Sunday, June 17, 2018

For Christ's Sake!

When I was thirteen I went with my Dad to live in Scotland for what initially was an indeterminate amount of time.  I was not an immigrant, per se.  But I had no idea how long we would be there.  I was not fleeing from poverty or violence.  The journey was not of my father's choosing.  He was going their to preach.  I was excited about going, but it was not my choice, nor was it in any way under my control. And who would have expected it to have been so?  After all, I was barely thirteen!

When we arrived in Scotland, at the border so to speak, it was my Dad who handled things.  He literally held my passport--and all the money.  He had our undated return plane tickets.  I was far from home and totally at the mercy of adults.  Totally.

I can't even imagine how frightened--how terrorized I would have been had some Scottish official had taken me by the arm and said, "Come with me, son, you're going to have to go to a different place than your father.  WE don't want Yanks coming into our country anymore."  "For how long?" I might have asked if I could have choked back the tears.  "A few minutes?"  "We don't know.  For as long as needed."  I can't imagine what would have gone though my thirteen-year-old mind if I'd been taken in such a manner.  Nor can I imagine how my father would have felt.

Over the last six weeks some two thousand children have been separated from their parents by agents of our government when they have sought to enter the United States.  All due to a policy intentionally designed to discourager illegal immigration.  Many of them are being held in facilities like the converted Wal-Mart where some fifteen hundred boys, ages ten to seventeen, are being held.  Others are being detained in what amounts to large cages.

Clearly, we are very divided as a nation about how to deal with various immigration policies.  But for Christ's sake--literally, for the sake of Christ--can't we at least agree that problems created by adults should not be solved on th4e3 backs of children?

On this Father's Day when so many fathers and mothers and their children are living in anxious fear, I urge you to plan to take time in this coming week to contact those who represent us in Washington.  And whether you think we should build a wall or not, whether you think we should change how visas are issued or not, is immaterial.  It is time for all of us to tell those in positions of authority "No More!"  No more separating children from their parents.  No more.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Mother's Cry: Thoughts about Suicide

It happened many years ago now.  Very early in my time as an ordained minister.  I received a call from the local funeral home asking if I would be able to conduct a service for a young woman (in her forties as I remember) who had just died.  I agreed, and after getting the name and contact information for the young woman's mother, I called to set up a time to meet to learn more about her daughter so I could plan for the service.

They had been living together.  The daughter had been dealing with some serious physical issues and needed her mother's continued support.  But there was more.  The young woman had also been suffering from depression, and soon it was revealed she had committed suicide.  Needless to say, her mother was distraught.

I don't remember the details of our conversation.  I couldn't have been much more than thirty at the time.  Ten years younger than the daughter, and, as they say, wet behind the ears.  I knew enough to know what I didn't know.  I hope I didn't say anything that exacerbated her grief.  I do know I spent quite a bit of time simply listening as she told me about her daughter, and in the homily tried to reflect all the positive thing she had told me.  But I didn't speak openly about the suicide itself.  I assumed that would just make things worse. 

The service was held at the funeral parlor.  And after the benediction, the funeral director invited folks to come forward and offer their prayers and last words at the side of the closed coffin.  The last to come forward was her mother.  At first she knelt on the kneeler placed at the side of the casket, but then she splayed herself across the lid and began to scream.  "Don't leave me!  How can you do this?  Don't leave me all alone!"  She wailed.  Literally wailed.  The funeral director waited for a short time, and then asked me to speak to her.  The other guests were waiting to go to the cemetery. 

I tried.  I think I spoke a few words that I hoped would comfort her, but they didn't.  She only cried out more loudly.  Finally the funeral director, assisted by a male relative or two, peeled her off the coffin, and held her up as she limply made her way to the waiting limousine.

I though about that mother  as news programs focused on the two celebrity suicides this past week.  I thought about how desperate the daughter must have felt--and how filled with despair her mother was afterwards.  I don't know if the daughter had received the proper care for her depression or not.  Sometimes the best of treatment fails to prevent suicide.  But I also know of times that good mental health care has prevented what most surely would have resulted in someone taking their own life.

So once again here we are acknowledging as a nation the importance of taking mental health seriously.  Maybe this time we will do something more than just talk about it.  I hope so.  For I have rarely seen the grief and despair like that of that mother trying to hold back her daughter from the grave.

Write your representatives.  Write your senators.  Tell them the time to act is now.

Here's where to find contacts:


And for immediate attention if you or someone you love is entertaining suicidal thoughts:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline--1-800-273-8255

Monday, June 4, 2018

Let Them Eat Cake?

Today the United States Supreme Court passed down its decision on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.  If you've forgotten the case, Jack Phillips, a baker in Lakewood, Colorado, refused to bake a wedding cake for  David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012.  The wedding itself was to take place in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages were legal at the time, and a reception, with the requested cake, was to be held in Colorado.  Mr. Phillips refused to bake the cake based on his religious conviction that same-sex marriage is, in his view, against the will of God and therefore contrary to his religious views.

Initially the case was reviewed by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission , who determined the rights of  Mr. Mullins and Mr. Craig had been violated.  Further review upheld the same conclusion.  So the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear it.

Today's ruling, a somewhat surprising 7-2 decision, turned on the question of the baker's religious freedom, and whether or not the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had maintained strict religious neutrality in their review of the case.  A majority of the justices believed that the Commission had not maintained neutrality, that they had in fact, been hostile towards Mr. Phillips views.  Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote, "The Civil Rights Commission's case has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs that motivated [Mr. Phillip's] objection."

The decision of the Court brings into sharp focus a question that will continue to plague us as a society.  Where do my rights leave off and yours begin?  And how, as a pluralistic society, do we guarantee that all citizens are treated with respect and dignity?  I am not sure it is an issue that can be resolved by legal means.  Yet there are obviously legal implications in so many of the things we say or do--even something as seemingly benign as baking a cake! 

I for one wish the decision had gone the other way. And I long for the day when all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, are treated with every measure of respect and with full access to public accommodations.  But the matter of religious freedom is no small issue. How can we make it all work?  Can we?  The Court has left that open for now--suggesting that this case was decided based on a very narrow set of circumstances, and therefore has limited application.

I urge my readers to click on the link below and take time to read the decision, including the dissenting opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for yourselves.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Not Just About Coffee

As I write this 8,000 Starbucks across the nation are closed for a special training program for their employees about implicit/unconscious bias.  It all grows out of an incident in Philadelphia last month, when two African-American men were arrested on counts of trespassing for no apparent reason other than someone at the store felt threatened by their skin color.

I applaud Starbucks for this action.  No doubt they will lose a fair amount of income over the course of this day.  But they have taken a very bad bit of publicity and turned it into a good.  That said, I hope no one thinks that a four-hour in-service training program will eliminate the problem.  Racism is so entrenched in our culture, despite the real legal progress that we have made, that it will take much more than this to lift it from our backs.

But we must do what we can.  And certainly this is one thing that Starbucks can do, and has done.  Now, what are the next steps?  What are the next steps for Starbucks?  And how will others follow their lead?  How will we as a society come to grips with what one author called "America's original sin'?  I don't know all the answers here--but I do know even talking about it is an important step.  But it can't be the only step.  The theological word that comes to mind is metanoia.  That's the Greek word used in the New Testament for repentance.  Literally it means to "turn around and head in a new direction."  Starbucks seems to have turned around--but now they, and we, need to keep walking in the new direction.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"B" Stands for Books--and Boston and Bucket Lists and Boats!

What do you do when it rains and you had plans for an outdoor activity?  That's what happened this past Saturday.  My wife Linda and I had taken my mother to Boston to ride the swan boats at Boston Public Garden.  The swan boat ride was on her bucket list.  It is something she always did when she went to Boston back in the days when she lived in new England, and she wanted to go one more time.  But it rained.  All day.  And the swan boats weren't even running.  So we went to Plan B.  Literally.  For in our family, "B" stands for "books"!

We were spending the day with our daughter Elizabeth, her partner Erica, and our two Boston granddaughters.  Elizabeth is a librarian, and of course, mother a retired English professor, a medievalist.  In her youth her father had taken her into Boston one day so that she could meet the Head Librarian at Boston Public Library.  And even though she didn't end up being a librarian herself, she always has treasured that memory.  So our first stop was the Boston Public Library.  It is a beautiful example of a well maintained older structure, with a wonderful modern addition.

One of the highlights of the tour was seeing the Abbey Room.  It is ringed by beautiful murals depicting the legend of Sir Galahad.  Mother and our youngest granddaughter were especially intrigued with it--and Mom had a great time explain the story and the paintings.

Our next stop was the Cambridge Public Library where Elizabeth works.  We met many of her co-workers and marveled at the charm of the Curious George Room, with its paintings taken from the famous books by the same name.  It turns out H. A. Rey, the author of those beloved children's books, and his wife Margaret lived in Cambridge and were most generous with the library.

Our final stop of the afternoon was--a bookstore!  The Porter Square Bookstore.  A funky, cramped, delightful independent bookstore.  Linda and I treated the granddaughters and Mother to a new book each.  The girls got Fatal Throne and Dork Diaries, and Mother a replacement copy of her beloved Little Women (she had accidently given it away when she moved to Florida).

The whole afternoon was a delight--despite the rain!  And if the plaque in Mother's bedroom is right, it was touched by the divine.  The plaque?  "Heaven" is reads, "Must Be  Library!"

PS:  She did get her swan boat ride as well on Monday--a lovely sunny Monday!

Monday, May 14, 2018

On Public Prayer

There is a great deal of controversy swirling around the official  recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States.  The move of our embassy from Tel Aviv has occasioned a great deal of uproar and violence.  Was this the right time to make such a move?  Should other issues have been discussed, negotiated, resolved in connection with the recognition?  I leave that to you to determine.  But of this I am sure.  The religious leaders who offered prayers at the ceremony marking the opening of the embassy didn't in any way represent me nor most of the clergy I know.

Here is what upset me: at least one of the clergy who prayed at the event has a history of being anything but ecumenically or interreligiously minded.  Islam, he has said, comes from the "pit of hell" and Jews? They don't stand a chance of being saved unless they accept Jesus as their Savior.  So he says.  I realize this is a view held by many Christians, even though I don't subscribe to it myself.    It is certainly their right to believe that way.  But really, is there no recognition of irony here?

I guess all  this just points to the reality that the separation of church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) and state is essential for a pluralistic nation such as ours.  How we interact with other nations should recognize and be sensitive to religious issues, but our international relationships need to be grounded in sound diplomatic principles, not religious beliefs. For as a nation we do not hold a set of commonly accepted religious beliefs.  By constitutional definition.  Maybe the best bet is to avoid such public prayers at governmentally sponsored events all together--for how can they ever represent all Americans, when some of our fellow citizens don't even believe in prayer?

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Real Cost of Blueberries

Saturday my wife Linda and I went blueberry picking.  With two of our friends, we picked twenty-five pounds.  It took us about two hours.  Not exactly a fast clip!  On average, we each picked about 3.125 pounds per hour.  The place we went picking had live music, a snack bar, games for the kids, even a small gift shop.  It was a lovely experience, and I'll get blueberries on my cereal for several months.

The whole experience, though, prompted me to remember that two of my kids picked blueberries for pay one summer many years back.  Neither of them were very quick about
it, and being paid at a piece rate, neither of them made much money.  It was hot work, and less than pleasant.  There were no kids rides or musicians,  Just the work.  They only lasted one summer at it, as I remember, and both found other ways to earn pocket money as they made their way through school.  And nobody was counting on them bringing home a paycheck to pay the bills.

I couldn't help but wonder what migrant workers get paid for such work?  Our niece, who went with us to pick, tutors the children of migrants.  She told us they are in her part of Florida for about three months, and then they move on.  And often the kids have to try and play catch up academically, often never quite reaching their goals.  Their parents work very long , very hard hours.  Often for very poor pay.  Living in overpriced quarters--no better than shacks--and having very little security.

Back in 2013, in Michigan, migrant workers were paid 42 cents a pound for picking blueberries.  That meant they need to pick eighteen pounds an hour to make what was then minimum wage in Michigan.  I assume it would be much the same in Florida.  (  One person would need to pick 33% more blueberries in an hour than the four of us did working together.

I will enjoy the berries on my cereal over the next few months, but I will also be doing a lot of thinking about how often I have something to eat without knowing what all has gone into putting it on my table.  And how often my bounty may be at the expense of someone else.