Evelyn at Ninety Nine

Aunty Evelyn has always been my refuge.  Growing up my family home was adjacent to that of my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Freddy.  Their yard was an extension of ours providing a shared space where we cousins played.

For several summers during my boyhood,  I’d go on vacation with Evelyn and Freddy’s family to Newfound Lake, N.H.  There we created memories which have lasted a life time.  A favorite is of  hiking on a bluebird day, with my cousins Tom and Sandy,  to the top of Mount Cardigan.  We picked wild blueberries as we scrambled up and down that mountain.  We returned famished to Evelyn’s chicken dumplings.

Over the years I’d  remind Aunt Evelyn of this memory and ask if she’d make me a batch of her famous chicken dumplings.  Her response was always the same: “Kent, my dumplings can’t match the memory of you at age fourteen, having just climbed a mountain and digging in to those dumplings for the first time.”   She’s right.

Over the years Evelyn has provided me with a gift even greater than her chicken dumplings, the gift of unconditional love.  Evelyn (and Freddy) were always there for me.

They made a place for me in their home and in their hearts and for that I will always be grateful.   In recent years I’ve moved back, from Oregon to Massachusetts, less than a few hours from where I grew up.

On a regular basis I stop by to visit Aunt Evelyn.  The welcome is always the same: “Kent I’m so glad to see you.  Tell me about your daughters.  Tell me about Tricia.  I love you so much.”

We never lose the need to know we are loved.  Loved without conditions.

Aunty Evelyn has always offered me this gift.  This love was my refuge as a boy and remains mine to this day.

Garrison Keillor in his book, Lake Woebegone Days, writes: ‘The kindness we offer to a child is never forgotten.’  This is true.

Now at age ninety-nine Evelyn looks back on her long life.  She thinks of those no longer living:  her husband, her siblings, friends.  She’s grateful for her mother Anna, who taught her how to live with courage and a selfless spirit.   Evelyn chooses to look back with gratitude and a sense of wonder at how her life has unfolded.

And, she chooses to live in the present with a sense of gratitude too.  Grateful for the gift of her friends and especially her family.

Evelyn on her 99th birthday with her Great-granddaughter, Riley.

Recently the family gathered for her birthday.  A few days later a group of friends baked her a cake and presented her with flowers.

In keeping with who she is, Evelyn voiced surprise for all the kindness shown to her.  I replied: ‘Aunty Evelyn, your family and friends are simply responding to all the kindness you share with others.  You are  a gift to us.’

When I grow up, I want to be like my Aunt Evelyn.  I want to live my life loving those around me unconditionally.  I want to learn to focus not on what I’ve lost but on what I have.

I too want to offer kindness and accept with gratitude the kindness of others. I want to live with as much grace as Evelyn Wisz Harrop.

Thank you Aunty Evelyn.  You’re the best.

 

 

 

 

 

Shame

I’ve been a pastor for thirty-five years.   I’ve had the privilege of being invited into  lives during the most difficult of times.  What I’ve learned from accompanying others and from my own 61 years, is that no one has their life completely together.  To one degree or another we are all train wrecks.

By this I mean that we humans are incredibly complex and complicated beings.  We have the capacity for bringing healing and hope and the capacity to tear down and diminish. Psychologists call this our ‘light and shadow’ side.

All of us have things we’ve done which we’re not proud of.  Our words and actions (and sometimes inaction) have consequences.

I’ve been thinking about this as men of power have been outed for their harassment and abuse of women.  As I wrote in my recent blog entitled ‘Tipping Point?’ my hope is that this will be a time when enough people say  ‘we will not be silent in the face of harassment and systemic gender inequality’.

Men who have been involved in predatory behavior must be held accountable.  Those of us who have been silent or complacent must speak out and stand with those who have been victimized.

I’m wondering too about those who have been outed.  Those who have lost their jobs and reputation.  What about them?

Let me pose a theological question: ‘Is anyone beyond redemption?’  The word redemption means to be redeemed or restored.

I can imagine a variety of responses to what I just raised:  “To hell with them. There must be consequences.   They are monsters. The victims must have justice.”

I agree that the perpetrators must be held accountable.  The systems that have protected them must be torn down.  Those victimized must be heard and cared for.

But again I ask: ‘Is anyone beyond redemption?’

Over the years I’ve sat with people who made very bad choices.  Bad behavior that hurt others. Behavior that became front page news and resulted in great loss personally and professionally.  Some even went to prison.

Often we talked about the ‘shame’ they felt.

Granted, religion has often used the guilt and shame card to keep people in line.  To require conformity for the sake of narrow religious parameters as to what is pure and right.

But sometimes ‘shame’ serves an important purpose.  There are words, behaviors and actions that we should be ashamed of.  Being sincerely ‘ashamed’ can be the first step in the process of becoming whole.

Being ashamed means taking responsibility for the harm ones action or inaction has caused others.  Being ashamed means knowing that there are consequences for inappropriate behavior.  Shame means knowing you are wrong.

Shame however need not be an ending.  It can mark a beginning.  When claimed with sincerity it can be the first step on the path toward self-awareness.  A first step to becoming a healthier person and when appropriate, making restoration to those one has wronged.

Those in the Twelve Step program know this to be true.  Our actions when under the influence of alcohol or drugs often does great damage to family and friends.   People caught up in addictive behavior often speak of shame.

But shame paradoxically can  be a gift.   A gift that leads one to do the hard and relentless work of becoming sober and clean and staying on the path.  Shame can lead to a change in behavior and a change of attitude.  One day at a time.

What I’ve learned in thirty-five years of being a pastor is that no one is beyond help. No one is beyond redemption.

My Christian tradition call this ‘grace’.  Grace is rooted in the belief that God’s essence is love and that no one is beyond the reach of this love.

Philip Yancey the theologian puts it this way:

There’s nothing we can do to make God love us more.  There’s nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Yes, people need to be held accountable for their behavior.  Yes, unjust systems that have and continue to allow for abusive behavior must be named and dismantled.

Yet let us not forget that no one is beyond redemption.  We are all in need of grace.

 

 

 

Tipping Point?

Every day new public figures are outed for sexual harassment.  Harassment rooted in an abuse of power.  We see this abuse reflected in a society which objectifies women. We see this abuse institutionalized in limited access for women to positions of influence and power.

Have we reached a tipping point?  A willingness by enough people to say ‘no more’?

tipping points (plural noun)
  1. the point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change

Are we at a point where men stand with women,  in calling out those who exploit?  Will we men be willing to explore and wrestle with the cultural bias’ we’ve acquired and profit from?  Will we name and let go of attitudes and behaviors that contribute to the wider culture that objectifies and oppresses?

Will men join forces with women in demanding equal treatment under the law and hold those with power accountable?   From school campus’, to military bases, to halls of Congress, to the White House, to business, to religion, to households… have we reached a tipping point where we demand more of ourselves as a society?

Imagine a tipping point that affirms our best intentions as a nation.  Imagine women and men, girls and boys, affirming our inherent equality,  that every person as Thomas Jefferson put it, ‘is endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

True, Jefferson didn’t fully grasp the implications of his words.  His world view didn’t include people of color and women in his listing of who was worthy.

Yet, Jefferson’s words continues to offer a vision we aspire to.  A vision that says everyone, female and male, native-born and immigrant, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old are ‘endowed by their Creator’ with inherent worth and equal rights.

This is not simply good public policy.  It’s also good theology.

This is who we strive to be,  when we are at our best.  The floodgate has opened with stories of harassment, oppression, abuse.

Such stories reflect a decision by enough women and enough men to say ‘we will not be silent, we will not be complacent or complicit’ towards those factors that have created and reflect an oppressive culture.

Have we reached a tipping point?  The answer rests with women and men like you and me.  Imagine what our society can be as we live into our core values.

 

 

 

 

 

Attitude of Gratitude

Growing up Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. A time for adults and kids to gather around the table, enjoy each others company and eat well.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is my Dad and his two brothers, Freddy and Bob cooking the Thanksgiving meal while the women visited and the kids played. Every few years they’d make the decree ‘this year the boys are cooking’. I still remember the smell of the turkey wafting from the kitchen filling the house with anticipation.

The last Thanksgiving the three brothers were together was 2000. I remember working with several cousins alongside Bob, Freddy and Norman. The location was a rented Masonic hall kitchen. In the main room approx. 50 family members gathered. Then living in Oregon, my daughter Katelyn  age 7 had travelled with me to spend this holiday with her east coast family. It was a special time to celebrate the ties that bind us one to the other. Stories were told, great food enjoyed, jokes cracked and board games played.

By the next Thanksgiving both Norman and Freddy had passed away. While that Thanksgiving was 17 years ago it remains one of my favorite memories.

 

Thanksgiving is an opportunity for memories to be made. The common element in each gathering large or small, is the choice to be grateful.

It has been said that the antidote to unhappiness in life is choosing to be grateful.

Science tells us that the regular practice of being grateful improves one’s health both physiologically and emotionally. Being grateful lowers your blood pressure and elicits dopamine, the pleasure sensor in one’s brain. When we choose to practice an attitude of gratitude we simply become happier.

Surely there’s a lot of pain and cause for worry in the world.  Yet, there’s also much to be grateful for.

Last night,  I participated in a Multifaith Thanksgiving worship service.  Our evening was a feast for the soul with wisdom gleaned from Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian and Christian traditions.  We gave thanks for the gift of community and the love of our Creator.   Psalm 133 says it so well:

How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.

Thanksgiving reminds us to pause, break bread with family, friends (longtime and new) and take a moment and say ‘thanks’. The 14th century monk and mystic, Meister Eckhart said: “If the only prayer we ever offer is thank you, that would be enough”.  To that I say ‘amen’.

Christian Hypocrisy and Roy Moore

Hypocrisy.  There’s no other way to describe the decision of many Evangelical Christians to stand with Judge Roy Moore.

Moore has seen his campaign upended by accusations from seven women that he sexually harassed or assaulted them as teenagers.  Moore is the Republican candidate for an open Senate seat from Alabama.

Judge Moore made his political career insisting that the 10 Commandments be engraved in stone and placed in the Court House; that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God; that same-sex marriage undermines the sanctity of traditional marriage; that abortion should be outlawed; that the Second Amendment has no limits.

It’s ironic that Moore who made his political bones on the basis of moral self-righteousness, is now accused by credible witness’ to sexual abuse of minors.  In his hometown it was an open secret  that Moore in his 30’s preyed upon teen girls.

Why then do so many Christian pastors and voters say that they are standing with Roy Moore?  The answer seems to rest with the growth of the Religious Right as a power broker in the Republican party.  https://www.memeorandum.com/171120/p8#a171120p8

For a growing number of conservative Christians the ends justify the means.  Their agenda includes:  Packing the Supreme Court with conservative justices; outlawing abortion rights; rolling back gay and trans-gender rights; limits to immigration; support for NRA.

Why these limited issues?  Why not advocacy for civil rights and social justice?

Consider the many societal  implications of Jesus’ teaching: “Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me.  When you clothe the naked and visit the prisoner, feed the hungry…it is as if you are doing it to me.” (Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

There is a lot of cherry picking going on within the Christian community. Choosing to focus on some issues to the exclusion of others.  Some choose to wrap their faith in the flag of nationalism and even nativism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativism_(politics)

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Imagine hearing the words of the Hebrew prophets and the teaching and witness of Jesus with fresh eyes and ears.  Imagine approaching the reading of Scripture with humility.  Humility in knowing that we each bring a cultural bias that effects what we hear and to see.  Imagine allowing the Spirit to open our hearts, minds and imaginations to what is possible.

In I Corinthians 13 the apostle Paul says, ‘now we see in a mirror dimly, but one day we will see (God) face to face’.  Our call is to approach our faith with humility.

I don’t know about you but I’m wary of those who say ‘behold sayeth the Lord’. Particularly those who condemn, exclude and divide.  Annie Lamott says it best:  ‘When God hates the same people you do then rest assured you’ve created God in your own image’.

The Christian faith teaches that we catch a ‘glimpse’ of what Paul speaks of when we see love, forgiveness, justice and compassion put into practice.  These are the voices we long to hear.  May it be so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Prayer Isn’t Enough

Gunman Devin Patrick Kelley, murdered 26 people and wounded 20 more inside a small Texas church on Sunday.  He was armed with an assault rifle and 15 loaded magazines in the deadliest shooting in Texas history.

This tragedy comes on the heels of the Las Vegas mass shooting which resulted in 58 dead and 546 wounded.  Both shootings were the result of alienated, angry white men with easy access to assault weapons.

After both shootings the President and many elected leaders called for a time of silence and prayer.  Prayer  for the victims and those left behind.

As a pastor and as a citizen I say that prayer is not enough.

It angers me that elected officials, who are selectively pious, use ‘moments of silence and prayer’ as a calculated means of diverting our attention from what needs to be done.   In their mind prayer is an end unto itself.  The NRA and their minions both religious and political, use prayer as a means to maintain the status quo.

They think prayer will offer a sufficient release from the pain and confusion we feel.  They view prayer simply as a release valve.

But they don’t understand prayer. Prayer when entered into with sincerity has  a way of opening up the mind, heart and imagination.  Prayer can convict us when we are on the wrong path and lead us in a new direction.

People of faith call this conversion.  To turn from one direction towards another.

My prayers are with those who lost their lives and lost loved ones in that little church in Texas.  But my prayer is also for our nation, that we will repent from our idolatry of guns.

The NRA and their elected collaborators hope that prayer will divert us.  My hope is that prayer will propel us to get involved and say ‘no more’.  No more children and families ripped apart by easy access to weapons.

Prayer is not and end unto itself.  Prayer can empower us to put in place reasonable limits on access to weapons (universal background checks, outlawing of bump stocks and semi-assault and assault weapons, limits on types of ammunition designed to inflict the greatest damage).

In today’s New York Times there is a compelling article entitled: ‘What Explains U.S Mass Shootings’  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/07/world/americas/mass-shootings-us-international.html?_r=0  The article points out that the United States rate of gun violence is unique and rooted in our unfettered access to weapons.

It seems we love our guns more than life itself.

The article goes on to say:

Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama.

Yes, let us pray.  Let us confess and turn from our worship of weapons.  Let us pray for the strength to continue the good fight of bringing about sane, reasonable limits on weapons.  For the sake of the children now and the future, let us pray and let us act.

 

When Character Counts

Yesterday Senator Jeff Flake R-Arizona dropped a political bombshell.  In a speech from the senate floor he took to task the deteriorating state of political discourse in our nation.  He took to task President Trump for his personal attacks on those who disagree with him and his propensity to not tell the truth. http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/24/politics/jeff-flake-retirement-speech-full-text/index.html

Mr. Flake a conservative Republican, was calling his president out for a lack of character and a lack of allegiance to underlying democratic values.  Values that  transcend political affiliation.  He was calling out his fellow Republicans in Congress for their often silent complicity.  Complicity in not confronting their president, for his lack of decency and integrity.

We must never regard as “normal” the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

What draws me to this speech is his passionate reminder to affirm what we hold in common.  He reminds us that democracy is a fragile enterprise that transcends disagreements on policy.  Democracy can only survive and flourish as we remain true to our underlying democratic values.

Mr. Flake also announced that he would not run for reelection. An acknowledgment that he could not survive a primary against a political opponent who embraces Trumps divisive political formula.  Such is the political climate within which we live.

Yesterday, Jeff Flake was a profile in courage.  Speaking truth to power and calling his colleagues in Congress both Republican and Democrat to accountability.  To practice good governance where compromise is not a dirty word and demonizing the opponent in 140 characters is not allowed to stand.

David Brooks a conservative commentator for the New York Times has written a book entitled: ‘The Road to Character’.  He focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives.  Brooks  call us to rebalance the scales between our “resume virtues” – achieving wealth, fame and status – and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

Brooks and Flake remind us that as a nation we are at our best when we seek to live by  our ‘eulogy virtues ‘ those positive even noble values that inspire us to be a good and principled people.

This is what Jeff Flake (and Bob Corker and John McCain) have chosen to stand for.

Jeff Flake calls upon elected officials to ensure our core values remain in place.  He calls citizens like you and me to understand and uphold our core democratic values.  To strive to become what  Abraham Lincoln called ‘a more perfect union’.

This has always been our strength and our hope.