We have lost our soul…

We have never been a perfect country…no country is. Nor have we ever been perfect people…none of us are.

But we have been a country with ideals that we tried to live up to–even imperfectly.

Those ideals have been enshrined in a number of documents.

From the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

From the United States Constitution (a living document, because as needs have arisen, it has been modified):

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

From the poem by Emma Lazarus, placed on the Statue of Liberty (called Liberty Enlightening the World–and which Lazarus called “Mother of Exiles”)  which was one of the first sights many of our ancestors saw as they came to this country:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

But that door has now been slammed shut…and we have barred and locked it.

We have lost sight of the ways in which our diversity has strengthened us…and become fearful of differences instead.

We have become the world of Animal Farm, where “all animals are equal…but some are more equal than others”…a world where “might makes right”…a world where “whiteness” gives power and control over those deemed non-white…a world where what passes for Christianity is far too often non-Christian in its actions.

And in so doing, we have lost our soul.

Can we gain it back? I hope so.

But we can’t sit quietly and just hope. We have to work…to write letters…to protest…and most importantly, to vote! We have to live out our words.

It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be controversial.

But it’s essential if we are going to regain our soul.

 

Dissent and criticism

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo is not un-American. In fact, one could make a case for the fact that they are very American values, since the United States was forged out of dissent and criticism. We were birthed in dissent and criticism of the status quo of being an English colony…and it was not an easy birth. Harsh words were thrown at those who did not agree with a particular viewpoint…and some were literally forced from their homes because they did not agree with actions that were being taken.

We tend to forget that. Our history in some ways has whitewashed the whole process, making it seem inevitable. But it wasn’t. And the founding fathers of the United States were not always nice or polite with each other. In fact, if you read some of the letters and newspapers, they were downright brutal!

And dissent and criticism of the status quo have been a significant part of who we are ever since. Opposition to slavery…those who fought for religious freedom…individuals who fought against the treatment of Native Americans…those who supported the rights of individuals to come to the United States to find freedom and new hope…pacifists…women who fought for the right to vote (and to control their own bodies)… The list could go on and on.

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo are woven into the very fabric of who we are.

And for those who claim to be inheritors and followers of the Judeo-Christian heritage, dissent and criticism are also part of that heritage. The Hebrew scriptures are full of sermons and challenges from prophets who challenged the status quo…who called both the leadership and individuals to be better than they were…to live up to what they said they believed.

Jesus himself challenged the status quo. We have often tended to forget just how radical his teachings and actions were. He challenged not only the leadership of Rome but also the religious (and political) leaders of his own people. He didn’t hold back either:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! (Matthew 23:23-24)

Scribes knew the law and could draw up legal documents. Pharisees were religious leaders (and were also legal experts). Jesus didn’t seem to have much use for their focusing on the letter of the law while ignoring the things that mattered more.

So when we accuse critics of the status quo as somehow being un-American or un-Christian, we’re just plain wrong. We need to hear those voices that challenge us to be our better selves…to live up to what we claim to believe.

We can disagree with how to get there–but we need to be reminded that at one point in our history, people in other countries saw the United States as a place of hope…a place of new beginnings. We took pride in what Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883–and what is mounted on the Statue of Liberty. Those who dissent and offer criticism of what we have become do so because they want us to live up to these words of hope:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

If I were one of “the tired, the poor…”

I hear a lot of statements to the effect that people who want to emigrate to the US should do it legally…that there is no excuse for illegal entry. In a perfect world, I agree. But unfortunately, our world is not perfect.

Compared to many in the world, I live a life of privilege. I have had the privilege of a good education and been able to work at jobs that pay decently. I have a home, clothing, enough for my family to eat (and to spare), access to medical care…and I do not spend my days worrying about my children or grandchildren being targeted by gangs as drug runners or sex slaves—or dying from malnutrition. I do not worry about my home being shot up or about bombs going off in my street. I can drive around my town safely without worrying about IEDs or car bombs or random shootings (mostly, anyway).

I cannot imagine living in a place where that is not true.

I honestly do not know what I would do if I lived in a place with the opposite of those conditions. If it were just me, that would be one thing. But if there were any other option that I could see for my children and grandchildren, I think I would take it—legal or otherwise.

And for many of the world’s people, there is not a legal option. Either because of lack of education, lack of money, lack of access to government offices—or the corruption of those offices… If all I had was my feet—and the hope that there must be a better world somewhere—I think I would gather up what I could and start walking.

Yes, I think our immigration system needs to be overhauled. Yes, I think we need to do what we can to help stabilize governments where many of these folks are coming from.

But at the same time, I would hope that we would have some empathy for those who are trying to find safety and a better future for their children and grandchildren—and I would hope that we would read again…and be willing to live out…the poem by Emma Lazarus that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:Statue of Liberty seen from the Circle Line ferry, Manhattan, New York

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I don’t know what to say…

But it feels like I have to say something!

I keep trying to find words to express my dismay…

  • at a president who calls the free press “the enemy of the people.”
  • at people who cheered when bombs were sent to people they disagreed with…and whose only regret was that they didn’t go off.
  • at the constant barrage of shootings that are met only with “thoughts and prayers” but with no actions to try to make them less likely.
  • at the hatred and fear directed towards families who are trying to escape the wars and violence that our government has helped create.
  • at the idea that quoting the words of Jesus at an event talking about religious liberty can be seen as an attack.
  • at an administration that is trying to legislate a whole class of people our of existence.
  • at the voter suppression tactics that are making it difficult for people of color to claim their right to have their voices heard.
  • at our unwillingness to talk with each other rather than at each other.
  • at the constant demonization of specific groups of people based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation.
  • at the barrage of lies that come on a daily basis from the White House…and the lack of moral leadership.
  • at my fears that we are well on the road towards the loss of our democracy, yet we are unwilling to recognize that.

There are probably many other things I could mention.

Yet at the same time, there are things that give me hope:

  • the willingness of the Muslim community to step up to financially support the families whose loved ones were shot while worshiping–and their willingness to stand in protection at the synagogue.
  • the standing room only vigil held in Kansas City last night with individuals from many backgrounds, communities, and faiths coming together in support.
  • the voices of those who refuse to be silent in the face of injustice and hate.
  • the courage of those who are willing to walk for miles to try to find safety and hope for their families.
  • the courage of first responders.

Words matter.

And the words we choose to hear and the words we choose to speak can either divide us or bring us together.

Which will it be?

To nurture the soul…

This weekend I attended a retreat. It was a wonderful retreat with the theme of “Hungering and Thirsting”…looking at those things that we hunger and thirst for. Why? and how can we feed that hunger and quench that thirst?

One of the questions that was asked in one of the sessions was “What nurtures your soul?” We were given five minutes to write down as many things as we could think of that nurtured our souls, and then we were given a few more to write another list of spiritual disciplines we practice regularly. Then the question was, “What do you see when you look at the lists?” For some of us, the lists were completely different. Some of us had one or two of the same things on both lists–and a very few found that their lists were very similar.

As we talked more, we began to realize that in reality, the things that nurture our souls can–and should be–the same thing as the spiritual disciplines we practice regularly. It’s not that there’s a huge difference between the two things–but the primary difference is doing them with intentionality.

That was an “aha!” moment for me.

As I had worked on my list, I realized that I had not put down any of the things that you might expect to see from a minister/preacher’s kid…i.e., going to church. But because I am involved in providing ministry on a regular basis, much of what I do in preparation (i.e., studying, practicing hymns and service music, writing) is something that also nurtures my soul…and can easily be a spiritual discipline.

But I also realized that the very first thing I had written on my first list was also something that easily gets shoved aside when other “important” responsibilities demand my time and attention. What was it? Writing poetry.

That is often how I make sense of what is happening in my life, in the lives of people around me, in my world. When I let it get shoved aside, I realize I am tamping down something that is at my core…a gift I have been given…a talent I need to honor.

We also talked about how easy it is to spend time on those things that nurture the soul when we draw apart for intentional focused time. But then Monday morning comes…what then?

We were challenged before we left to let this Monday morning be different…to focus on one spiritual discipline that nurtures our souls and to spend time doing it just this week–and at the end of the week, to evaluate what happened. How do we feel? What changed in us?

Monday morning is tomorrow. I have another busy week ahead of me…but I realize that feeding my soul is as important as feeding my body. So…

I’m going to find/make time to do some writing every day this week. I’ll share with you the end of this week how it went…what changed…and how my soul was nurtured. How about you? Want to join me?

 

Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
                                          –Emily Dickinson

The first line of this poem by Emily Dickinson kept running around in my mind the last couple of days. I guess because we had had some e-mail exchanges with a family we’ve been involved with for a number of years.

They’ve been through some rough times. Some of them have been of their own making, but others have been situations they have had no control over. It has seemed recently as though about every time things were beginning to look up, something would go wrong–or the situation would not work out as they hoped it would.

Most recently, the husband has been out of work over a year…had a stroke (which he came through without any longterm damage)…and thought he had a good opportunity to receive paid training–with a job offer–as an over-the-road truck driver. He has gotten all the way through to getting his permit–but the company decided they didn’t need so many in the class…and so he’s left in the lurch again, just needing his practice driving time to get his license, but without a way of having that happen.

We had received an e-mail from the wife indicating that they were out of hope.

We went to visit them Saturday–and found them in better spirits–with more hope–than the e-mail had indicated. But that triggered thoughts of the Emily Dickinson poem…and I got to thinking of how sad it must be to truly have no hope.

I’ve never been there. I’ve been–especially in the last couple of years–through some very difficult storms (mostly work-related)…and at times have wondered what the future was holding…where I was going to end up…and, even, sometimes if there was a place for me in my church. And yet, even in those times, the little bird of hope kept singing. Sometimes I wondered why. Why did I still have even just a smidgen of hope when everything logical said to just give up?

But it was there. Something singing…singing a tune without words…something that never stopped, that allowed me to see each new day as a new possibility.

I think that hope sometimes is a gift–a gift from God…perhaps a reminder that God continues to walk with me even through the darkest valleys.