Archive for March, 2016
This Easter Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/27//16. It looks at the discipleship of Mary Magdalene and the Empty Tomb, especially in light of North Carolina this week.
Happy Easter everyone! In the Christian holy calendar, we celebrate today the story of hope in the face of oppression. Jesus, a spiritual teacher and reformer, birthed a religious movement that would change the world. But today, we celebrate his life, and his victory over greed, victory over indifference, victory over abuse of power; and that saving message that defines spiritual life: Care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit those in prison.
Earlier, we heard the story from the Gospel of John, told and retold from a few perspectives. Personally, I’m most moved by the telling from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. She’s often overlooked; she’s seen as a secondary figure by many, and not always in a positive light, and sometimes, folks even say things about her that weren’t true. I think most of us go through our lives, at least at some point, where we can relate to that – being overlooked, or passed over, or criticized for things we haven’t done. In fact, it’s the very opposite for Mary Magdalene. Where we often hear about the apostles who witnessed the risen Jesus, Mary is the first person to witness Jesus on Easter. And He tells her to go and tell the others; Mary – Go and Tell Them! Mary Magdalene, a woman who is far too often mistakingly looked down upon, is the Apostle to the Apostles. In a way, she’s the first Christian. But we don’t always talk about it that way; I wonder why?
We heard a historical version of the story, and we heard a personal version of the story. But Scripture is alive and meaningful for today as well as the past. It’s not just a retelling from a community’s perspective, but a way to look at the events of the world today. As I did last year, I may be starting a tradition of con-temporizing Scripture each year for Easter. This year, I’m holding in my heart the news in North Carolina.
Bill Moyers reported that, “In a shocking, unprecedented move, the North Carolina state legislature convened a special session late Wednesday in order to introduce and pass a sweeping anti-LGBT bill, HB-2, which overturns local ordinances protecting gay and transgender rights. Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law later that night, writes CommonDreams.org.”
The ACLU of North Carolina would say, ”Rather than expand nondiscrimination laws to protect all North Carolinians, the General Assembly instead spent $42,000 to rush through an extreme bill that undoes all local nondiscrimination laws and specifically excludes gay and transgender people from legal protections.”
With this difficult news in mind, I offer this modern take on the Gospel of John:
Late in the night, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene heard the news coming from North Carolina. Late in the night, a sweeping anti-LGBT bill overturned local ordinances protecting gay and transgender people.
So she ran and went to the disciples, the ones whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken Justice out of the court, and we do not know where they have laid it.”
Peter and the other disciples set out to see for themselves. And they saw the remnants lying there. But the cloth, the compassion that covered Justice, was not with the remnants, but rolled up in a place by itself.
At first they did not understand, that Justice must be risen anew in each generation. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping on the state legislature steps. As she wept, she bent over to look into the legislature; and she saw two angels in white – spirits without gender, sitting where Justice had once rested; one at the head and one at the foot.
They said to her, “why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away Justice, and I do not know where they have laid Justice down.”
When she turned she saw Justice standing there, whole and waiting, but she did not recognize it at first.
Justice spoke to her heart, “Whom are you looking for?” Supposing the speaker to be a lawyer, she said to Justice, “Sir, if you have carried Justice away, tell me where, and I will take Justice back.”
But Justice spoke to Mary’s heart, and called her by her name, and she knew once more.
Justice said, “Do not hold onto me here alone, for I have not yet risen in all our hearts. But go to my siblings and say to them, “I am rising. To my God and to your God. From heart to heart.”
Mary Magdalene went and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”
For I have not risen in all our hearts yet…For me, that’s the core of the Easter message. We come out of a time of loss and turmoil; and it’s not magically washed away. Things may still be very difficult, but sometimes difficulty can point toward transformation – without glorifying the difficultly. In North Carolina, where fear and hate have had a chance to wedge themselves into the laws – laws that I can’t imagine will survive Federal Court appeals – we can find hope in the empathy we see in so many people. Decent people are outraged by ignorance, and fear, and bias in our neighbors. That wasn’t always the case, but empathy is rising in more hearts, year after year.
Empathy – a big word that means to understand and care for you in your times of pain, because we understand from having lived through a time of pain ourselves. The Easter story is the ultimate story of empathy – and empathy is a spiritual compass to live by.
Earlier in the service we handed out paper and crayons for drawing. If you have that with you, and would like to reflect – on the side you havent drawn yet, think of a time where you learned to care for others – to be empathetic. Maybe you can draw that. Or think of something inside of you that has been difficult, that you would like to love into something more; maybe a hope for something that means a lot to you. Sometimes the things inside us that used to keep us down, become the things that later in life lift us up.
Walt Whitman says this in his epic poem, “Leaves of Grass.” The excerpt goes, “I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me, I will lift what has too long kept down those smoldering fires… for who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman p. 278. Walt Whitman was a great American Poet, a Unitarian, and like many of us here, from Long Island. This excerpt from his poem talks about what we’ve been reflecting today. What’s the thing inside you that once kept you down, that has become a source of strength and identity in your life? We’re coming to a close in our month where we’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a people of liberation. Part of being liberated, is finding the rough parts in our lives, or finding the things that others chide or make fun of us for, and love them into fullness.
I know as a gay man, that’s been true in my life. What once was threatening to consume me, I now lift up. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Maybe, as the Mary Magdalene story goes, being a woman you’ve been told you’re second to the men around you. That’s not true – and it can be challenge in a world where we’re taught foolish things, to love ourselves into fullness. Or maybe you’re made fun of in school for being smart. I remember being called a geek when I was a kid. But that turns around in time, and the parts we might be embarrassed by because the empathy hasn’t yet risen in the hearts of all our neighbors, becomes sources for understanding life and love, sorrow and joy, all the more fully.
If you haven’t find a thing to draw yet, and you want another idea – try this – What’s that part of you that you want to love more of, or love again, love into fullness? Or what would a people of liberation look like?
Happy Easter everyone. Justice, empathy and liberation have not yet risen in all the hearts of the world, but Go and Tell Them. Hope has risen today. To my God and to your God. Heart to heart.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/13/16. In the work of the spirit, and in the quest for a world free from oppression, how do we stay engaged without becoming burnt out by the struggles we face?
During our prayers every Sunday, I repeat some of the same words at the close, following the congregation’s recitation of names we wish to hold in all our hearts: “for those names spoken, and those written silently on the tablets of our hearts…”. It’s a phrase that comes to us, over and over again, from the Torah, although there’s one mention of it in third Corinthians as well. It’s usually in reference to holy words, or holy teachings being written on the tablets of our hearts; but it sometimes also speaks of love and faithfulness being placed there. One of my seminary professors would end prayer with this verse, and it always struck me as meaningful.
Parker Palmer talks about this in his book “Hidden Wholeness.” He writes, “There is an old Hasidic tale that tells us how such things happen. The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”
As we imagine this month, what it would mean to be a people of liberation, part of that wondering relies on our hearts breaking. In our weekly prayers, those names we pray for, too often are names for whom our hearts break and their sacredness falls into our lives and through our pain. We are changed for it, and our hearts are open. In the struggle for a more just world though, sometimes we come from a place of stridency. The words we say, and the actions we take, may be correct, but they don’t yet break through into our hearts. We can sometimes be correct, but closed down – shut down inside. Building the world we dream about, is the work of generations, not individuals alone. When we try to do that building with closed hearts, our words and actions can weigh us down more. It’s hard to remain doing the work of generations while so weighed down.
But it’s also hard doing the work of generations, thinking we need to always be perfect, or always at our best, or always in a state of calm, or indifference, or even joy. The Hasidic tale tells us that we probably won’t truly succeed in healing the world without first going through our own state of brokenness. It’s not to ennoble suffering; rather it’s to not demonize ourselves for our own suffering. Times of brokenness are natural to the human condition, and we need not make those low times worse with judgement about them for ourselves or for our neighbor. We also don’t need to pretend we’re the only ones that ever go through that. Maybe we can let ourselves off the hook – at least spiritually speaking – for those times we feel at our weakest.
Without glorifying our times of brokenness, can we find a middle path where we honor those times for what they are? Our wisdom story this morning, the excerpt about the Skin Horse from the Velveteen Rabbit teaches this moral lesson: “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Can we love ourselves, our friends, our neighbor, our world – in a way that honors those times in our lives that have spiritually or emotionally rubbed our hair off, and loosened our joints and seemingly left us shabby in the corners of our heart where we never thought would ever become shabby? Can we do so knowing that we can’t ever really be ugly, except to people who don’t understand? I love our nursery stories – they hold so many deep spiritual secrets we forget when we leave childhood; but come back around when we tell and retell those truths as adults to the next generation. “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time.”
As we imagine ourselves as a people of liberation, how do we hold these lessons of our own times of brokenness, in the light of those places and times of other people’s brokenness – especially when we might be coming to them at a time when we are whole, or full or prosperous in one way or the other? The great Jewish Theologian, Abraham Heschel answers this with the idea of “Holy Embarrassment.” In his compilation entitled, “Essential Writings” he takes a theological look at our world too full of disparity and poverty. He writes,
I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life. A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and salvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for responsibility.
I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom the everything in the world is crystal-clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty. What the world needs is a sense of embarrassment. Modern man has the power and the wealth to overcome poverty and disease, but he has no wisdom to overcome suspicion. We are guilty of misunderstanding the meaning of existence; we are guilty of distorting our goals and misrepresenting our souls. We are better than our assertions, more intricate, more profound than our theories maintain. Our thinking is behind the times.
What is the truth of being human? The lack of pretension, the acknowledgment of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy. But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us. The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret is appreciation.
When we look at the disparities in the world, we often are raised to respond to whatever comparative privilege we have in one of three ways: indifference, guilt or shame. Indifference teaches us to just ignore it. …Some have, some don’t, and whether it’s right or not, it’s not for us to change it. Maybe we don’t know how, so we ignore it. As others have said from time to time, for some of us living a life of comparative privilege for so long makes us experience actual equality as a form of oppression – why are people taking away what was once normal for me?
For others, we were raised to care, but we associated feelings of guilt or shame that could just as easily paralyze us with inaction. I care about their suffering, and I feel bad about it, but I’m so focused on my internalized sense of wrongness about it that I can’t adequately respond. I think Heschel may have the answer in holy embarrassment. Not guilt, not shame, not indifference, but a sense that we didn’t mean for things to be this way and we ought to make them better because we are embarrassed, or maybe sometimes mortified, in the face of the absurdity of a world of such abundance that allows for such disparity of treatment and resources. And for those of us who were raised in religious communities that carried extra baggage around notions of guilt or shame – finding new language and new ways of honoring and helping to resolve others’ places of brokenness during our times of success – can make all the difference in our ability to be a people of liberation. Can we mature into news ways of action?
Sometimes guilt or shame are the proper response to our actions – but if guilt or shame freeze us into uselessness in the face of others’ pains, if guilt or shame block us from remaining engaged, then maybe we can follow Heschel’s advice and seek to be embarrassed, if it will enable us to do more for our neighbor. As Heschel reminds us, “… truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us.”
Guilt or shame from a place of comparative privilege is one thing. We’re not actively complicit in the world’s wrongs, although there may be things we ought to do to make the world come closer to realized justice. What about those of us who go beyond that? What about all the hate, all the active malice, we see alive and well in the news every day? Maliciousness goes beyond a holy embarrassment – at least for the perpetrators. Maybe there, guilt or shame, is a necessary step on the road to justice. Not every sin can be so easily washed away. Hatred, when it roots deeply enough, seeps into too much of our world, and much work needs to be done to heal its damage. We don’t do well by anyone, by pretending otherwise.
Why hate? Why is there so much hate? As we strive to remain engaged in the work of building the world we dream about, over the long haul, we often come to a place where we need to face the rampant hate that infects too much of the world. But why is it so? James Baldwin has one answer that although may not answer all the questions of hate in the world, I feel offers a better answer than I can come up with. He writes, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Baldwin is right. Beneath hate, lies unacknowledged pain. It doesn’t excuse away the horrors that come from the hatreds that are allowed to live into the world, but it does frame them for what they are. Remaining engaged sometimes means helping people, who we don’t find easy common cause with, to come to turns with the pain hidden beneath the surface of their skins. To help them accept their places of brokenness, so that the holy words that once were written on the tablets of their hearts, are allowed to finally fall silently into their inner core and change them, to change us, for the better. Sometimes brokenness weakens us; sometimes brokenness makes us more human. Hatred can be the infantile railing against the pain of our brokenness, but it never succeeds in making us whole once more; it only ever succeeds in spreading our brokenness everywhere we go. When you find hatred within, take note and pause long enough not to spread it any further. It may be the hardest thing we do, but it’s sacred work; remaining engaged, through it all.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/23/16 and imagines what it means to be a “people of play.” Our text is based on “The Little Prince.”
This summer has been a reflective one for me. We watched some of our youth graduate from religious education and go away to college. Two of them, one from this year’s class and one from the last, I first met at a youth leadership school I led in our region before I came to our Fellowship. In August about fifty of us, I mentioned in the beginning of the service, enjoyed a week together at summer camp and watched a bunch of about 17 youth full of tears and joys, after being raised with love from their childhood, knowing that it was their last year there. I’m thinking of the parents here today who are suddenly aware that they are empty nesters and other parents who feel like that is so far away but coming too fast.
Brian and I got married and enjoyed a fabulous honeymoon. One that I never imagined I’d have the good fortune to enjoy. This week my friends and I mourned the death of a friend of ours we lost forty years too young. It’s been a reflective summer. If you are new to our community, a large part is celebrating the major transitions in life – we often think of memorials and weddings when we talk about this – but our children are probably celebrated even more. We have a perennial program we do for our younger grade schoolers and we have a really intense coming of age program for our junior youth. The twelfth graders, you will hear in 10 months, from this pulpit, as they graduate our program. Recognizing the mass of life transitions for our children and youth, UUs celebrate a ritual that is a sacred occurrence. A childhood of scraped knees, stressed out test taking and more head colds than anyone but a parent can truly appreciate. Sacred is the most apt word I can name of that moment that this all led up to. That moment that in turn will yield to a life time more. Whether they are graduating or moving away, it is just sort of starting there as well. But before that moment whether we are parents or not, and I probably never will be, there is our first conversation together with our kids around us. Most often we have this conversation with our toddlers. We heard it a little bit ago from the excerpt from The Little Prince. Come and play with me the Little Prince proposed. I can’t play with you, the fox said, I’m not tamed. By a show of hands, who here is a former toddler… most of you then, great. You may not recall asking this to an adult, you are likely too young to remember, but I imagine you can hear the same question asked back at you from our youngest children. One of which shares the chairs with you most Sundays, our children ask us, the whole congregation, the whole Unitarian-Universalist faith, to come play with them, to share in joy and silliness, and chalice lightings and play dough. They come to us asking to be in relationship with us. Only they use the word play, instead of big and fancy words, but it means the same thing in the long run. Hopefully, some of us as adults will remember that when we talk to each other too, right?
How it starts. And the congregation responds, I can’t play with you. I’m not tamed. It takes years to tame us, right? You have to be very patient. First you sit down a little away from me, over there in the grass and I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye and you won’t say anything. Language is the source of misunderstandings. This is child’s stuff right? But day by day you will be able to sit a little closer. Countless Sundays teaching us through snack times, reminding us of your needs, and the infant’s cries at worship reminding us to take solace in one another. For the goings will not always be smooth. But, even the noise of community is better than the silence of isolation, especially, better. Not in those words, but I think every time I hear a baby cry in here, life is just so much better than not having the baby there to be crying. And it is also true of life, community is often hard or uncomfortable but it is much better than doing it alone. Over the years our children and youth call us back to relevance for them, requesting a worship service that leads us to set aside time for them with the dream that someday the whole thing will make sense. Our youth have taught us to offer an education that speaks to where they are, what they might become and what gives capacity to make the life decisions they’ll need to make. And I bet for those of us that were raised in a different way of thinking, a different kind of religion, we might be trying to create a space that is welcoming to our kids, our children who might not be welcomed other places, or what we might not have been given, particularly around our LGBT youth. They create a space where they can be themselves and they can teach us from that place.
Not all foxes out there learn to do this, but this one has been tamed enough. I realize our role. This fox here, this room, our role is to be tamed, or as the fox puts it, to create ties. We are here to help bring more of our relevance to community with one another. We are here to learn to forge real connections to people that are near us and to develop a sense of compassion for those who are not in safe. You know so often we find out these platitudes like: be nice to people, be compassionate, try to remember when someone is not around. Oh, yeah, that is easy, we get it, we know that. Okay, how often do we do that all of the time? Anyone, do that all of the time? I think, it is the hardest lesson, the most simple lesson out there, and we say it over and over again because we can pass by it the second someone is nasty to you on the checkout line, everything is thrown out the window. Right? If you are waiting a long time, you get a bit rushed.
So, we are here to forge real connections and this can begin with play, learning to lose with kindness, to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace. Do you folks still play board games? Yeah, right? Do you ever play with family? Is that ever stressful? No, no, okay. Whoever says “no,” you can lead the adult education class on temperance next week. Learning to lose with kindness with family and to trust when we don’t all agree and to win with grace, think about those moments, think about those moments when really stupid things become really difficult.
This month we have been talking about play at our services and imagining what it would be like to be a people of play, what it would be like to not always take ourselves so seriously or so earnestly Not that there aren’t things that are serious. Most of the time you are going to hear me preach very earnestly and very seriously. But that is not always and forever what we are about and I think playing sometimes can open us up to being a little more human. Summer camps can open us up to being a little more human.
And when the time to leave was near, the fox said, I shall leave, but I get something because of the color of the wheat. Then he added, go and look at the roses again, and you will understand that yours is the only rose in all the world. So the rest of our kids have moved away or elders have retired to be closer to their grandkids, or sadly a number of friends or family have died, the color of the wheat in the field is different now for having that. All of life has changed and we are together for but a time, for some of us, thankfully, it might be a lifetime. Where ever you travel remember that you have been here. We are more than a place of people who tend toward an open view in life. We are not the sum of beliefs or opinions. Unitarian Universalism, this congregation, and our relationship is a way of living and acting and interacting. It is religious and it is cultural in differing ways. But essential to this is our commitment to walking together. Even when we are apart, the fox reminds us of this, here is my secret, it’s quite simple, it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. That which is essential is invisible to the eye.
Facts and details give way to relationships. I am personally glad for this point, I was raised up in a faith that gave me the impression that it had given me all of the answers and when I came to the realization that that was far from the truth, I felt a bit lost, because I had put my faith into beliefs and knowing. I found myself searching and I found myself in this faith as a late teen. This congregation, this community of friends and family will remain where ever we go. When you feel backed into a corner, give us a call, or post on a Facebook wall, our pastoral care team is here and it is here for you and my cell is in the Directory. When you call, we very likely will not have all of the answers and on occasion we will have none of them. The answers may still be just as elusive, but we have never been in the business of answers. We have been in the business of building a bigger and closer neighborhood and hopefully, changing the world through that. I know that that might be hard to believe, the bit about a closer neighborhood. This can be true for our folks in our seats this morning. Some of us know you pretty well, some very well and it will feel like a lot of folks barely know you at all. Of course any ordinary passerby would think my rose looks just like you because she is the one I watered.
You know when I first read The Little Prince, as a high school student in French class, I totally missed all the important bits like this because I was so focused on learning the words. It makes so much more sense in English. The message is completely true. I joined my first congregation 20 some odd years ago and whenever I run into them wherever I go, whether it is somewhere in New Jersey or out in the coast of New Hampshire, they look at me with a look of, you are one of us, and that has been true of other congregations I have been a member of and ones that I have served. We even had someone from my last church here visiting his kids and it is that moment that we had, like yes, we are still here, we are still together. You are one of ours. As long as we are here, we will be proud of you, in your successes and ever available in your hardship as best we can. I say all of us convince you with sincerity when I say, reach out to us whenever you need. Not everyone does when they need. And all of this begins with a place a play. We build community from lightheartedness. Remember that when you find yourself stuck in a place of complaint or curmudgeonliness. Staying in a place of harshness keeps the richness at bay and we all do it. And it never really helps but we all do it.
When we take seriously the fox’s last statement, people have forgotten this truth but you must not forget it. You become responsible for whatever you tamed. You are responsible for your rose. This is where it all kind of gets tricky. What does that mean? Who is the rose? We all are at times. You are part of the creation and you both cared for us as this rose is your years of attention and commitment and the caring you have given as a youth or as an adult to our youngest children, or our oldest adults and all of the stories that took place before I got here, a whole lifetime of stories in this community. You are also the rose for all the reasons I mentioned and all those you can imagine. We likewise feel responsible for you as we water you.
Where ever we are on our life’s journey, we are probably a little bit fed up with it. Who here is fed up with where they are on their life’s journey? Oh wow, a lot of enlightened people here. That is amazing. We are afloat, a bit weary for the tides and storms and feel like we have come this way by doing mathematics in the dark of night with nary a compass or sextant in hand and yet this is also the beauty of a faith without neat, clean answers. We get to travel with an ancient star as our guide, a lot of ancient stars as our guides, finding directions as best we can, interpret with the tools we have been given, as a sense of wonder and knowing the story may never truly end. This adventure demands of us the “we” in our lives. We never adventure alone. We always and only do it in relation. So each of you this morning, I ask you to think about, for our new year coming in, where shall we adventure in the months ahead? Where shall we do this together?
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/6/16 reflecting on the spiritual crisis centered in our criminal justice system. It draws from the wisdom of author and activist Bryan Stevenson.
All this year, our social justice committee has been working in collaboration with area UU congregations on educating, advocating and reflecting on the justice areas that intersect with the idea of just mercy. Our denomination has been reflecting on the work of Bryan Stevenson – author of the book “Just Mercy” – and who is also the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which fights poverty and challenges racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Our social justice team asked me to dedicate a sermon to deeper reflection on the areas of criminal justice reform. Some of us have taken part in book discussion groups related to this, and we’ll have a panel discussion coming up next week here in our main hall as well. And although I encourage us all to read “Just Mercy”, I’ve also shared a TED talk with Bryan Stevenson to our Facebook page, that gets at the core of the message for those who won’t be able to find the time for the reading at present, but want to learn more. Our Director of Religious Education, Starr Austin, chose this TED talk for our youth groups to watch and discuss today. We’re all reflecting on this.
In the TED talk, there’s a moment where Mr. Stevenson talks about ‘how some people are educators, but compassionate educators can do more; that some people are doctors, but compassionate doctors can do even more.’ It reminded me of the time when I was a Hospital Chaplain – back when I was studying to be a minister. (We’ll circle back soon enough to the questions at the center of criminal justice reform, but I think this story might help us find our way.) As a chaplain, I was primarily supporting the children and youth in a pediatric ICU. I would go door to door and check in on the patients. Some wouldn’t want to speak, others desperately needed it. Out of respect for confidentiality and privacy, I won’t go into any real detail about the conversation. I recall once, going into a room where the teenager was quite ill. Sometimes I had an idea of who I was visiting, other times I would be walking in right after someone was admitted, without much warning. This was one of those times. The teenager was with their father and the youth had a rare illness that was causing their skin to come off in patches – falling to the floor. The medical community actually didn’t yet know what was causing it or what was actually happening. I am still grateful to this day that I didn’t gasp out loud.
There was absolutely nothing I was going to be able to do for this teenager. No good word. No great wisdom. I couldn’t even say that I had any real idea of what they were going through. This was completely beyond me. I would be able to walk away, maybe stunned, but I’d go back to my life, while this teenager was going to be dealing with an uncertain medical sentence for the foreseeable future. I remember getting on the subway later, and while looking at other commuters, wondering how people went about their normal days, as if what was happening at that ICU wasn’t happening. Well for most of us, it was out of sight, so it was out of mind.
Now, the hospital I was working at, generally was better than most hospitals when it came to their pediatric ICU. The doctors and nurses were warm and loving. But we all know of hospitals where that’s not necessarily the case. And even in the best of hospitals, sometimes human connection can be hard to find. The role of the chaplain is spiritual, but it’s also often simply human; someone there to make sure we all remember that patients are still humans too. For that teen – going through something we could never imagine for ourselves and never would wish on our worst enemy – I was just another person coming by to say the world is still here, they’re still who they are, and they are still loved. Some of us, maybe all of us in one way or the other, come to a point in our lives where we’re on the edge looking out wondering if we can manage this next impossible thing; having someone near to remind us that we are still connected, may make all the difference – even if it can’t be fixed. Compassion – we are better with compassion – both in the giving and certainly in the receiving. We can look at patients as people, or we can focus on the ailment to the exclusion of their humanity – numbers, policies and statistics over tears, hopes and fears.
Often, nationally speaking, when we talk about the criminal justice system and reform – we go to the place of numbers and policies and politics and punishment and strength and what may or may not pass as justice. It become debate points; intellectual bullets that get shot back and forth. We take positions, rather than continue to relate as people. Today, regardless of whatever your personal opinions may be, I’ll ask us all to try to enter into a sort of pastoral imagination. How would we engage with criminal justice if we were chaplains in the face of a life sentence we had no way of changing? Can we take our first principle seriously enough to go to that person remembering that they still have inherent worth and dignity?
Today, we’re not going to fix any policy or law. We’re not going to free anyone who has been falsely imprisoned. We won’t be able to go back in time and help that 13 year old – who was tried as an adult – wipe away their life-in-prison sentence. We’re the only Western Civilization that will sentence teenagers to life in prison – the only one. We won’t be able to change the reality of a nation full of death sentences – something that we know turn out to be wrong convictions 1 in 9 times. Imagine that – we still offer the death sentence even when we know they are overturned 1 time in 9. What hubris.
But we can reflect on the ethics of our criminal justice system. We can challenge ourselves to remain in that place of pastoral imagination – not allowing ourselves off the hook by pretending the human life that’s now behind bars is merely a statistic. That’s too easy to do for those of us on this side of the bars, and too horrifying for those forgotten on the other side.
Bryan Stevenson made a point for me that shook me to my core. I feel foolish for never thinking of it myself, but I guess I wasn’t raised to look for this sort of truth on my own. I think we need to do better as a people. I’ll paraphrase – He was talking with one German official about the death penalty and they said their country could never have the death penalty again – considering their history. Using a sort of pastoral imagination, Bryan reflected that right – a country that had a history of murdering jews could never trust itself to implement the death penalty – especially toward ethnic or religious minorities. He challenged us to think the same way considering our own history with slavery and lynching. When we know we have a history of slavery; when we know we have a history of lynching; when we know we have a history of voter disenfranchisement; when we know we have a history of water hoses and red lining (housing persecution) and school segregation and so on and so on – can we trust ourselves with the death penalty when it comes to African Americans? … We have serious reflection that must be done, and it’s long overdue.
Studying his words, I also came to realize we have blinders on when it comes to the purpose of the justice system. There’s a heavy focus on punitive actions; not restorative. You cross this line, or we think you crossed this line, and there are repercussions. But even the victims aren’t better off. There’s a focus on punishment, but no call for perpetrators to seek to do anything to make their victims better off in some way. Pastoral imagination again – why are we better off focusing solely on perdition, and not redemption or restoration? What does that say about us as a people?
It also traps us in a state of a sort of tunnel vision. The human being before us becomes solely about the crime they have committed. Yes, we can surely say violent crimes need to be handled with severity; but so many people are doing far too much time – if not functionally for life – for non-violent crimes. We can go to a knee-jerk place of imagining every prison inmate is there for violent crimes, but that’s simply not true.
Just six weeks ago, President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. …This means that we were putting teenagers in solitary confinement! What are we doing?! The Washington Post reported the president’s words: “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” Obama wrote in his op-ed. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.” … It seems to be that we as a people have so over-identified with the sense that any punishment we do must be inherently correct that we’ve allowed our nation to swing so far in a direction that defies common sense. It’s a punitive practice I would imagine done in fascist countries, not a leading democracy; but in 2016 it takes our President to stop tortuous practices being committed against juvenile inmates.
All this year, our denomination is wondering aloud, who are we in relation to criminal justice and what does criminal justice actually look like. Our social justice committee will continue to foster opportunities for deeper learning, and for action. It is for us to stay engaged. It may or may not touch directly on our own lives, but like doctors and educators from the earlier metaphor, as citizens we are better when we are compassionate citizens – and hopefully engaged citizens. This month we are beginning a time of reflecting on what it means to be a people of liberation. The first step may be in developing that pastoral imagination when others are speaking of their own bonds. Can we make room for seeing a wider picture, with a deeper heart?