We’re Better Than This…a Call for Civility

Applause is not usual following sermons at the church I serve, but I received applause two weeks ago when I preached a sermon entitled, “Go as One.” We read two passages, one from I Corinthians and one from Galatians. In the Message version of the Bible, Eugene Peterson writes, “You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another…In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female…” Those were the divisions in Paul’s day. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that if those words were put into today’s context, they would read, “There can be no division into conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, supporters of Clinton and supporters of Trump. You must learn to be considerate of one another.” Imagine a nation in which our DIFFERENCES do not DIVIDE us.

The word which describes the American landscape today is the word “polarized.” Polarization is a concept that comes from science. It involves light, radiation, or magnetism moving in different directions. Outside science, polarization refers to how people think, especially when two views emerge that drive people apart, kind of like two opposing magnets. We have allowed ourselves to be polarized. Our deep division has been made easier because of the loss of common media outlets and it has been exacerbated by social media. We make a sport of vilifying the other side. We know it’s not good for our nation. But the Bible says that this division is actually sinful.

How can we be engaged citizens, community-builders, when we are nothing but polarized? Polar opposites pull apart. Communities only work when they come together. If we focus only on our differences, those differences begin to seem more and more significant. Are there differences between the political parties, between the candidates? There absolutely are, and they’re critical in terms of the formation of policy, the appointment of judges, and setting the tone for our nation. But what we forget is that there is a vast middle ground where people can find commonality. It is in that place where dialogue and compromise and civility can take place. When we stand in the middle, eye to eye with one another, we recognize one another’s humanity. When we listen to one another’s stories, we develop empathy with those whose opinions differ. And I don’t know of anything our wounded nation needs more right now than an infusion of empathy.

Why did people clap when I preached about the possibility of unity? Because we are desperate for it, and we are desperate to know that those of us who seek common ground are not alone.

Sometimes we find allies in unusual places. As I was perusing the New York Times over breakfast one morning last week, I skimmed an interview with actress Tea Leoni, who plays the Secretary of State in CBS’ “Madam Secretary.” I’ve never watched the show, but this quote caught my attention: “I like the idea that without that polarization, without that commitment to one tribe or people or party, we can actually get things done quite beautifully and peacefully. Right now it’s beginning to feel like decent politics – and decent policy that has universal regard for individuals and other nations – is far-fetched. And it’s not.”

If you, like me, long for the chasm between us to narrow and the place of common ground to become wider and more visible, know this. You are not alone. My friend Allen Hilton has initiated a formal organization called the House United Movement, whose purpose is to bring together those people and those churches who are seeking to bridge the gaps. You can read more about its vision here:  http://www.houseunitedmovement.org/

I have friends and colleagues who say that this year the rules are different. The stakes are too high, the differences between the candidates too stark, the possible results too drastic. I completely understand that point of view. My argument is that one of the reasons we find ourselves in this particular place in time (Sunday night’s debate has been called “a deeply ugly moment in American politics”…and I concur) is because we have stopped listening to one another. People do not feel heard, whether those people are white working-class men who have lost their ability to find a good job, veterans who struggle to regain a foothold in society upon their return, police officers who feel misunderstood, or people of color who do not believe the American dream exists for them in many ways. Polarization has led us to this moment. Increased polarization will not lead us out of it into a better future.

It is possible to hold our own political beliefs strongly and yet still listen to one another and create space for dialogue that is respectful and civil. Even in this election year.

What Leadership Looks Like

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Nancy Lott Henry looks like a leader to me. She didn’t set out to be a leader. She may not think of herself that way, still. When she left the tiny village of Avon Lake, a town not yet a suburb – a town of grapevines and vacation cottages – she wanted to be a missionary nurse. “Maybe I’ll be back in two years,” she told her parents. She’d seen a UNICEF documentary about India, and that’s where she was headed, in 1960.

This summer, she came back to Avon Lake, now very much a suburb.   A few grapevines remain, decorating the entrances of subdivisions with names like “The Vineyards.” She returned to her home church, where she was honored and thanked for her 56 years of service in India…56 years and counting.

When she married an Indian doctor, she faced discrimination. She was no longer allowed to serve under the auspices of the denomination (male missionaries were allowed to marry “natives” and continue service but women were not.) When she became pregnant, people asked if her baby would be born with stripes.

A staff nurse in the United States, she found herself suddenly a nursing superintendent in India. She taught herself, learned from others, and was tireless in her efforts. She initiated a nursing school, developed a community health program and helped to found a community school for the children of the area. She never brags about herself, but sincerely and fondly thanks all of those who helped her along the way. When she visited earlier this month, she said to me, “Kelly, I never would have had such a rewarding life had I stayed in the United States.”

Last weekend, my husband and I saw the movie, “Sully.” As I watched Tom Hanks embody the character of Captain Sullenberger, I kept thinking, “He looks like a leader.” He demonstrated focused courage while making the unorthodox decision to land a plane in the Hudson River. He personally helped each passenger off the plane, checked it and rechecked it even as water was swelling the cabin. He was riddled with anxiety until he received word that each passenger was safe. And in a public hearing, he thanked his crew for their grace under pressure.

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As voters in the United States contemplate the qualities necessary for presidential leadership, I am grateful for these two examples of leadership. Though very different persons and stories, both Nancy Lott Henry and Captain Sullenberger display these character traits of leadership which I highly value: courage, self-sacrifice, and humility (which includes the capacity to acknowledge a mistake and ask for forgiveness.)

Wedding Bell Blues

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The wedding itself was picture-perfect:  the bride’s dress with its long train curved behind her as she was photographed by a window.  In another picture, the back of her gown cascaded down an elegant stairway.  Hair, nails, make-up:  all exquisite.  The minister’s message, the groomsmen’s posture, the bridesmaids’ bouquets – the wedding had been planned down to the detail and nothing went wrong.  Until the honeymoon.  After arriving in a tropical paradise, she began texting her bridesmaids, “You guys, I can’t believe the wedding’s over.  I can’t stop crying.”

Post-wedding depression.  It is now a real phenomenon.

Post-partum depression I understand.  I understand the physical, hormonal changes that happen with childbirth.  I know firsthand how a change in sleep cycles can affect body chemistry and mood.

But researchers say that many people now experience a letdown after a wedding.  Brides, grooms, even some parents who were so intensely focused on planning the wedding feel a void in their lives when the event is over.  “There’s nothing to look forward to anymore,” one person exclaims.  The calendar that once was full of appointments with caterers and other vendors now seems achingly empty.

As someone who has participated in hundreds of weddings, I can’t help but think that the phenomenon of “post-wedding depression” is the signal that we have reached a tipping point.  The “Wedding Industrial Complex” is a 70 billion dollar sector of the American economy.

Throughout history, in all cultures I know of, weddings have been important community events, celebrations for family and friends, times set apart for music, dancing, feasting…for joy.  Where is the joy if wedding planning creates extreme anxiety?
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(Photo I took this January in Israel – mosaic of the wedding at Cana)

One of the reasons I insist on premarital counseling when I officiate a wedding is because I want to be sure that the couple is thinking about the marriage and not just the wedding.  If the focus stays on the marriage, and on what kind of celebration will create joy for the guests, chances are it will be a more simple occasion.

But too much time on Pinterest leads to an almost competitive frenzy with no detail or added event becoming too much.  The vows, “in sickness and in health,” should not have to be enacted on the honeymoon as one spouse tries to cure the other of the post-wedding blues.

A Minnesota Sabbath

P1000839 Sometimes it’s very apparent what we’re feeling.  You’re separated from a loved one and you feel a sense of longing; your heart tells you what you’re feeling, and you know it’s true.  Or your body tells you you’re hungry when you haven’t eaten in a while.

But other times, our feelings aren’t so apparent.

I’ve had a good summer, with some wonderful experiences and some meaningful experiences.  I’ve traveled, I’ve laughed with good friends, I enjoyed the CAVS victory, I’ve soaked up the sun.  I’ve set aside Wednesdays for writing, reading and study.  I’ve worked hard, done some planning for the program year in church, and sat with families in moments of grief.

What I haven’t done much of is sit and listen to “the still small voice within.”  What I haven’t done much is pray.  I haven’t taken the time for reflection, for quiet.

I’m spending this week at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota at a workshop entitled, “A Spiritual Practice of Writing.”  Each morning we are given a series of what are called “writing prompts”, each of which are questions or open-ended sentences which launch us into ten minutes of non-stop writing.
 

Afternoons are free for us to engage in our own writing projects.  We’re also encouraged to do whatever else refreshes our spirits:  walk, kayak, watch a potter at work, read, nap, converse with one another.

The writing prompts open up more than my pen.  They open up my spirit and make me realize what I’ve been missing.  Sometimes you don’t know you’re thirsty until you’re given a pitcher of cool water, and the glass is placed right in front of you.  I wrote this in our session this morning:  “The water I most crave is the water that will nourish my inner well, and replenish it, and connect me to the source of it…and the source of all life and love.”  I’m so grateful to have realized how parched I’d become.

*I took this picture this afternoon on a hike around Lake Sagatagan.

Summer 2016: A Season of Scarcity

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This is a good time to remember Will Campbell, who died three years ago this summer. Probably best known for his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, which was a National Book Award finalist, here’s how the New York Times described Campbell when he died: “…he was a civil rights advocate who drank whiskey with Klansmen, a writer who layered fact and fiction, and a preacher without a church who presided at weddings, baptisms and funerals in homes, hospitals and graveyards for a flock of like-minded rebels that included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dick Gregory, Jules Feiffer and Studs Terkel.”

Will Campbell lived most of his adult life in Mt. Juliet, then a small town outside Nashville. I was privileged to be in his home a couple of times while I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Here’s why I’m evoking his memory now.

Though a civil rights advocate, Campbell also believed that, in his words, “Jesus died for all people, not just those on my side of an issue.” So he decided to befriend members of the Ku Klux Klan. He wanted to find out what made them think and behave the way they did.

He was the only white man invited to attend the founding of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Council in 1957. A few months later, he escorted nine black students through angry mobs at Central High School in Little Rock. He also was the one who visited a KKK leader the night before he was heading into prison. A heckler once yelled at him, “I hear you love the Klan!” Campbell replied, “No, I love Klansmen.”

He loved them, not what they did, not what they stood for. He loved them because he had empathy for them, he recognized a common humanity, and it was his way of imitating Jesus.

Might our nation be less bitterly divided right now if we had more people around like Will Campbell? Someone happy to share a meal with “Black Lives Matter” protesters and with police? Someone happy to share a drink with a Trump supporter and also a Clinton supporter? Someone who would listen to those on both sides of our contentious issues?

Part of our current culture of fear and xenophobia is fueled by a feeling of scarcity. People, some of whom are struggling economically and some of whom aren’t, worry that that there’s not enough to go around:   not enough good jobs, not enough money, not enough room in the middle class. So the thought pattern begins: “I have to hang on tight to what I have, I can’t share it, and I can’t let another group do well, because that means my group will suffer.”

The real scarcity is a scarcity of empathy, an inability for us to see life from another person’s point of view, an unwillingness to see that those we differ with politically have any wisdom or humanity whatsoever.

Morning Prayer

Holy God, from you we receive the gift of light:  the light of first creation – sunlight and starlight; the light that shines in the darkness, the light that guides us when we are lost, the light that warms us when we are afraid, the firelight of Pentecost that inspires the church with your Holy Spirit.  Remind us of the truth of your light, and its purity.  Keep us from following other lights.  The neon lights of materialism will not satisfy us in the end.  Nor the spotlights of fame and success.  It is only your light which is the pathway to a meaningful life; it is only your light which leads us towards our true home.  Amen.

 

(Photo of an ancient worship site in Sebastia, Samaria, Palestine – perhaps the burial site of John the Baptist)P1000267

Spring Days

IMG_0146After such a mild winter, we here on the coast of Lake Erie thought we were in for a warmer-than-usual spring.  After all, the lake didn’t freeze!  But April and May have been cool and rainy.

We’ve had some gloomy days, but when the sun does come out, we notice how deeply green the grass and the trees have become, nourished by all that rain.  The azaleas are full of color, and here come the irises.  The dogwood blossoms seem to be lasting longer than usual.  I was on a walk with a friend Thursday morning.  The sun was out and everything in the neighborhood seemed to sparkle and shimmer.

Despite some allergies, there’s nothing I like better than sleeping with the windows open, and on these spring mornings, awakening to the chorus of bird songs.  Soon enough my next door neighbors will crank up the dreaded air conditioning (they seem to run it all summer), and that is the noise I will endure from my back deck for the next few months.  But for now, I’ll enjoy the birds.

For now.  For now, I’ll take in the beauty of the azaleas and the dogwood and what’s left of the tulips.  Because spring goes quickly.  It all goes quickly, doesn’t it?

We had two graduations in our family this spring.  My youngest stepson graduated from college, and two weeks later, my oldest stepson graduated from law school.  Those years flew by, at least they did for us.

One day, while walking through the neighborhood, I noticed a house that had planted a dozen different colors of tulip bulbs.  I didn’t have a camera with me, but the yard was stunning – like a Monet painting – tulips in shades of purple and pink.  After I passed the house, I thought, “I should plant more tulip bulbs.”  And then I thought, “But that’s a lot of work and they don’t bloom for very long.”

My internal dialogue continued until I reached my house again.  I realized how grateful I was for every neighbor who has taken a little time to create a spot of beauty for me to notice on my walks.  None of it lasts forever.  But it all matters.  The world needs more beauty.

And the world needs those men and women who walked across the stage receiving diplomas.  Each of them has been nurtured by people who took the time to teach them, coach them, stay up late and help them with homework.  Some of them made it across the stage because of a parent who took a second job, a parent who put aside other dreams in order to accomplish this one for a child.  It’s a lot of work, but why else are we here but to produce growth for the future?

It all goes fast, and none of it lasts forever, but it’s joyful, meaningful work anyway – whether we’re raising tulips or children…