Thursday, August 19, 2010

Being Different About Indifference

We talked long into the humid summer evening about what was so different about Unitarianism. He reminded me that we have led the way on immigrant rights in opposing the new law in Arizona, which we now seem to be the leading denomination. “But” he reminded me “you have sterilized your faith of one the greatest difference makers of all time: Jesus” And then that minute he emailed me a poem by the Christian poet, Studdart Kennedy:

“When Jesus came they hung him on a tree

They drove nails through his hands and feet and made Calvary

They crowned him with a crown of thorns red his wounds and deep

For those who were crude and cruel days and human flesh was cheap

When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed him by

They never hurt a hair of him they only let him die

For men have grown more tender and they would not give him pain

They only passed down the street and left him in the rain

Still Jesus cried “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” and still it rained the winter rain and drenched him through and through

The crowds went home and left the streets without a fight to be

And Jesus crouched against the wall and cried for Calvary.”

When he continued he was quieter now, clearly feeling his way to the right words as a former Southern Baptist, “Jesus” he said “can still be a hero for all of us. He represents our collective struggles; sometimes tortured, but more often ignored. That’s what so many don’t get about Christianity. We focus so much on the exclusion, but all of us feel wounded, as Jesus reminds us, all of us suffer. And sometimes the worst suffering is to be ignored.”

The worst kind of indifference comes from ignoring the very existence of another. How many of us good meaning folks, he asked me, just go sleepwalking by the ones who are most vulnerable, perhaps even in our own communities?

I thought about my own dark moments of the soul. When my business and marriage were failing, I would have given anything to have someone notice the beast perched on my shoulders, but no one wanted to interfere. His point was well made: the first step to undo the indifference in our lives may be to recognize that the person next to you may be angry or surly for a reason. And then to ask “what is happening with you?”

Normalcy can be a mask of indifference. So often evil is done not by the people who are bad, but by people who do nothing. When the Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in the early days of the civil rights movement, the good white folks kept their distance, only the Unitarian minister, his president and another lay person walked down the dusty lane to pay their condolences. All they said was that they were sorry and then everyone, black and white cried. It didn’t change the bombing but it changed the world after the bombing. “All it takes for evil to flourish is for a few good people to do nothing” wrote Edmund Burke. Poor election results are only a symptom of what we need to see. That we have to care; we have to feel the Jesus in all of us. And we have to care with seeing that pain in those closest to us.

We can make a difference with our money and our time but most of all with how we notice the differences with those we know and love. The difference we make is so much more than you think; even the smallest moments of kindness can reverberate through the universe.

With grace and grit, John

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Tale of Two Forests

I just left the Maine coast where our family has a summer cabin.  The trip was elegantly restful.  The mornings were spent reading, writing and, after breakfast, repairing the old cabin.  We have become the quintessential American family much to our dismay; a family scattered on two coasts who dreams of coming together again someday.  The cabin in Maine, first envisioned by my mother, and built by our families over three decades, is as close to home as we have.  I call it my "soul's home" and I find I must repair to its simplicity every summer.

After lunch, we went hiking.  The Maine woods, especially coastal Maine, is a more sylvan experience than the crashing California surf line I call my current address.  The woods are old; built on thousands of years of vegetative waste atop solid granite, they unfold to the sea shore, all roots, and moss and streams.  To walk in them towards the coast, especially at high tide, is to meet an old friend.

Frances remained on the island to work and meet our daughter Emma and her friends for another week.  I stepped off the ferry onto a bus and then a plane for the trip west, shocked at how jarring the so-called 'real' world can be when you have been virtually disconnected from the web.  Indeed, the web, as Nicholas Carr in his new book The Shallows points out, throws a net over our minds, limiting our attention, and flattening our ability to do deep thinking.  Another argument for the spiritual practice of reading a real book for an hour a day.

Arriving in Oregon, I, son-in-law Aaron and grandkids went for a beautiful hike into the mountains to see the most amazing waterfall.  As we hiked along the rushing stream, I commented how different this forest was from the sylvan woods of Maine; more majestic, even dramatic, dry and towering, the water of the falls shouting out into the cathedral of trees.  Indeed, these are much younger and impetuous hills. Where the forest of downeast Maine was restful, the forests of the Oregon Cascades were thrilling.  Each has its place.

All of which helped me realize that grace meets us in different ways.  The throb of mediocrity, can, if we permit it, yield to new resolve.  The thrill of excitement can give way to a serious reflection on why more of our life isn't that way.  The weariness of body and soul can find rest in a simple walk in the woods. 

In a week I return to Southern California and the more pressing work of our congregational life.  I am deeply thankful for the forests and the space they have provided me.  Even more thankful for the nature of my vocation that helps me step back and see not only the trees but the very leaves that give them life.

With Grace and Grit,  John