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Hope Justice

Lessons from a Christmas Cactus

This blog was also featured in Huffington Post.

 

Don’t you think it’s odd that Christmas — the time of the year we celebrate the Christ child, the light of the world — is also the darkest time of the year? At least here in the Northern Hemisphere, you get up in the morning . . . and it’s dark. You leave work, and it’s dark. Somewhere in the middle, it gets light, but you don’t remember it ‘cause you are too busy complaining about how dark it is all the time.

As mere human beings, it is hard to wait for the light of the world during the darkest time of the world. However, if we were, say, a Christmas cactus, it would be easy. My grandmother, who lived in the North Carolina mountains had these huge hanging baskets of Christmas cactuses that were just loaded with red blooms. We couldn’t figure out how she did it, until one day she shared her trick. She put them in the cold, dark root cellar. In short, the plants use the darkness to bloom.

Maybe this Advent season, we should take a lesson from the Christmas cactus, for life can be found in the darkest times. In fact, that is when life explodes forth.

This may sound counterintuitive to some because we tend to equate darkness with evil, with bad things. We have to be careful about the language we use. What we say over time affects what we do and what we think. If, for example, we consistently think or speak of darkness as evil or bad, how can we help from translating that to race? Or racism?

Lord knows, these days, we cannot afford anything that separates us, anything that undermines love, anything that weakens our fight for justice. As Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

There are infinite examples of the goodness and beauty of darkness. The sheen of a raven’s wing in the noonday sun, the deep, dark haze of the Blue Ridge mountains, or most obvious . . . chocolate.

Darkness is also a source of life itself. Look at Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and a wind from God was sweeping over the water. God then said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Darkness was God’s first creation and it is a life-giving gift. The night is the time all life sleeps and rejuvenates. Human life begins in the darkness of the womb. Seeds germinate in the deep darkness of the earth. And the darker the soil, the richer the crop.

Darkness is where life forms. It is a birthing place for hopes and dreams. Like the Christmas cactus that needs to enter a stage of dormancy in the darkness to bloom, we too need the darkness to thrive and to flower. So this Advent season, let us ask ourselves: what beautiful new thing do we want to birth?

The great actress Lana Turner once said to Frank Sinatra, “There’s something so enchanting about twilight.” How true. There is something enchanting, and magical and healing about the darkness of this season. This week, when you get up in the dark and go to bed in the dark and wonder when, if ever, the light will come, remember that life itself springs from the darkness. Remember that it was in the middle of the night, in the darkest time of the year that the Christ child was born unto us.

Hope

Three Redwood Wishes

Toby and I took an epic trip over Thanksgiving. First, Amtrak across the country from Chicago to LA in a sleeper car. Then a drive through the great national parks of California, including visits to the sequoia and redwood trees.

Anyone who has stood in the presence of redwoods knows that it’s a holy experience. As I walked under their great canopy, I began to wonder: what if these massive trees could talk? What wisdom would they share with our twenty-first-century society? What redwood wishes might be offered for our broken world?

While I’m not sure of the answer, if I had to guess, I’d say they would share three wishes. And those three wishes would come straight out of Corinthians 13: 7:  “Love bears all things, love believes and hopes all things, love endures all things.”

Redwood Wish #1:   Bear Each Other up
One of the tallest living things on earth, redwoods can grow up to four hundred feet in height (comparable to a thirty-five-story building). But they don’t reach these towering heights by sinking their roots down into the ground. They grow to these heights by sending their roots out — horizontally — and connecting with the other trees in the forest. In short, they’re tall because they bear each other up.

Redwood Wish #2:  Believe and Hope All Things Good
As I sat in that forest, I was struck by the cycle of life all around me. There were the great mature trees forming a huge canopy shading the entire forest. Then there were the tiny seedlings; scrappy, feisty little green shoots straining, reaching up and out to find sunlight to help them grow.

Perhaps that’s what meant in 1 Corinthians when it says, “love believes all things and hopes all things.”  Love looks for the good. Like those little seedlings, it strains to find the best, the sunlight in others.

But of course, there’s a trick.  In order to see the best in others, we have to be able to see it in ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us tend to go to the negative first, the faults first, the flaws first. We forget that we are made in the image of the divine; that each of us at our core is holy and loveable and full of sunlight. There is a reason that the bible says, “love your neighbor AS yourself.”   Like the sunlight for those little seedlings, love is about finding the good in ourselves and our neighbor; it is about finding our source of life and being.

Redwood Wish #3:  Endure with an Eye Towards the Longview
Not only are redwoods some of the tallest living creatures, they are some of the oldest, many dating back two thousand years. That means that some of these trees have lived through everything from the Roman Empire to Lady Gaga.

It makes you wonder: how would our lives be different if we had such a long view of the world. How would our choices – our life – be different with such a perspective?

It is so easy to get caught up in our day to day stress, the “crisis” de jour staring at us from our inbox, the ringing phone, the emails, the tweets.  While these may seem important now, if we look at them with an eye to the long view, they begin to fade into obscurity. In the long view things like family, community, health, joy, and compassion become the clear priorities.

Do we bear each other up? Do we believe and hope all things good? Do we take the long view? Our lives might take a different turn if we would only begin to orient our path toward love, compassion, and these three redwood wishes.

Empowerment Justice

If You Don’t Roar, What’s the Point?

Before I start, I want to offer an apology to all non-Harley motorcycle riders who may be offended by this message.    God loves you. And I try.


Many years ago, before I bought my first bike, my husband Toby took me to a biker rally in Connecticut (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Like most rallies, the bikes were parked in rows with admirers walking up and down, comparing motorcycles and sharing stories.

Of all the gathered horsepower, for me, one bike stood out. It was hard to miss: red flames on a jet-black gas tank, fringed ape-hanger handlebars that you had to reach high above your head to hold, pipes that looked like two huge corn silos laid sideways, and a sticker on the back bumper that read: “Vietnam: We were winning when I left.”

Standing by the bike was the owner (again, who was hard to miss). Straight out of Road Warrior, he donned dirt encrusted black leather chaps, a leather vest (worn shirtless – and shouldn’t have been), and a giant tattoo on his left arm that was something akin to the naked woman silhouette on a tractor-trailer mud flap.

As we watched, he took the last inhale off his cigarette, ground it under his harness boot and swung his leg over the bike preparing to crank up and leave.

“This should be good,” I said to Toby, pointing at the pipes.

“Don’t count on it,” he replied, rolling his eyes.

The road warrior pulled the bike up off the kickstand, straightened the front wheel, pushed the kill switch to run, then turned to the gathered crowd with a Jack Nicholson type grin, and pressed the start button.

The sound that came out made me gasp. It was like a grasshopper in puberty – breathy, high pitched, even a bit annoying.

“What is that?” I exclaimed. “How could something that big and bad sound so wimpy?”

Toby laughed. “It’s a Honda. That’s how they sound.”

“But what about all the badass leather stuff?”

“Hype,” he said, shaking his head.

I stood there in shock for a few more moments until another sound exploded out over the grasshopper noise. It was a sound that combined the threatening rumble of an approaching thunderstorm with the subtle “potato-potato-potato” rhythm chugged out by the exhaust stacks of my Uncle’s 1960 John Deere. I turned, and there behind us, gleaming in the sun, was a giant Harley Davidson.

“Oh, I love that sound!” I blurted out.

“Yup, I figured you would,” Toby nodded. Then he added the words that have stuck with me until this day: “Hey if it don’t roar, what’s the point?”  (I’ve been a Harley rider ever since.)

If it don’t roar, what’s the point?

Amen to that. It’s true for motorcycles and it’s true for us. We can live life with a whimper or we can live it with a roar. We’re going to be riding down life’s road either way. Why choose anything but living life loud and proud.

This is especially good advice now given our headlines. So many people are offering a voice that sounds more like a grasshopper, than a roar — veiled concerns, passive good wishes, the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers.” But if you don’t back these passive words up with action – with a roar – it’s only hype.

And a roar is exactly what it’s going to take. We are facing gun violence, racism, mass murders, sexual attacks, natural disasters, and rampant terrorism. We have to do something. As the book of James says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14).

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of prayer. But prayer alone is not enough. As God told the Apostle Paul, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent” (Acts 18:9). Maybe this means calling your government officials, or speaking out against gun violence, or offering a kind word to guests at a food bank or manning the phones at a battered women’s shelter.

Whatever it is, we must take a stand. We must speak out. We must not live our lives with a whimper. Because in the end, if we don’t roar, what’s the point?

Justice Uncategorized

“Ga-head, Tell Me I’m Unworthy”

This blog was also preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City. View it on YouTube.

 

A long time ago, in a land far away . . . I was young. In that time of tender youth, third grade to be exact, I decided to flaunt my budding creative/performer genes and do a book report in front of my class. Feeling that everyone else’s report before me had been lame (at best), I decided to act mine out. And I chose a book – on Elvis.

So here I was standing outside my classroom door, waiting to make my grand entrance, and I glanced at the reflection of myself in the glass doors. The polyester pants, go-go boots, and plastic guitar weren’t that big a deal – but the sideburns, oh yes, the sideburns, they were a problem. I constructed them of cotton balls that I had dyed black with shoe polish and glued to the sides of my face. They may, perhaps, be over the top, I thought to myself.

Before I had time to reconsider, the door opened and our teacher’s voice bellowed out: “Our next book report is by a special guest all the way from Memphis, Tennessee. Boys and girls, please welcome Elvis!”

I took a deep breath and walked into the classroom, strumming the guitar, singing “Hound Dog,” and making a motion that looked like I was doing a hula hoop.

When I finished my grand entrance, I stopped and struck an Elvis-esque pose.  “Thank ya, thank ya vur much.” I was so proud. I thought I had just done the greatest thing ever. But then I came back to Earth and realized that there was utter silence from the class. Then hysterical laughter. And not laughter as in this is funny, but laughter as in she is so weird. And they kept laughing, even the teacher was laughing. My nemesis, Allen Roberts, yelled out, “You’re stupid!” and that’s when Elvis, tearing up, ran out of the room and left the building.

While I got a “B” on the book report (I think out of pity), that experience branded an ominous message into my little 8-year-old brain. Creativity, uniqueness – who I was at my core – was bad. It made me different – and being different meant people would reject you.

My story is rather privileged, as I could camouflage the creativity. But there were other kids in the class who were judged and couldn’t camouflage – like my friend Cassandra who was one of the few black students in the school. She was set apart as different and couldn’t morph or change, and had to deal with the rejection head on.

There are many versions of this story in life, where who we are at our core sets us apart as different. It could be our personality; it could be our inherent gifts; it could be our race, our gender, our language, our religion, our nationality, our sexual orientation. And the world judges different as bad and rejects it.

We’ve all experienced it in some form – some of us on a more privileged level and some of us not. But the result of being different – no matter how we experience it – generates the same obstacle. And that obstacle is shame.

Shame is corrosive, it eats away at us from the inside. It dictates our choices because we treat ourselves as we see ourselves.

If we don’t see ourselves as worthy, then we will drive ourselves into the ground in an attempt to become worthy. We will say yes to everything. We will fight to be the best at everything. We will destroy ourselves in order to be worthy.

Brothers and sisters – my message today is three words: We – are – worthy. Every single one of us is worthy. And here’s three reasons why:

1) Our worth is not based on the judgment of the world.

Just look at God’s words to Samuel: “Do not consider appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7).

2) Diversity is our strength.

Diversity is nature’s strength. We see it from Mount Everest to Death Valley, Pekinese to draft horses, black holes to exploding stars, the Navaho people to the Maasai tribesman in Tanzania. Nature’s ability to change, adapt, and evolve comes from its diversity.

So, too, diversity is our strength — our greatest gift. It’s what sets us apart in the sea of robotic corporate soldiers. It’s what makes each of us irreplaceable.

The tragedy is that in constantly shunning our diverse gifts, we grind down our uniqueness to a smooth, slab of conformity.. It’s like the old saying, “If you try and hammer a round peg into a square hole, you destroy the peg.”

3) Authenticity is our gift – our greatest gift.

The psalmists tell us that. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

The jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker put it another way. “If you don’t live [the blues], it won’t come out your horn.”

God made us this way; gave all of us fearful and wonderful gifts. Who are we to tell God that we’re not worthy?

I am reminded of the powerful words of Kristin Beck, a retired Navy Seal hero – deployed 13 times over two decades, including stints in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. She received the Bronze Star Medal for valor and the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in combat. She is also transgender.

And when our President announced this summer that the US military would bar transgender people from serving, her response: “Let’s meet face-to-face, then you tell me I’m not worthy.” (As a New Yorker, I imagine her saying it in a slightly different way: “Tell him to meet me face-to-face. Then, @!#&(%*# Ga-head, tell me I’m unworthy!”)

When we live into our truth, when we stand firm in the face of judgment, we are a witness and an invitation to others to do the same. Of course, we may never know it. But just because we don’t see a big scoreboard with the names of the people healed, helped by our actions – doesn’t mean they are not there. It’s like the old saying, “The farmer does not put a seed in the ground then scream over it. In faith, he leaves it alone.”

So we plant, we wait, and we live into our truth. We stand firm in the face of judgment, and we offer a witness and an invitation to others to do the same.

This week, when the world starts to tell us that we’re lesser, when we feel ourselves beginning to shrink, pull away, weaken . . .

Remember you are fearfully and wonderfully made;

Remember that diversity is our strength and authenticity is our gift;

Remember the image of US Navy Seal hero Kristin Beck, so that when the world comes at us with judgment and shame, we too can stand face-to-face with our critics, and say with power and authority, “Ga-head, tell me I’m unworthy.”

Justice

The Eclipse of All Things Good

This blog was featured by Huffington Post  and given as a sermon on August 20, 2017 at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

 

Unless you have been living under a gigantic boulder for the past month, you know that tomorrow there will be a total eclipse of the sun. And, it’s going to be quite a party . . .

The 7–Eleven is selling eclipse glasses. There are solar eclipse t-shirts and solar eclipse apps. My favorite are the numerous articles about how to throw an eclipse party, complete with eclipse arts and crafts and suggested food, like blackout cake, crescent cookies, or dishes with sun-dried ingredients. For us in 2017, the eclipse will be a huge party. For the ancients, however, it meant panic.

In the days before people understood the orbits of the sun and the moon, they had no idea what caused an eclipse. In fact, many cultures had myths about evil characters trying to devour the sun. The Vikings believed wolves ate it, the Chinese thought a dragon ate it, the Vietnamese a frog, and the Romans a demon. Whatever it was, the ancients believed an eclipse was a bad omen, a sign of destruction to come, an eclipse of all things good.

We also see it in the Bible. The prophet Joel, for example, warned that because the people were turning from God, a day of darkness and gloom would come, where “the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 2:10).

However, there’s a slight difference. In this passage, the prophet Joel is talking about an eclipse of the sun not by the moon, but by locusts; locusts that come in huge swarms blackening the skies, destroying and consuming everything in their path – all food sources, all nourishment, all things good (Joel 2:25).

Twenty-five hundred years later, we face yet another eclipse of all things good. Here in 2017 America, the light is being eclipsed by our own plague of locusts — the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and the white nationalists we saw in Charlottesville – locusts coming in swarms, blackening the skies, and destroying everything in their path, destroying all things good.

Charlottesville, Virginia is only one example. This plague has been going on for years and is now growing in strength. This weekend alone there were nine different alt-right rallies planned across the country in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Mountain View, CA, New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

And here’s the scariest part — these hate-based groups are being led by young people. The pastor, author, and theologian Brian McLaren was in Charlottesville and reported that the white nationalists were young, the majority in their twenties and thirties, carrying torches and chanting phrases, such as: “White lives matter!” and “Jews will not replace us!”

He went on to note how young, white poeple are being radicalized in America today to the point of using the ISIS tactic of killing people with vehicles — like the one that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. He said, “Radicalization isn’t simply something that happens in the Middle East — it is happening today, in Ohio and Kentucky and Florida and Virigina.”

Have no doubt, we are facing an eclipse of epic proportions — one that will devour all the light and steal from us all things good, including our young people and our future.

So what do we do? We, again, take a lesson from our ancient ones. In the era when people thought a wolf was eating the sun, they also believed that the creature could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible: yelling, ringing bells, or banging pots and pans. The book of Joel starts out with similar language (2:1): “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!”

The only way to fight the evil that is blotting out our light is to blow the trumpet and sound the alarm. To speak out and often.

Let me give you two examples. First, what happens when we don’t speak out. This week, our President, when criticizing the riots in Charlottesville offered a vague, watered-down response, saying the violence “came from many sides.” After a national backlash, he then condemned the white nationalist. Within days, he defended them again, saying “there were some very fine people in their midst.”

That failure to “sound the trumpet” prompted David Duke, former imperial wizard of the Klan, to tweet this: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”

Let’s be clear: the KKK tweeted a thank you note to the President of the United States.

This is the ultimate eclipse of all things good.

And its’ not just the President. It’s white Christians who have been woefully silent. This week, a headline in the Washington Post read: “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” It quoted Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail, “[they] have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Whether pastor or parishioner, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christan, Atheist, or just trying-to-figure-it-out, we cannot remain silent. Dr. King warned us, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Let me now give you an opposite example; an example of someone who is speaking out. Rev. Rob W. Lee, IV is a decedent of General Robert E. Lee who led the Confederacy during the Civil War. Rev. Lee is a minister in North Carolina, an outspoken anti-racist, and a fighter of the white nationalists. In fact, he is fighting for the statue of his relative, General Robert E. Lee, to be taken down.

As a Southerner myself – a Southerner with numerous relatives who fought for the Confederacy – I was deeply moved by his words and actions. And despite death threats and threats to his church, Rev. Lee continues to speak out.

“God has commanded us to speak up to small and big acts of oppression. So that may mean condemning the racist joke or standing up for the woman who needs a raise because they make 70 cents on the dollar compared to men . . . or that black lives matter to God. When you ignore the fact that white matters more than black you are being silent to a population of God’s children . . . Until we get off our thrones and into the streets to proclaim and re-claim what racism has taken away, we’ve missed the point of Christ’s death and resurrection.”

We have to blow the trumpet in Zion. We must sound the alarm on God’s holy mountain. We have to – – if for no other reason than for our children. How can we face them if we don’t? How can we hand them a world eclipsed by hatred and evil? We can’t. We must fight and then tell them of our fight.

Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation (Joel 1:3).

And when we do, God offers us a promise:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,                                            your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:17).

Brothers and sisters, we have to be the dreamers.

We have to be the ones to blow the trumpet and call out the evil.

We have to be the ones to sound the alarm against hatred, racism and judgment.

We have to be the ones to hold on to that dream where all God’s children are treated with respect and dignity and love.

This is a dream that was there before the eclipse of all things good.

And it will be there, shining out, when the shadow moves on.

For then, we will know

“I, the Lord, am your God and no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:27).

Empowerment Self care Uncategorized

Sharpening the Saw

APRIL 2017

I am writing you as Toby and I drive to our beautiful little cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin for a three-month sabbatical; a most gracious gift from my church to use for rest and renewal.

For the past several weeks, I have thought a lot about how to use this precious time. And what I kept circling back to was a book that I read many years ago entitled, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. (I consider myself a wanna-be effective person … but it’s the trying that counts, right?)

The seventh habit is the one I focused on. It is entitled: Sharpening the saw.

“Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual  . . .  As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life . . . You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you. Without this renewal, the body becomes weak, the mind mechanical, the emotions raw, the spirit insensitive, and the person selfish . . . Living a life in balance means taking the necessary time to renew yourself.”

I’ve learned the hard way that self-renewal is something we must be proactive about; something we must build into everyday life. This summer I hope do just that through reading, writing, and a balance of quiet thought, meditative fishing and loud motorcycle pipes. But more importantly, I hope to recommit to making self-care a consistent practice, a daily/weekly/monthly habit that will offer continual renewal even after I return.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”  While most of us are not planning on literally chopping down trees, we all have plans and hopes and dreams that require a sharp saw. And that’s exactly what I intend to create.

As part of that sharpening, I am going to take a break from blogging. It requires a lot of energy to create and publish a weekly message. In order to sharpen the saw for when I return, I need to pause. That said, I may sneak a few messages out there just to let you know I’m still here 🙂

Have a great summer and talk to you in August!

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