Thursday, March 26, 2015

compassion, non violence, "just wars", ISIS (light reading for a Saturday)

The above was the subject line of an email I received last Saturday from a church member who has been engaging deeply in our Lenten series on “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.” Each week, we’ve been exploring the steps laid out in theologian and historian Karen Armstrong’s book by the same title. Karen, who has many brilliant books exploring the relationship between religion, culture, and history, was given a TED award which basically gave her the ability to make a wish that the TED organization could help come true. Her wish was to create a Charter of Compassion that would be shared globally and inspire people to live compassionate lives. This book is the result of the TED award and her own research into this  vital need facing our world today; the need to become more compassionate as individuals and as a global community.

And it’s not easy. We have been so conditioned to be cynical, judgmental, and rigid that our default is to get our back up, to not trust, to assume negative meanings for other people’s lives, even if we know nothing about them. Armstrong says in her book  that these steps are meant to be worked exactly like a 12 step recovery; you don’t move on to the next step until you’ve completed, to the best of your ability, the step you’re currently on. A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the trifecta of steps 7-9, which are How Little We Know, How Should We Speak to One Another, and  Concern for Everybody. These are hard steps to take even on a local scale. We are so quick to condemn others who are different from us in our neighborhood.  Heck, in my own life, less than a week after preaching about those three, I found myself completely violating  step 8 by insisting that I knew the right response for a friend of mine to make in a matter that had absolutely nothing to do with me. Only in retrospect did I realize I had missed an opportunity to “lose” an argument rather than be right.

Still, there are those who go before us to model for us a way of inclusion and acceptance for those who are different from ourselves and who model ways to treat one another.
Take this example from when NFL Draft Michael Sam came out as gay. Commentator Dale Hansen says it beautifully when he says, "I don’t understand his world; but I do understand that he is a part of mine."


Or this one, handled equally well by the amazing Dale Hansen on the subject of racist actions in high school.


 Or this beautiful  and courageous act of coming out of this young trans boy, following the suicide of a 17 year old trans woman who wasn’t accepted by those close to her.

These model a way of compassion that completely aligns with Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion and definitely fills in the blanks of these difficult to maneuver steps.
But, my friend who emailed me, and takes this seriously, wanted to go ever deeper. Here’s what he wrote: I’ve been working hard on the 12 steps to compassion. I’m struggling with the whole violence/non violence/ “just war” thing.  I’m looking at a group like ISIS.  They seem to have an ideology that is in part quite violent. Part of me thinks, okay, if we are really trying to be compassionate than we should try to find out what is bothering them and why they are doing what they are doing.  The other part of me sees that it might not matter.  If ISIS is causing lots of suffering, shouldn’t someone try to stop them in some way and it might mean violently?  On the other hand, doesn’t that just breed more violence?  Should we let them self destruct even if that means that they will kill many more?  It makes me wonder about Nazi Germany.  Many people say World War 2 was the “last just war”  Hitler certainly killed many people and creating immeasurable suffering.  Should he have been stopped? It’s like with civil rights. We say, let’s take a stand.  Is there a point when it becomes too late  for non violent stand?  Is some violence okay in short term if you are working on longer term non -violent solutions? 
These are important questions, and questions we must address if we are to  move beyond the “kumbayah” stage of pseudo-compassion and onto the hard and rocky path of real life/real compassion. Pseudo-compassion is a lazy, shallow way of looking at the world that simply says, “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re okay together!” When in reality we are not all always okay. There are actions that can’t be tolerated, there are violations of human worth and dignity that cannot be swept under the rug of indifference or vacuumed up into the black hole of pluralistic relativism. Sometimes people—who were born with inherent worth and dignity and have that as their core—do vile and unspeakable things to others that violate that same worth and dignity in their victims.
What Karen Armstrong says about this in step 8 is that “there are of course times when we are required to be assertive. Even when we have gone through this process and understood the context in which a terrorist conceived his idea, we cannot, if we take the Golden Rule as our criterion, condone the course of action he has chosen. We have, however, broadened our horizons by developing an informed understanding of the possible frustration, humiliation, and despair of his situation and can now empathize with the plight of many of his innocent compatriots and coreligionists, who may feel something similar but have not resorted to criminal vengeance.”
In other words, the Golden Rule calls us to seek to understand, not to condone, and certainly not to stand idly by while violence is wrought by one group on another. I remember well the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11/2001; the heroic crash of United Flight 93 in a field in Pennsylvania and the major sea change that brought to our sense of safety and security as Americans. The overwhelming response to that was  a record number of flags, flag bumper stickers and other jingoistic emblems sold and an impulse to go to war. Very few people took the time to reflect on what might make young Middle Eastern men resort to such an atrocious act of terrorism. When ministers dared to preach on that topic, they were often castigated by their own congregations. Admittedly, many spoke too soon about our own culpability in those acts of terrorism without giving adequate time for the grief and the shock to wash over our collective consciousness and recede enough to allow time for reflection, but even to this day, many want to paint with broad brush strokes the colors of intolerance over a people and religion, to paint “them” the enemy rather than looking at how US foreign policy and involvement in other countries might have contributed to a sense of despair and helplessness for these young men, opening up the door for radical fundamentalists—who act less in the name of Allah than in the name of power—to corrupt their thinking so that we Americans were the enemy- Satan incarnate—and the way to strike back was in great violence. Do you see how we have painted them in the same colors they painted us?
The Golden Rule requires us to put away our paint by numbers and instead to begin to explore the contours of a people and culture and religion in real time, in real life, much like someone who is visually impaired might “see” another through gently exploring the face of the other with fingers; that up close and personal.
However, Armstrong goes on to remind us, “we must still dissociate ourselves from his atrocity. Nor should the ‘principle of charity' make us passive and supine in the face of injustice, cruelty, and discrimination. As we develop our compassionate mind, we should feel an increasing sense of responsibility for the suffering of others and resolve to do everything we can to free them from their pain.”
She goes on to say that when we speak out in defense of our values that we must make sure we understand the context fully and “do not dismiss the values of our opponents as barbaric simply because they seem alien to us. We may find that we have the same values but express them in a radically different way.”
So for me, this means homework because, I confess, the actions of ISIS in brutally killing people and destroying ancient artifacts just seems cray-cray to me. I am tempted to shudder in revulsion and disgust and paint them with those well worn colors we’ve been discussing. I will never condone their actions or invite them to join hands as we sing Kumbayah, but if I’m to seek to understand their actions I must admit that I don’t know anything about them. I must seek to learn more of their history, of the socio-economic, historical, cultural biases that led them to believe this type of behavior is right. I must put away my own paint by number set and seek to feel the contours of their faces, their lives, their struggle. I must admit I don't understand their world, but I do understand that they are a part of mine.
Then, and only then, will I be able to have an informed opinion as to how we deal with them. And even if we must meet violence with violence, at least that can be done knowing we are going to war with humans just like us, shaped by their culture and history,  just as we have done, trying to find their voice in the only way they know how. When we can at least stretch so far as to be reminded of the fact that we are all equally monsters and angels, depending on the perspective, then perhaps we can take greater care in how we treat one another and work for a world in which all would feel seen and heard and in so doing, dare to see and hear the “other,” too. If we can do it, so can ISIS, so can people in our own nation from every political/ideological point of view. We have those, such as Dale Hansen and Tom Sosnik and Michael Sam to show us how to begin, with baby steps. And as we all can testify, once a baby starts to walk, it takes no time at all to learn  how to run. Let's run. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Pi of Love

Today I officiated at a wedding at the Blue Skies Inn Bed and Breakfast. I’ve done several weddings there; it’s a beautiful place and the innkeepers, Sally Thurston and Mike
Dutcher are wonderful people and great community allies. But this one was to be a little different. The couple had chosen today specifically because it was Pi Day. Pi Day is celebrated every March 14 to lift up the mathematical symbol. Pi  is  used to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159. But that’s just the starting point. It has been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point. Today’s date, beyond the normal celebration of 3.14 is even more special; it’s the centennial Pi date that won’t happen again for another hundred years. Today,  you can live in the pi  moment up to  3.141592653 if you are paying attention. It’s too late for this morning but here in Colorado, there is still an opportunity to pause and savor the once a century moment of 3/14/15 9:26:53 PM.  Even those who are mathematically challenged (i.e. me) have a love affair with Pi; It is so symbolic of life and love.
As an irrational and transcendental number, it will continue infinitely without repetition or pattern. And isn’t that how love circumscribes our lives? We can point to a beginning, but from there on out, it is a mystery that goes on and on, as long as we seek out the next computation of how love informs the diameters—the borders of our lives. Just as in love, the full value of pi can never be known.  So often we try to approach love rationally, insisting that if we just take the decimal out far enough we can make sense of it all, find a rational reason to fall in love, understand the contours of a broken heart  divided into integers of logic, use a tried and true proof or theorem to determine in advance the correct way to proceed in love, with a sure-fire, front-ended guarantee that if you just do this and this, this will be always be true.
But that isn’t how the pi of love works.. It’s irrational, remember? And constantly changing, never repeating itself—not even once! not even after a trillion different variables have been added into the equation. There is no end to how long the pi of love will encircle us, where it will take us, if we only don’t give up on the equation, if we only try not to lose the thread of digits in the cluttered maze of our everyday lives, in the darkened corners of our unexamined hearts.
It’s an equation that I have yet to master. I confess: most of the time, at this point in my life, I feel too faint-hearted to try. It’s terrifying to think of what might happen if I dared to think I could attempt to get past the celebratory date of pi and into the actual seeking it out and letting its transcendental mystery seek to measure the circumference of my heart.
Every time I officiate at a wedding, I look with awe at the couple tying the knot-- young, old, first marriage, second or third, gay, straight, lesbian—and I think how do you know? What gives you the audacity to say “I do” and mean it forever, for infinity?
Photo Credit: Sally Thurston

And I thought the same things looking at this charming couple today, so young and full of love, and full of hope. “As you stand here, today,” I told them, “3.1415-- this is your starting point, too, this creation of a circle of love whose circumference will go on and on, a mystery, irrational, but never repetitious, never dull. May you always find joy in the mystery, meaning in the irrational, and may you be centered in the transcendental nature of this love, this never-ending calculation that will take the fullness of your lives to explore, understanding that even then, your love will never be fully known.”
Before they exchanged their rings, I held them up high, saying, as I almost always do at this point, “The ring is an outward and visible expression of an inward and invisible bond.” But today I also added,  “The circle is such a simple shape, but the pi of it is complex and never-ending. May these simple circles, these rings be a symbol of the complex and never-ending nature of your marriage.”
It was a wonderful ceremony and I found myself, as I often do, verklempt at the irrational nature of love, the infinite amount of ways we can find love and meaning in our lives, the possibilities that await us if we can just keep our heart open to the pi of love and life.
In a 1967 episode of Star Trek, Kirk asks Spock if there are any mathematical problems that just can’t be solved. “Compute to the last digit the value of pi,” Spock replies.
Single or partnered, wherever we find ourselves on this historic pi day, may this be our life long adventure; the impossible task of finding the end of love, daily seeking ways to deepen and enrich our lives with all the many ways love shows up, through all of its irrationality, and may we meet the newness of each experience with gratitude for the mystery which resides in the circle of love.
Of course, I ended the day with my own celebration: Apple pie--- that’s always a sure winner!
Photo Credit: Cate Terwilliger

Thursday, March 12, 2015

I have my sweet little pencil and my cunning little pad, and I’ll just write my little curly head off. Here I go now. – Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker with her found pencil
A church member sent me a link to this essay by Dorothy Parker that was published in the September 16, 1924 edition of Life magazine; I know exactly how she feels. After my burst of creativity last month (well, the subject was sex—who doesn’t love to talk about that?) I have been lying stagnant, metaphorically blaming my lack of words on the loss of a pencil, but here the laptop sits, bold as brass in front of me, the cursor blinking accusingly on this empty open document so now I, too, must ask myself, what the hell am I going to write about?
It’s not for lack of interesting issues--- there is the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, and those who were martyred then and those who were lives were changed as a result of participating in that historic event; there’s the correlation to today, with the Department of Justice report finding the police and city officials of Ferguson, MO guilty of a pattern of systemic racist practices in their conduct toward people of color, even while exonerating the white officer, Darren White who shot and killed Mike Brown, an unarmed 18 year old Black man; there’s the irony of the State Supreme Court of Alabama ruling that forbids local jurisdictions to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, ignoring the federal, constitutionally upheld mandate for that state to do so; there’s the sad news that on the eve of the historic commemoration of Selma, the day before our President, Barack Obama, was to speak to the enduring legacy of Selma, that another unarmed black man, 19 year old Tony Robbins, was shot and killed by white police officer Matt Kenny. We don’t know the details of what happened or why; hopefully the truth—such as it is nowadays, as slippery as an eel and twice as squirmy—will be discovered, but until then what is shocking to me is the number of racist websites that completely trammel over this young man’s death by pointing to his arrest record and calling the story the false narrative. This is so familiar to how female rape victims are treated that it sickens me.
Which reminds me that March is National Women’s History Month and that this past Sunday was the International Women’s Day, this year’s theme being Make it Happen, a heartily optimistic cry in the face of so much legislature on both a state and national level which seeks to strip away women’s rights to have control over their own health care decisions, and in the face of the World Heath Organization statistics that proclaim that  “violence against women - particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence against women - are major public health problems and violations of women's human rights.”
And I won’t even mention the recent house bill 1025 that passed in the Oklahoma House of Representatives that would end secular marriage and restrict marriage to people of faith and mandate that all marriage licenses must be approved by a member of the clergy. I know: clearly they didn’t think that one through. Still.
Let me just say: it was much more fun writing about sex. As I think of all the things happening in our world I can empathize with Dorothy’s amazing ability to sidetrack herself with trivial thoughts and fruitless desires. And I’m also really glad that during this Lenten season, we at All Souls are learning about how to be more compassionate, following the rubric in Karen Armstrong’s book, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.” It’s been good for me to remember that, though cynicism or despair might be our default responses to the events and issues of our day, though it can be easy to reduce the news to caricatures of the players, rather than seeing the humanity of all involved—the shooters and the shot, the fearful legislators and the people impacted by their fear-based laws, the women who have been abused and the men (and sometimes women) who abuse them—there is another choice; the choice to respond with compassion, a choice to dig deep into the messy, chaotic, sometimes brutish experience of being human and to seek love, not hate; kindness, not cruelty; justice, not judgment.
In the seventh step of learning compassion, Armstrong invites us to acknowledge how little we know of others—their culture, faiths, politics, love—and to seek to broaden our perspective to make room for the other. I have to tell you, this can be hard for me. I want to lampoon the Oklahoma lawmakers, scoff at explanations given by white police officers who shoot unarmed black men; I want to deny them the same humanity that I lift up in their victims. Yet compassion is a two way street—really it’s more of a cloverleaf interchange, with people getting on and off the freeway and going in all sorts of directions. Compassion is a country dance, one in which our partners change according to the pattern of the song and we can’t choose with whom we will dance next, we simply must try to dance  graciously with each partner the song puts before us, changing our steps to match theirs, inviting them to try ours.
What the hell should I write about? Compassion. Kindness. Love. There’s never enough said about those. Here I go now.