and I am much more impressed with Caitlyn than I ever was with Bruce. Maybe some of it is maturity, but I think more of it is because she is now an authentic person-and she recognizes that she has both the possibility and the responsibility of helping us understand what it is like to be a transgender person…and to challenge us to accept each other, even if we don’t completely understand each other.

Perhaps the best statement as to why I see her as a hero–a flawed human being, yes, as we all are, but a hero–is in this comment by Joey Vicente, a behavioral health specialist in the Army.

“Your definition of what or who a hero can or cannot be is irrelevant,” he wrote. “What if I told you that her speech last night saved even one human being from attempting to take their life. I’d call that a victory on any scale.”

One country…one world…one people

Over the last several days, I have seen far too many posts and far too many news stories that are built on hate, fear, distrust, and creation of division. It is time for this to stop!

I can’t do it by myself. None of us can. But if many of us decide that enough is enough, then we can begin to make an impact.

I remember one of the first pictures I saw from space–the world, without borders or divisions except those caused by nature. It was a vivid reminder that while I live among a specific group of people in a specific country, I also live with many others in one world.

earth from space

When I bleed, my blood looks the same color as anyone else’s. If all anyone sees is the blood, how can they know what color I am? or what I believe?

I have lived in–and visited–countries other than the one I grew up in. Yes, there have been differences–and some of them have made me a little uncomfortable. But it has also been exciting to learn from other cultures and people…to broaden my horizons.

I have tried to learn languages other than my own. Not very successfully–that does not appear to be one of my skills. But when I have attempted to communicate with people who speak those languages in their language, we have been able to make a connection. That doesn’t mean we have agreed on everything, but when we have attempted to reach out to each other, we have discovered that there is much we have in common.

I have members of my family whose faith traditions are very different from my own. Yet they are as concerned for family, friends, and our world as I am.

I have members of my own family whose gender and/or sexual orientation are different from my own. Yet they are still deeply loved–and valued–members of our family.

Whatever faith tradition we belong to (or none), there is no reason for us to look for ways to divide ourselves from each other. If we do that, we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction.

It is time for us to stop the words of fear and hate. It is time for us to stand up and say “Enough!” It is time for us to look for ways to work together to meet the needs of all people in our world…to take care of our earth.

Whatever country we live in, we are still part of one people…one world.

Word of God

Three little words seem so simple…”Word of God.” But the truth is, those three words have created division and dissension in so many ways.

What is the “Word of God”? And does it make a difference if I write “word” or “Word”?

Some believe that the Bible is literally “the words of God”, dictated and written down…true for all cultures, times, and situations.

Others believe that the Bible contains “the word of God”…records of humanity’s interaction with the Divine, but also impacted by a specific culture, time, and situation. That is a belief that resonates with me.

But there’s another way to see those three words. The Gospel of John begins by saying that the Word (capital W) has existed from the beginning…and that at a specific time in history became flesh and lived among us.

There’s a hymn that starts out this way:

Word of God, come down on earth,
living rain from heaven descending;
touch our hearts and bring to birth
faith and hope and love unending.
Word almighty, we revere you;
Word made flesh, we long to hear you.

If Jesus was indeed the “Word of God”–the Divine incarnated so that we could experience that incredible love and acceptance–then the Bible is a record of that incarnation…and a challenge to us.

So how did people experience that Word? As the hymn says, he touched hearts, bringing to birth faith, hope, and unending love…at least for those who heard him.

He preached and taught…healed…sat at table with both the “in” folks and the outcasts…

What was most important to him? According to the three synoptic gospels, this: to love God with all one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

So…for me, the (W)word of God can be found in the Bible…in the life of Jesus…and in living the faith, hope, and unending love that we allow to be born in us.

Gone with the Wind….?

A while back–before the most recent shooting and the furor over what the Confederate flag symbolizes–I decided it was time to re-read one of the books considered an American classic…Gone with the Wind. It had been many years since I had read it or seen the movie, so I didn’t have strong memories of it. I requested the electronic version at my library, and it took a while before it became available…ironically about the time memories/history of the “Old South” were hitting the news.

I’ve been finding it difficult to read.

Not because it is poorly written. Far from it. Margaret Mitchell had a wonderful way with words. Her dialogue is realistic, her characters–her white ones–much more than cardboard caricatures, and the story draws you in.

But I find myself cringing at her portrayal of plantation life and the “happy darkies” before the war and the paternalistic view expressed by some of the characters with their doubts about whether or not the slaves could be trusted to take care of themselves if they were freed. And while the speech of the white characters is realistic, the “patter” she gives to the African-American characters portrays them in many ways as less than children.

Interestingly, the further I get into the book, the more I find myself comparing her portrayal to that found in the movie Glory, the story of the United States’ first all-African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. That movie also deals with former slaves during the Civil War, but it treats them as real people, with the ability to become more than they had been allowed to under slavery.

The soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts are not perfect…far from it. But Col. Robert Gould Shaw expects them to become soldiers…believes they can…and they do. In one scene, he and his men are commanded to go on a foraging expedition with another regiment of former slave soldiers under the command of an officer who–even though a Yankee–treats them as Margaret Mitchell treats her African-American characters…as children who don’t have the potential of being any more than children and who need to be taken care of by superior whites.

While I enjoy the story of the “romance” between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, I am realizing just how deeply the paternalistic racism that Mitchell expressed has seeped into our society–and how the baggage from the Civil War still has not been dealt with.

Yet it must be. We have to be willing to take an honest look at ourselves and how we see “the other”, whatever our racial background., Until we are willing to have those difficult conversations, we will continue to be a divided country, still stuck in the 1860s in many ways.

I think we can do better than that.

To thine own self be true…

There has been a lot of discussion–sometimes civil, often heated–since the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage in the United States this week.

Much of that discussion has focused on religious reactions to the decision…and what happens if one’s religious beliefs are in violent opposition. There has also been a lot of discussion about whether the Supreme Court judges were making law…interpreting the Constitution…forcing businesses to do things they don’t want to…etc., etc., etc.

But I came across this article in the Huffington post today and I had an “aha” moment reading it.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about the issues that are raised in this article before. I’ve seen the impacts of them on members of my own family who felt for years that they had to live as someone they weren’t. And I’ve seen the relief and joy when they finally decided they could no longer live those lies and came out to family and friends.

I cannot imagine having to suppress “the real me” in order to be accepted. It has to be incredibly exhausting…and soul-killing.

If one cannot be true to themselves, what does that do to their relationships with other people? Constantly having to watch the words that one uses…if one has a same-sex partner/spouse but is not “out” to others, not being able to talk about special dates or being able to put pictures of the loved one on one’s desk or to share on Facebook or other social media…to be concerned about whether one’s job or home can be yanked out from underneath if the “real” person is shown…hearing about God’s love but “knowing” they are not worthy of it because of what they have heard at church for most of their lives…

It’s terrible.

Shakespeare’s quote (from Hamlet) that I used as the title of this blog is something many of us are familiar with, but the next line is also germane to this discussion. Polonius, the character saying this, goes ahead to say “And it must follow, as the night the day, // Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

I know there’s a long road still ahead of us, but I am grateful that we have at least begun the process of allowing people to be true to themselves.