A Softer Landing

As we hear of one more shooting rampage, this time in a small town in California, I wonder if we are becoming distracted. Following each of the almost weekly massacres we have been witnessing, there follows an immediate polarization. In all of our shouting who is left to love the people who have been damaged by this violence, including those for whom this will stir up symptoms of post-traumatic stress?

It appears we as a society lack the collective will to prevent gun violence. We won’t take away guns, more closely regulate guns, or even commit funds to the research and treatment of mental illness. While a proactive approach is certainly the most effective, I can’t see any sign of one coming in the near future.

So, we could choose to become jaded. We could say that it is impossible to accomplish anything so why even try. I have a very hard time listening to accounts of the victims or watching anything on TV that I will not be able to unsee. When I heard about the California shooting I had to force myself to read the details. How many times can you rip off the scab of heartbreak and horror before it seems like you will never heal?

The truth is that I don’t have to be in California or Las Vegas or fill in the blank to encounter someone who has been a victim of gun violence. There are plenty in the Mahoning Valley.  I don’t know their names. I may see them and not even know what they have been through, what they have lost. And yet I am here, and it is here I have the best hope of doing some good.

So in small ways I hope we as a church and as Christians are making the world a softer landing. By providing food and meals, coffee and a chat, respect and dignity, beautiful worship, and other things small and mighty, I hope we are saying that in a country that can’t decide what it values, as a church we are clear we value people. Our neighbors. Justice.

If you have any ideas about how to do that better and boldly, let’s chat.

Unity

I want to talk about unity.

Last Thursday our church hosted a crowd of about 350 people to hear Dr. Carol Anderson discuss her book on institutional racism, “White Rage.” I thought it was extraordinary for so many reasons. The crowd was incredibly diverse. There was deep respect for the stories and experiences that were shared. In the end, people listened to one another, and for a moment, we all seemed to be on the same side—the side of justice and equality and dignity for every human being.

I left that evening exhausted but hopeful. Dr. Anderson’s encyclopedic knowledge of history, and especially the history of the oppression of black people, was daunting. Sometimes I just wanted to change the subject, to talk about goofy, vacuous, easy things. But Dr. Anderson is not to be deterred, in the best possible way. And I was educated. And it was a blessing.

When there was a fact or historical moment that was obscure but particularly poignant or harsh, there were audible gasps in the crowd. It was impossible to be there and not be moved by the pain and suffering she related, the gross unfairness and mean-spirited choices meant specifically to keep black people from being successful. We looked into each other’s eyes and acknowledged the truth. Again, it was a unifying moment.

And then the shooting in Texas came on Sunday, and we seemed shattered all over again. We heard people yelling about guns, pro and con, waving mental illness around like a pendant, blaming, horrified, wanting action. And so far, nothing has happened to address the root causes of this violence. Frankly I would be happy with anything at this point.  If we can’t get rid of the guns, fine, let’s throw some money at research and treatment for mental illness.  Anything!

And as I have witnessed people I agree with spiraling toward the harshness of rhetoric I expect from people I do not agree with, I understand that we have to start with ourselves. We have to ask what we are going to do to end the violence that claims the lives of 5 year olds who went to church Sunday morning. The stakes are so high. We have to honor that. So what do we do?

First we admit to the violence in ourselves, our tendencies toward anger and desire for revenge. We admit that we care more about power than we want to say. We want it, and the security that comes with it. And occasionally at least, in the interest of that power, we ourselves are violent, or manipulative, or uncaring or unjust.

Then we listen. We listen to the anti-gun lobby. We listen to gun owners. We listen to the people who have lost loved ones to violence. We look into their eyes. We see their humanity. We love them as they are. We build community with the person most unlike ourselves, lovingly and intentionally, at a personal sacrifice. We understand that for the good we seek, we are going to have to give up something. If it were easy, it would have happened already. And it is in looking into the eyes of our sisters and brothers that we have the courage and conviction to be a living sacrifice.

Conversation leading to conversion is something we are all capable of doing. Where you will begin, I don’t know. How you will compromise, I don’t know. That we all have to have equal investment and sacrifice, I am certain of that. So, where will you begin?

Dear Candidates for Youngstown Mayor

First of all, thank you for running for Mayor. Offering yourself to public service is an admirable and sometimes thankless task. People will be expecting you to have answers to hard questions, to be without reproach in your personal life, to listen to all concerns with respect and compassion, and to be a positive force in this city. That is hard, holy work, maybe impossible. So thank you for being willing to try.

We are coming to the end of this election cycle and I am concerned. There is a great deal of dissension, people taking sides and harsh talk. We are mirroring some of what is happening in our nation. And that can only lead to disaster.

So in the coming weeks I will be watching for a candidate who listens. I don’t expect you to have all the answers. I do expect that you will hear my concerns, that you will take me (and by me I mean the residents of this city) seriously. It is stunning, isn’t it, how diverse we are in Youngstown? There are Baptists and Buddhists, old and young. We are a multiracial community. There are people with tremendous resources and people with almost nothing. I am looking for the candidate that listens to all of these people, because they are all my neighbors.

It will be the work of the next Mayor, as it always is, to make sure all of us neighbors are treated equally, that justice is available to all of us. It will be the work of the next Mayor to continue the incredible gains in economy and activity and spirit that we have witnessed in recent years. And it will be the job of the next Mayor to make sure that all of the people in this city have access to those gains. We are a city of promise, but also extreme poverty. You will need to attend to both of these things to really make a difference.

I admit I am still undecided in my vote, though I will make a choice when the time comes. And I realize that I might lose, that my candidate might not be victorious. And so I pledge to the one of you who wins, that I will shake off my potential disappointment and support you. Because we live in a democracy, that is how we act when an election is finished. We do our best to be informed and passionate, and then we accept the outcome and work to make this city as good as it can possibly be. I will offer you my support, understanding that we will not always agree, but we have to get along and get things done.

And I ask you, whoever wins this election to do the same. Because this is not the last vote I will cast. I will be watching. Not to see if you do what I want, supporting my issues. I will be watching for a gracious winner. I will be watching for a Mayor who lets go of the election rhetoric and partisanship, and becomes a leader for all people. I will be watching to see if you can build a community that cares for each other, treats people with respect and gets things done for everyone.

This is a tall order, and civility is no longer the norm in politics. So lead us. Be the example we need. Bring us together. If you do, I will stand by you, work with you, and I will say thank you (because I don’t think you will hear that enough). Again, thank you for being willing to take on these challenges, and good luck to all the candidates.

300 Miles to Compassion

After doing some travelling the past few days I have determined that I cannot wait for a penitential season to address a personal and pressing problem. I am not proud of this personal weakness. But I am savvy enough to recognize that I don’t like it.

And, I bet you agree that sometimes other drivers can be very irritating. VERY irritating. So, the other day, I am crawling my way down the highway in the midst of road construction. There is a whole open lane blocked off for no apparent reason. And this car starts weaving into the closed part, speeding ahead until they come to a barrier, weaving back in to my lane. Going a few feet to the other side of the barrier, and repeating the same thing.

Wow.

I was immediately enraged. So does it count as being enraged if no one else sees it? Like a tree falling in the forest? I was not only yelling at the transgressor, but also the people who were letting the car back in. I thought s/he might not be so bold if they had to cool their jets for a while, like maybe 20 or 30 minutes, before someone let them back into traffic. We were all in a hurry for heaven’s sake!

It took about 300 miles for me to start thinking with some compassion. What if they were sick, or trying to get to the hospital, or had to go to the bathroom, or were in pain, or…whatever?? A few months back, in a previous attempt to conquer this “road irrationality” (it seems extreme to call it rage), I started calling the drivers who I thought were not being safe with names of affection like “dearie” or “sister” or “friend”. Not in a pejorative way, but in an act of solidarity. Because sometimes I am a bad driver too.  That helped. But I think I have to up my game.

“Giving up” my road irrationality will take time. But it seems that if I have promised to find the good in people, that drivers should count too. I am not a perfect driver, and so I have to make space to love other imperfect drivers. Maybe I will start with tolerating them…with affection.

Giving From Our Substance

I learned how to cook at the Catholic Worker House in Rock Island, IL. We ran a small homeless shelter in that house, women and families, usually about 10-15 people. And we ate whatever was donated to us. Just to be clear, that means we didn’t buy any food. I had to work with what we had.

When we moved in, I was the one who was going to do most of the cooking. And I was told there was a pantry, and we would plant a garden, and people dropped off things like meat, occasionally. So with great anticipation I went down to said pantry. Most of the shelves held precisely two items: cranberry sauce and canned sweet potatoes. Shelves and shelves of cranberry sauce and canned sweet potatoes.

So if you get nothing else out of this brief reflection, please let it be not to donate those things to homeless shelters, and in fact, not to give your garbage. If that can of lychees has been in the back of your kitchen cabinet since you moved it there from your old house, please eat it. Don’t give it to “the poor” because “they will be grateful for anything if they are hungry.” It simply isn’t true.

Let me say that now, I love cranberries, and I make my own cranberry sauce when they are around in the fall. Then, I wasn’t so thrilled. Because my plan was one can per week would be incorporated into a meal.  Maybe two.

It turns out you can do a lot with sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. You can make sweet potato pie, sweet potato cakes, sweet potato hash, sweet potato soup. I even have a great recipe for sweet potato salad that I made up over the years. But cranberry sauce is a little harder. I would often throw it in soup. Like vinegar or lemon juice. You can mix it with mustard for a great sauce for chicken. You can fold it into rice and bread crumbs and sage to stuff pork. You can make punch. Little by little I whittled the supply down to almost nothing. Until Thanksgiving time, when I would get hundreds of cans again. I learned to say no.

We are approaching a season of generous giving. My hope is that we are all giving from our abundance, giving from our substance—not our leftovers. If it isn’t good enough for me, I don’t give it to someone else. I reduce or reuse or recycle. Sometimes I throw away. But I make sure the gifts I offer are truly gifts. If I wouldn’t give it to Jesus, well, that is my litmus test.

A Recipe for the Weekend: Apple Snicker Salad

My grandmother used to make prune jello. Yes, I said prune jello. And she was proud of it, presented it to us only on special occasions as an offering of the highest order, of the greatest affection. Of course, we all hated it. And we all had some. Never more than one helping, of course, but never a complete rejection.

Because my Grandma also used to give us bread sopping with hot gravy when we came for lunch after church. She would pick all the raspberries on her bush and tell me to eat them, or fresh green beans from her garden. She would make shrimp salad with those cans of tiny shrimp because she thought that was my favorite when I would visit during the week. She was a depression-era grandma who showed her love in providing, especially food.

And I have learned that from her, and my other grandma and my parents. Preparing food is always done with love and intention, always an offering of myself. And when I am surrounded by people I love, family and friends, and we bite into a roast chicken or a plate of brownies, they know I made the food especially for them.

So I offer a simple recipe, something that my family and friends love. It was first made for me when my son had open heart surgery when he was 9. I had been with him in the hospital for a solid week and I went home to see my other kids, and a friend had us for supper and support. She made this salad, and I will always remember that it made me feel like everything was going to be OK. (And it was). I think of that moment whenever we share it.  And I offer it to you to make your own lovely memories.

Apple Snicker Salad

6-8 sweet apples, cored and chopped ( I sprinkle them with a little lemon juice)

1 bag of snickers candy bars, chopped

1 container of whipped topping

Combine and refrigerate. Very yummy!

Working to Be a Sign of Peace

I was walking down the hall at Williamson Elementary the other afternoon, and as I passed the library I saw the counselor teaching a class of older students. I heard her talking about saying please, thank you and I’m sorry, and asking the students to identify which they would say in various scenarios. It seemed very basic stuff to me, and I thought how sad it was that we have to teach manners in school.

It would be easy to say that inner city parents don’t teach their kids manners, and blame some amorphous villain. But that simply isn’t true. It doesn’t matter what school you go in, you are going to find children who have been taught kindness and respect and those who have not.

The most powerful way to teach civil behavior is to model it. There are many places where adults congregate, including church, where it is clear no one has taught them to be nice. We live a life of rushing, of fear, of imagined scarcity, and so sometimes we lead with our elbows. I am always moved and deeply impressed when I see people stop, pay attention and choose kindness.

I have a picture in my mind from the Charlottesville protests. A toddler, barely able to walk, clothed in a bright white Klan outfit from head to toe. I was horrified. What will that child know but how to hate? It will take a lifetime of pain and isolation to unlearn the cruelty and meanness. That poor baby is being taught a very specific way of treating people. Heartbreaking.

While I cannot change what is happening in that family, I can be very intentional about what is happening in my own. I can work to be a sign of peace. I can work on my temper, on forgiving and forgetting, on practicing kindness over being right. I can set a more reasonable pace, lower my stress and take time to be with people I love and who love me. I can be what I want from others, live the life that I hope for others.

All of this is hard work. But I can’t leave it to a school counselor to accomplish. She has enough work to do. We all must reset our priorities, put others first, and be nice. That is the world we all want to live in, so that is how we must live.

Standing in Our Belovedness

Last week I presided over a lovely outdoor wedding. The families were wonderful and supportive, the couple was a delight. Everything was beautiful, thoughtful and (important to me) well organized. At the reception that evening, I was asked to start the meal with a prayer. Happy to do it. And on the way back to my seat, a woman pulled me aside and said how happy she was to be at a “Christian wedding.” Me too, I said, and wondered exactly what she meant.

I was thinking later that whether I had prayed before the meal or not, whether I had presided or a judge or someone’s best friend, whether we had a Eucharist or the whole thing took 15 minutes, God would have still been present.

We can work pretty hard at pretending we are riding solo. We can convince ourselves that we do not believe, or that God is only around when we are paying attention. We can pick and choose times that include God and times that we think we exclude God. And the truth remains. God is always, always, always there. God is always with us, always calling to us and inviting us, and always loving us.

And that is the hard part, isn’t it—standing in our belovedness. I think it is easier to imagine a vengeful, punishing, judgmental God than it is to realize that God is always loving us. We know we rarely live up to our own expectation of what that means. So in defense, we just look the other way, pretend not to pay attention. And yet, God is always loving us. Absolutely, delightedly, abundantly.

Prayer is spending intentional time welcoming and trying to live into God’s love. Prayer is standing before God as we are and allowing God to love us into our best selves. When we let go of all of the negative baloney we carry and just let God love us, we are changed. And we want to share it. But prayer is a discipline, a practice. So spend time practicing being loved, practicing being delighted in, practicing accepting that love. And see where that moves you. How will you become that love in a world that sorely needs it? Who will you tell about it, invite to pay attention?

God is loving you this minute! Open the door of your heart and let God in!

What does love say when we do not agree?

I love poetry. Every Lenten season I buy a book of poems from someone new and read a few a day as part of my prayer. I love the funny, the historic, the ordinary. I love words. And there are also poems or authors that aren’t my favorites. I was at a poetry reading recently, and some of the poets were fabulous, and some were… not my taste.

This is to be expected, and I want to be exposed to new things, to things I might not enjoy but should be open to hearing anyway. However, on my way home, I was thinking it might be hard to be married to a poet (or any artist really). What if they poured their heart and soul into a poem, and after the first line or two, you knew you were going to really hate it? And yet, there is your beloved, looking for affirmation. It could be so awkward.

What does love say in that moment? And isn’t it also true for religion or politics or anything potentially divisive. What does love say when we do not agree, when it is painful to listen, when your very heart says no? Isn’t it also true with friends and co-workers and the people at the gym. What does love say when the person you are sweating on the treadmill next to turns on Fox News or MSNBC?

This is the question for our time. And I would say it is a discipline that we continue to refine, a discipline of generosity and patience, of humility and investment. We model for others how we want to be listened to, how we want to be received, by the way we listen and receive. Sometimes, the most loving thing is to tell the truth boldly and sometimes it is to breathe deeply and believe in the good in each person.

What I know for sure is that the way is not violent or mean. I know that being right isn’t as important as being kind. I know that there are plenty of opinions which are not facts. I know that relationships are precious and ultimately our only hope. I invest in relationships, even when it is hard, or I have to bite my tongue. We have to build up community, and that requires love, and love always includes sacrifice.

Why I Wear a Collar

I am an Episcopal priest, and so I wear a religious collar.  You have seen these collars.  The Roman style is a tab, a white square surrounded by black cotton, worn around the neck.  The Anglican style is wraparound, white, about an inch and a half thick.  You have to purchase a special shirt that can hold the buttons that keep the collar in place.  My church tradition favors the Anglican collar, and I have a collection of black, grey and white shirts that I wear to work that will accommodate this peculiar ornament that I hope will identify my priestly vocation.

People ask me various questions about the collar.  Question 1: Is it comfortable?  After more than a dozen years of wearing it, I don’t really feel it anymore.  It is like a wedding ring or a wristwatch.  You know it is there, but you don’t notice it.  It can get hot in the summer though.  Question 2: What is it made of?   Mine is plastic; some are cloth.  You have to iron and starch the cloth ones so mine is plastic.  Question 3: Where do you get them? There are catalogues of church supplies and priestly vestments and clothing.  You can get them online.  And no, I will not let you borrow it for Halloween.

But people rarely ask me why I wear it.  I think they assume it is a requirement of the job, though many of my colleagues in this area don’t wear one except on Sundays.  I don’t have to wear it. No one monitors my compliance.  I choose to.  My choice to wear a collar, to wear something that sets me intentionally apart, does not have to do with my need to be an authority.  Any priest will tell you that those days are gone.  There is little privilege to being a priest, which is probably a good thing.  So I don’t wear it to be powerful, or to avoid speeding tickets or to get a free lunch.

In fact, for me, wearing a collar is a spiritual discipline hopefully grounded in humility.  Wearing a collar doesn’t make my life easier.  Actually it makes it more likely someone will want to tell me their problems or ask me for money.  It makes it more likely that I will get asked why there are starving children or what I believe about complicated social issues.  It makes it more likely that I will be challenged about the hypocrisy of religion, or that I will be told about how Sunday mornings are too valuable to waste on church.  People love to tell me they are spiritual but not religious.

And frankly, that is just fine.  I love the hard questions.  I love the challenges.  I love that people ask me to pray for them or their relatives and friends.  I love it when I am a reminder of when church might have been important in someone’s life or a sign of hope that it might be again.  I love it when I can assure people that I believe in a God of love and mercy and compassion.  I love to let people know how much it means to me to be a priest.

I wear a collar because what I believe matters to me.  Just like someone might wear a cross or a Star of David or a burka, or carry a set of prayer beads.  I deeply respect when people are willing to proclaim who they are, are proud to be a part of something bigger than themselves, especially those who proclaim it with humility and graciousness.  I aspire to that. And that is why I wear a collar.