What is our future?

I grew up believing that our future was hopeful…that we were on the cusp of solving many of the problems our world faced. Elected officials might (and did!) disagree with each other on how to solve some of those problems, but they were willing to spend time in serious and honest discussion, trying to find ways to work together.

Now I’m not so sure.

  • I see an increase in saber-rattling.
  • I see distrust of science–and an almost fiendish delight in ignoring science to the point that we are in danger of destroying this planet that we live on.
  • I see an unwillingness to even engage in any kind of serious discussion–by any of us. We don’t seem to be willing to try to listen to each other, much less find ways in which we can work together to solve the significant problems that face us.
  • There is an increase in “I want mine and I don’t care what it does to anyone else or to the planet.”
  • White supremacy is on the rise, with its determination that all other races are “less than” and should be destroyed.
  • The rights of women to make decisions concerning their bodies and their health are being eroded by men who have no understanding of women’s health needs or how a woman’s body works.
  • Children–our precious future–are not being given the education they need and deserve to create a future of hope.
  • We denigrate and demean those who are members of faith traditions other than our own, unwilling to even try to understand their traditions while at the same time demanding that they conform to our own.
  • Families are often being torn apart through policies that are gratuitously cruel.
  • Members of minority groups (immigrants, LBGTQ+, people of color, disabled, single parents) are losing the protections that helped provide a positive future for them.
  • While we talk about extremism in other faith traditions, we seem unwilling to recognize it in our own.
  • We are destroying our environment. Multiple species are on the verge of extinction…and we don’t seem to care. CO2 levels are at an all-time high…and we laugh it off.
  • We are afraid of our diversity.

Is there still hope for us?

I think so…and these two quotes give me hope.

First, from Howard Zinn, a historian and playwright:

To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us energy to act. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

But perhaps more importantly, this one from Anne Frank:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

What’s our future? It’s up to us.

 

Practicing Christian…believing Christian?

I was recently at a retreat where our presenter, Jane Vennard, talked about the way she described herself in the forward to her book Fully Awake and Truly Alive. Her description intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about the meanings of the descriptions she used.

She describes herself as a “practicing Christian” rather than a “believing Christian.” A first response might well be, “Then how can she describe herself as a Christian?” But as I’ve thought about those words, the more sense they make…and are words that I want to claim as my own descriptors.

While others might have different reactions to the choice of words, here’s how they strike me.

Describing oneself as a “believing Christian” has been the default for many of us for many years–and is perhaps the simplest way of defining oneself. That means that there’s a specific list of beliefs that we agree with. It doesn’t necessarily require anything other than saying, “Yes, I believe that…I agree with that.” It allows me to sit comfortably in my pew (or chair) on Sunday morning, nodding my head in agreement, and then going back home until the next time the church doors are open.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to identify as a believing Christian…but I think it’s incomplete.

To be a “practicing Christian” is harder. It’s not that there is a specific list of beliefs that I have to agree with. Rather, my focus is on trying to emulate the example of the one we call the Christ…being with people…listening to them…bringing healing when possible…sharing good news…and all the other things that Jesus did when he walked on this earth. Beliefs may (or may not) grow out of these actions–but if I am working at being a practicing Christian, then my relationships with the people I meet will certainly have more in common with the kinds of ministry Jesus brought.

Ideally I can be both a practicing and a believing Christian…if my beliefs call me to actions that emulate the One whose name I claim. But if it comes down to a choice between them, I will choose to be a practicing Christian because I think that is much more in line with the challenge given to us in Matthew 25:31-46 (this is The Message version):

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then those “sheep” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, “Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.”

Then those “goats” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?”

He will answer them, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.”

Sounds of silence…

When I was in college, I loved a song by Simon and Garfunkle–“The Sounds of Silence.” In it, silence was presented in a negative way…as a cancer that grows…as something that separates people.

But silence can also be a profoundly powerful experience.

I just returned from a weekend contemplative retreat…an opportunity to use silence as a way of “going deeper” in a community that is taking a spiritual journey together.

We had opportunity to come together and share with each other verbally–but we also had significant time to choose not to have to speak. That didn’t mean we ignored each other…far from it! We discovered there are other ways of communicating, ways that often say more than our words do.

When we did talk, we discovered that taking time to intentionally consider our words meant that what we did say had the opportunity of being more meaningful.

But perhaps more importantly, we had the opportunity in the silence to listen for the voice of God…a voice too often drowned out in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

And we heard that voice in many ways…in the songs of the birds…in the gentle breeze…in the smiles and hugs we shared with each other…and yes, even in the words that came to our minds as we intentionally listened for them.

 

Words hurt…or heal

I’ve been thinking a lot about words recently…about words and the impact they can have on us.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the wars the United States has been involved in–or whose parents or grandparents told us about them–can remember the ugly names we used to describe our enemies.

Those words were designed to dehumanize those we were fighting…to keep us from seeing them as human beings like us…with families who loved them…who had similar dreams and hopes as we did. And it succeeded–far beyond the war(s). Many of those words were used to describe people from those countries well beyond the end of the “official” war.

The United States is not the only country that did this. Others did as well. The example that had one of the most horrific results was Nazi Germany–with its description of “the other” (handicapped, Jews, Roma) as “vermin,” “mongrels,” “subhuman.”

The sad thing is that we see much of that being repeated today. People fleeing violence and poverty are being described by the current administration as “criminals” and “rapists” who are “infesting” the United States. The truth is that less than 1% of those seeking asylum are people we might fear. The rest are families or individuals who are trying to find a safe place–and who want to build better lives for themselves and their families.

I’m reminded of a book I loved by Robert Heinlein–Methuselah’s Children. It was the story of a particularly long-lived group of families…people who lived long enough that they became resented by those who lived “normal” lifespans. At one point in the book, as the families are gathering to try to find a safe place, Lazarus Long (the patriarch of the family) is watching and reading the news–and shows how subtle use of language is separating them from everyone else and demonizing them…making them “less than” and also someone to fear.

Yet words also have the power to heal and to bring us together. We have to be intentional to do this…to use words that include “the other”…to call out those words that are intended to divide us and foment hate.

It’s our choice. It’s easy to join the mobs that call out for separation…for dehumanizing and fearing those who are different. It’s more difficult to stand for those who have been marginalized…to delight in diversity rather than fear it.

But one brings death…the other brings life.

Building bridges

bridge building

There’s a story my dad used to use in some of his sermons. It goes something like this:

A young man was on a hike when he came to a gorge. There seemed to be no way across and he was going to have to turn around to find another way. But then he heard noises and went to investigate. He found an old man, busy building a bridge across the gorge. He laughed and commented to the old man, “Old man, what are you doing that for? You’ll be too old to cross the bridge by the time you get it finished.” Without missing a beat, the old man said, “I’m not building it for myself. I’m building it for those who come after me.”

I’ve thought a lot about that recently.

There are so many chasms and gorges between us. We seem to delight in finding ways to separate ourselves from each other!

And I’ve been seeing my ministry as trying to build bridges.

Sometimes that’s felt like an impossible task. Sometimes I’ve wondered if there’s any use…or if those bridges will ever be used.

But then this story from my father came to mind…and it gives me strength to go back to the task.

Some may not choose to ever cross the bridge I build. Some may not even think that I’m trying to build bridges. Some may delight in trying to tear the bridges down.

But that doesn’t change my call to ministry.

It’s not easy to build bridges. Sometimes it means biting my tongue on things I would like to say. Often it means being misunderstood–by people on both sides of the divide.

But if none of us try to build bridges, then the divisions will only get bigger and bigger and more difficult to bring back together.

Not all the bridge building comes from my side of the divide. There are people on the other side also trying to bridge the gap. If we can find each other–and work towards each other–then there is still hope.

“[We] build too many walls and not enough bridges.” – Joseph Fort Newton

May we start understanding the importance of tearing down walls–and then using that material to start building bridges.

Shingles suck!

No, not the kind of shingles you put on your house. The kind that is a second version of chickenpox–and generally shows up as a band of blisters on your waist.

A couple of weeks ago I went to my doctor for my yearly wellness exam. I had had the original shingles shot several years ago, but she suggested I look at getting the new version, since they’ve apparently discovered that the earlier one tends to degrade over time. The new shot is difficult to find, so I was going to need to call pharmacies to see who might have it available.

That was on a Tuesday. By Sunday night I was in the emergency room with pain so severe I couldn’t find any kind of comfortable position. After an IV of pain medication and a CAT scan, I was eventually sent home with the probable diagnosis of a kidney stone. Yay!

I had a follow-up with my doctor the next Tuesday. As she was checking things out–and saying that the kidney stone diagnosis didn’t make sense with the symptoms I was having–she lifted my top…and found the rash. Shingles!

Okay, I knew there were challenges with shingles, but she was going to put me on an anti-viral and some pain meds…so I figured I’d still be able to take part in my denomination’s conference the next week. I had committed to playing the piano and organ for several events during the week, and my doctor had told me I’d be non-contagious by then.

Things didn’t work out that way. I was in enough pain that I eventually decided I needed to back out of my commitments and give time for replacements to be found. I didn’t want to–I haven’t missed being involved in a conference for 50+ years (earlier they were held every 2 years, currently every 3). But I didn’t want to wait until the last moment either.

I’m glad I did. I’ve spent the week of conference lounging on the sofa or in bed…napping…trying to distract myself with reading or coloring…and sharing in the conference through the webstreaming that has been available. There is no way that I would have been able to honor my commitments.

The rash is well on its way to clearing up. The sensitivity to touch is still pretty intense–and the pain is currently bearable…most of the time. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I won’t be in the small percentage that has post-shingles pain…and I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that this doesn’t trigger an exacerbation of my MS.

Asking for help is not easy for me–but I’ve been blessed by the folks who have stepped up to cover for me. And I’ve been blessed by those who have been supporting me in prayers and warm thoughts from a variety of backgrounds.

So yeah, shingles suck…but there have been blessings through it all as well.

Some thoughts on cohabitation…

I’ve been watching and reading discussions on cohabitation and how it relates to the possibility for individuals’ ministry and their relationship to the church (specifically my faith community, but I know it’s problems in others as well).

At one point in my life, the answer would have been easy. Cohabitation was wrong. Period. No exceptions…no extenuating circumstances…no other perspective.

But as I’ve grown—both chronologically and spiritually—I’m realizing that the answer is NOT easy. And so I find myself living in a gap between my emotional feelings that developed so many years ago and the challenge to try to see through new eyes.

I’ve wondered if our perspective on marriage needs to be re-evaluated to help us look at the challenges cohabitation raises. Yes, it’s been around for a long time—but for many years, marriage was more a passing of “property”…of the woman into the custody of her husband. Even in Christian countries, marriage was not particularly church-related. Again, it was often for the passing of property and the cementing of political alliances—not the commitment of two people who loved each other and who wanted to spend their lives together.

In fact, many times that commitment was simply expressed through a choice to begin living together…perhaps acknowledged by a hand-fasting or some other communal acknowledgment.

While I am in full support of marriage, that has been relatively easy for me. I am a heterosexual female, and so there was no question but that marriage was a probability for me (although I also now realize that was not necessarily a given).

But for many of my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, marriage has not been any kind of possibility/probability until fairly recently. While some have chosen to not commit in any way, others have found their own way of making commitments to each other—commitments that are as real as the commitment my husband and I made to each other. Should they not be honored as well? In many ways, we are asking an entire community to make changes in how they relate to the rest of us without our being willing to acknowledge our lack of commitment to them…and an awareness of how that has shaped their community.

There are also challenges for heterosexual couples as well. Because of the way some of our financial systems are set up, marriage for older individuals may mean losing financial security. There are many reasons why both older and younger individuals may choose to forgo marriage, and I would not presume to know them all.

I don’t necessarily agree with some of these choices. But I have known—and continue to know—many couples who are in longterm committed relationships whose commitment to each other is as strong (and sometimes stronger) as the commitments of my married friends.

So while I strongly support marriage, I also don’t think that a “one size fits all” model works either. When we try to force everyone into a single box, we risk missing out on possibilities of ministry—both given and received.

I believe we need to look seriously at how commitment is expressed. In many cases, that may be through marriage. But not always—and I think that to insist that marriage is the only expression of a committed relationship does harm…to the individuals involved, to the church, and to the community.