Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

I am a protestor. This is the first in a three part series outlining my thinking and position as it relates to racial injustice in our society and lamenting racial divisions within the Church. In observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last Thursday (1/15) and this weekend’s observance of the Holiday set apart in honor of his legacy, Part One highlights Dr. King’s own words from a half century ago that still ring loudly in their call for freedom today.

I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth, who won’t accept deception instead of what is truth. It seems we lose the game before we even start to play. Who made these rules? We’re so confused, easily led astray.

Sometimes it seems, we’ll touch that dream, but things come slow or not at all. And the ones on top, won’t make it stop, So convinced that they might fall.

Lauryn Hill “Everything is Everything” (1998)

On September 1, 1958, writing from New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. publishes “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in the September issue of Fellowship, an abbreviated version of chapter six of his book Stride Toward Freedom. Citing Jesus in Luke chapter 4, Dr. King writes, “The Christian ought always to be challenged by any protest against unfair treatment of the poor, for Christianity is itself such a protest, nowhere expressed more eloquently than in Jesus’s words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’”

The Reverend continues, expanding on his long held deep concerns about the gap between superfluous wealth and abject poverty. Dr. King notes, “Capitalism is always in danger of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” These words would be exponentially prophetic, especially highlighted by the needless death of Eric Garner over sales of loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York on July 17, 2014 in which we became aware that the situation had escalated to one in which capitalism is now more concerned about protecting a living than taking a life.

Four and a half years later, on April 16, 1963, amidst an eight-day incarceration in Birmingham, Alabama for engaging in direct nonviolent protest, Martin Luther King Jr. pens an eloquent defense of work being done to advance Civil Rights and a stinging critique of the critical clergy who have failed to support the movement.

Dr. King gives the benefit of good will to his fellow clergy, but explains that their charges fall outside of the Biblical mission of Shalom, saying, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Dr. King’s appeal here lays the moral and ethical stare decisis for those listening to the Sprit’s prophetic voice to become involved in addressing injustice where they are able.

In his treatise from Birmingham, Dr. King expounds on the value of nonviolent protest explaining that the intent of such direct action is to create opportunity for negotiation, “to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Is it possible that this is what theology looks like?

He continues, “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.”

For Christ followers, especially those like me who enjoy asymmetrical power and unmerited privilege in our culture based on gender and race inequality, the challenge is to look to Jesus’ example of a King voluntarily stepping down from His throne and to ask myself if I am willing to pay the same severe price of such a costly interruption.

Mug shot of Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) "One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

After outlining a multitude of the inhuman offenses of the racism which he suffered, Dr. King makes a plea that, “when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”– then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait… One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Our brother and hero in the faith then shares his broken optimism lamenting the racial divisions in God’s church, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

“When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

The temptation is to say that things have changed; that Dr. King’s “Dream” was eventually realized and that a post-racial society has been achieved over the course of the last half-century. That simple academic knowledge of the Bible is we need to make things right. This would make me feel better. Allow me to discount the narratives that do not fit my worldview. But if we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters of color, to hear the minority report, we find an entirely different story altogether.

Is it possible, as comedian Chris Rock recently pointed out to Frank Rich of New York Magazine, “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”

Is it possible some of us just discounted the above statement because it came from a comedian and used that as an excuse not to hear the experiences and wisdom that could be gleaned from hearing a black man out?

Regardless of what you have come to believe about the character of Michael Brown following the tragic untimely end to his young life, are we willing to hear the anger and distrust of the Ferguson community? Even if it costs us something?

After a sixth bullet struck Michael Brown he fell facedown onto the double-yellow lines of Canfield Drive. Mr. Brown’s blood began to run in a small river down the pitched road. His body lay prostrate in forced submission to the police where he remained, at least partially uncovered and in view of neighborhood residents and onlookers for four and a half hours. In the aftermath, a 21 year old Ferguson resident, Alexis Torregrossa, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you. To set an example, that’s how I see it.”

Do we have ears to hear Ms. Torregrossa? If so, we must acknowledge that we have more work to do. Work that starts with listening, not to why all lives matter, but to how and why for so long the lives of black people have been placed at such a grave discount.

Are we willing to listen?

Jan 2015 New Yorker Cover

“I’m so humble, it’s crazy. I’m like the Kanye West of humility.” – @AnnaKendrick47 tweet 4 Nov 2014

My wallet is more Hoarders than Mise-en-place, full of just as many memories as items of practical use. Among the bank and insurance cards, there is a note from my son scrawled in blue marker that reads (with an inverse P) “Sheq I ♥ You” and a mini-letter that my Mom snuck into my belongings when I first went off to college, always good for getting choked up, “I love you more than words can tell. My oldest son who was once so shy that he wouldn’t leave my side. You have grown up and become a fine young man. Thank you for being you! I’m proud to call you my son”. Others can have their streamlined wallets and flat pockets, but I prefer the Oompa Loompa look if it allows me to carry precious people with me wherever I go.

But also buried in my wallet is a token of a different type. A grayed parking garage ticket from the Woodland Hills Cheesecake Factory stamped 9/27/03 PAID: $5.00, overlaid in bold faced red crayon print, a loud reminder from my past self that “I AM AN IDIOT!!” I AM AN IDIOT!!

We were in the valley that evening to celebrate our good friend Wednesday’s birthday. Jaime and I were just six months away from being engaged, but you never would have known it judging from my behavior and her justified disgust. I am not the most self-aware guy even now, but over a decade ago I was certainly blind to the sheer intensity of my own faults. We had gotten into an argument of some sort walking back to the car, flustering me greatly. As a result upon getting into the car I was unable to locate the parking ticket provided to pay the attendant. There was a sign up that noted loss of a ticket would result in paying the maximum garage price, and as we were in L.A., this was an unreasonable sum for borrowing some concrete real estate for a couple hours.

So I did what any hot-headed, arrogant, complete jerk would do. I quite naturally assumed, genuinely believed and was outrageously adamant that this was NOT my fault. Clearly, the parking garage attendant had neglected to give me a ticket. I stormed over to the poor fellow who appeared to be a immigrant from either the Indian subcontinent or Asia-Pacific, but I couldn’t tell you definitively because I was clearly not preoccupied in any way with this gentleman’s humanity. I absurdly bullied this man with a lie I believed and did not relent until my parking had been validated, though my version of events had not. I found the actual ticket in my car later that evening much to my dismay.

What had I done? What kind of man treats another human being that way? How could I expect to be in a relationship with this woman I loved when I could not look past myself to listen to her advice? Advice which had been loud and clear in both speech and body language in that garage.

I could not. So I wrote myself a note on the fabricated ticket I paid $5 and took someone’s dignity for and decided to carry it around for the many times I need to be reminded of my great tendency to get in my own way, despite the best intentions of those around me willing to help. This week was one of those times.

You would think, especially seeing as I officially lost the first 17 disputes of our marriage as confirmed by Google and phone-a-friend tactics, that I would have wised up to the reality that not only is my beautiful wife a good-willed person, but she is most often right. Both first-born siblings, she was the first to regularly call me out on the use of what she deemed “big brother facts”, the times when elder siblings use their aged status as pretext for fabricating all manner of knowledge in order to increase or maintain status over younger siblings. She would have none of my confidently asserted falsehoods, for she too had played that hand.

But approaching 10 ½ years of marriage, I still can act quite the fool, as evidenced at least three times just this week:

Sunday evening – Against All Odds: Wham! Lamb! Thank You Ma’am

With my brother-in-law Robert in town for a visit, we settled in for some Catan on our well-worn board. Early on I felt confident of my positioning, with settlements on all five resources and a couple of prime probability real estate properties including an “8” Wheat hex. With the first Development Card action of the evening Jaime deployed the robber though not to the Wheat of higher probability, but instead blocked accumulation rights on a less probable “9” Sheep patch.

Jaime chooses to block a less probable hex, and of course makes the right decision relegating me to last place

Jaime chooses to block a less probable hex, and of course makes the right decision relegating me to last place

I literally asked her, “Out of curiosity, why did you place the robber there?” Insinuating the Wheat stoppage would be better game strategy, after all “No Wheat Means Defeat.” Jaime was unfazed and said she felt like blocking the Sheep. I made an offhand comment that it was a move I wouldn’t have made. Insert foot in mouth here.

As fate would have it, that Sheep would remain blocked for the majority of the game along with a plethora of “9” dice rolls. Without an ability to collect Sheep I had little D Card prowess, thus unable to deliver my Sheep from the thief. Meanwhile, my vaunted “8” Wheat produced a grand total of three rolls throughout the entirety of the game, solidly cementing me in last place while Jaime and Robert vied for the title. In retrospect, I should have asked my wife, “Out of curiosity, with your brilliant unorthodox strategy there, should I just retire early to bed? Because you have effectively and preemptively shut me down. Well done.”

Tuesday morning through Wednesday morning – Out in the Cold

Even after a decade of living in cold weather climates, I still have a tendency to act foolishly when it comes to the bitter winter months. My wife of more practice and wisdom often tries to help my ignorance, which I then foolishly ignore.

Monday was my 32nd birthday, Jaime and Robert tag teamed to prepare fish tacos and mint chocolate chip/chocolate/coffee milkshakes affectionately referred to as Dead Frogs. We then went out to see Selma capping a lovely evening. Earlier in the day, Jaime had gifted me a nice shell jacket, which is basically shorthand for something you could wear in the Fall on its own merit, but should practically be used as a layer in winter months. But because it was new and I am an idiot, I thought “Hey, why not wear just this?”

Jaime of course, quickly caught my mistake and warned me it was cold out. I big brother fact-ed that it was indeed warmer out, based not on any meteorological evidence or research, but more on the feeling I had that I wished it was warmer out. While I did not freeze, I certainly was not comfortable at various points in the day, which easily could have been avoided. Rather than immediately admit my mistake, I elected instead to focus on the relatively little time I had to spend outside.

Even better, the temperatures dropped into the single digits overnight. Sometime in the early morning hours, Jaime whispered. “I hope our pipes don’t freeze.” I immediately responded that they would most certainly not, for just last week the temperature hovered at zero for a day or so and the house had handled things just fine. Predictably by now, I ate a large helping of humble pie for breakfast upon waking up to find toilets that would not flush due to frozen pipes. Cue flashback of parking garage ticket.

Friday night – Don’t Bring a Baby to a Gunfight, Please

So even after I thought I had re-learned my lesson, Jaime and I were lounging on the couch last night putting the kids to bed when she stumbled across one of those terrible Buzzfeed car wrecks that you cannot not click on.

This one was a series of pregnancy announcement photos with the tag line, “Some things you can’t unsee.” Aside from one strangely mesmerizing photo of what appeared to be a pregnant mom draped in a white satin curtain flowing in the wind, atop a horse somewhere in the Shire, there was all manner of pictures I wish I could remove from my memory. Not the least of which was a picture of a man pointing a gun at the photographer while reaching around to caress the pregnant belly of his lover. This was so alarmingly bizarre that when a second photo later in the collection showed a similarly dressed bare bellied mom-to-be with her admiring gaze on her man and her hand on a firearm in his waistband, I could not reconcile that this could possibly be two different couples. I said as much. Jaime countered and of course was correct upon review.

So what have I learned?

Being wrong is a part of life. But the manner in which I am frequently, confidently and immediately wrong, especially in interactions with my loving and patient wife is something I am dedicated to improving on. As much as some of the above may seem trivial or laughable, the fact that my behavior has been consistently poor in this regard over the span of a decade is not funny. It does not amuse me when upon finally apologizing to my wife for not listening to her, she is able to matter-of-factly state that she is used to my foolish attitude and actions.

Jaime deserves better. My children deserve better. Our son Shepard who wrote me that little note in my wallet is now 5 years old. He crawled up on my lap at one point while writing this. He is watching how I treat my wife and taking notes about how to value the thoughts and input of women, of his mother. Much the way his younger brother Miles will as well. My daughters Clara and Lucy are also watching, looking to see how it is they should expect to be treated by men in their lives. If I hope for better behavior and action for my sons, in their interactions with women and significant others someday, I must model it for them. I cannot simply hope to change. More so, I cannot only hope my kids will see my foolishness for what it is, folly and not a blueprint. They will repeat and replay whatever it is I show them.

Often before the kids leave for school we review our family rules. Rules I unapologetically lifted and revised from friend Bret Wells of the Missional Wisdom Foundation. “Pay attention. See Jesus. Be Jesus. Do not be afraid to mess up. When we mess up, we help clean up.” The monastic wisdom gleaned from the Rule of St. Benedict teaches the need to listen to the people we live with, that life together is an opportunity for the presence of God to be made manifest. As Joan Chittister continues in her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, “Not to listen then, is not to grow. But more than that, to be unable to listen is to be unable to give as well.”

I pray that I can pay attention to my wife, see Jesus in her, be Jesus to her. To model this for my children.

But prayer without action is empty, so In an attempt to clean up my own mess, I am trying on a new philosophy of saying yes. Much to my initial chagrin, Jaime proposed completing a video workout together. Whereas my Seasonal Affected self would much prefer to only bundle up and eat chocolate, I agreed. In so doing, I discovered that apparently jogging a 5K once a quarter does not translate into physical fitness. After 20 minutes of a rather basic cardio workout, plus a push-up challenge I was so physically spent that I had to lie down for the next 20 minutes in order to avoid vomiting. I’d say it was embarrassing, but the glowing look in my lover’s eyes communicated, “I am being heard.”

Maybe there is hope for this idiot after all. I certainly have more to give.

Advent

Posted: November 30, 2014 in Advent, Books, Christianity, Christmas, Faith, Holiday, Poetry

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn

Could but thy soul, O man,
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

15th Century

 
Though Advent (literally “arrival”) has been observed for centuries as a time to contemplate Christ’s birth, most people today acknowledge it only with a blank look. For the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called “the holiday season” turns out to be the most stressful time of the year.

Mother Theresa once noted that the first person to welcome Christ was John the Baptist, who leaped for joy on recognizing him, though both of them were still within their mothers’ womb. We, in stark contrast, are often so dulled by superficial distractions that we are incapable of hearing any voice within, let alone listening to it.

Advent marks something momentous: God’s coming into our midst. That coming is not just something that happened in the past. It is a recurring possibility here and now. And thus Advent is not merely a commemorative event or an anniversary, but a yearly opportunity for us to consider our future, the promised coming of God’s kingdom on earth.

If the essence of Advent is expectancy, it is also readiness for action: watchfulness for every opening, and willingness to risk everything for freedom and a new beginning.

That is why the imagery of the nativity scenes is not sufficient to explain the Christmas message. Yes, God came into the feeding trough of an animal. But it was not only as a baby that he lay there. This child was the same man who was crucified on Golgotha, and who rose again. Within the manger lies the cross – and the hope of redemption and resurrection.

To recognize this requires reverence and humility. It requires faith.

 

 

The entirety of the text above consists of excerpts from the preface and introduction of “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas” published by Orbis Books (Fourteenth Printing, November 2011).

Wisdom says the fears of the wicked will all come true, as will the hopes of the godly (Proverbs 10:24). During occasions of disaster and tragedy such as have impacted us on the East Coast recently, it feels as if this promise of a reconciled future is far off or perhaps will never be fulfilled. In this season of Advent we have found waiting difficult.

Our recent storms have begged us to consider our foundation. The Statue of Liberty, tempest tost in the New York Harbor by Hurricane Sandy, survived with her recently refurbished crown intact but her footing unsure due to the destruction of much of Liberty Island’s infrastructure. It appears the base on which Lady Liberty stands is crumbling and we all feel it. Liberty herself has joined in our tension filled anticipation, looking out maternally over a devastated region. We attempt to take solace at this time in remembering another Mother awaiting a Savior.

Sandy followed on the heels of Hurricane Irene. These sisters of devastation swept homes into the sea, capsized businesses, knocked out lights, crippled public transportation and claimed lives. Their forceful winds and waves of destruction laid bare a power crisis leaving at least 8 million of us in the dark, some for weeks, while provoking deeper questions of the meaning of power.

Inevitably, an uproar of attention and assistance follows when people who are used to being in power lose it. In the aftermath of the storms, neighbors expressed concern for each other who had lost their power. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the country for the benefit of the powerless. In real time we observed the connection between power and resources in our culture. And when any who are in trouble are embraced with love and helping hands it awakens hope and gratitude.

Sandy Hook memorial 12-14-12Here in Connecticut, Sandy may have spared us the difficulty experienced by those in New York and New Jersey, but we are the epicenter of pain this week after losing 27 lives in the second deadliest school shooting in our nation’s history. With 20 of the victims lost children ages 6 and 7, no sense will be made of this tragedy. No understanding of motive or gun-control debates will bring them back to celebrate Christmas with their families. Their wrapped gifts under the tree will remain forever unopened. We can only hold each other and our heads in mourning, crying out to God on behalf of their innocent blood spilt, for their parents’ unspeakable grief. We attempt to take comfort in remembering another Father in anguish over His innocent Son murdered. We pray again that the hopes of the Godly are realized and that our waiting is not in vain.

Today heartfelt prayers and gestures of support are overflowing for those directly affected by the catastrophe at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rightfully so. Let us not forget each of these little souls stolen from us as well as the teachers and staff who courageously served them on a daily basis before being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice of a friend. Kind words and acts of love directed toward Newtown recreate faith in the goodness of humanity. Yet we know the people of Newtown, Connecticut are not the only ones hurting in our country.

If we have eyes to see, other innocent victims come into view, souls somehow considered more tolerable casualties. Their executions carried out at a slower pace, but alarmingly steady. Not simultaneously and with no media fanfare. Rarely are the continually oppressed recipients of such widespread goodwill and generosity. Somehow viewed as acceptable victims, they are not aware they too have a voice, frequently occupied with more basic needs such as simply surviving off limited finances and inadequate education. Standing up for one’s rights often takes a backseat to drowning out harsh realities through self-injurious actions which can lead to generational imprisonment. We ask who is intent on restoring power and equality of opportunity and justice to these brothers and sisters?

These acceptable victims include our people of all ages who are continually losing their lives in the senseless violence occurring in our inner cities. For over a decade and a half, Sacred Heart Church in Camden, New Jersey has held a remembrance service on the last Sunday of the liturgical year to honor those murdered in their neighborhoods and offer comfort to their families. This year Sacred Heart read aloud the names of an unfathomable 63 human beings murdered between November 2011 and November 2012. Greater than one a week in a city of only 77,000 residents. The vast majority from gun violence, but not all. In September, a six year old boy named Dominick Andujar had his throat slashed when he tried to come to the rescue of his older sister who was being sexually assaulted. Days prior in August, a two year old boy named Zahree Thomas was decapitated, his head found in a freezer.

It may be because these stories are too hard to for us to hear that they are not more widely circulated and that we are not more adamantly outraged and driven to action. But Sandy Hook has proven this untrue, leaving us to wonder why we have normalized the tragedies occurring in Camden, the poorest per capita city in the United States. In part, our collective despair for Connecticut or Colorado seems to be a communal lamentation for the loss of the “safe place” in our culture realizing that Sandy Hook could have been the neighborhood school our kids attend or Century 16 in Aurora the local movie theater we frequent. We want to shield our own children from danger and harm and now realize that we cannot guarantee their safety. We have not understood that in failing to see ourselves in places like Camden, we have created a false narrative of us versus them. We have forgotten Dr.King’s proclamation that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”, ignoring the nightmares experienced by our brethren, now shocked when evil has attacked here as well.

We are afraid yes. But now is not the time to shrink back from our public places or rush to homeschool all of our children. If we run away from evil, it will find us. Neither can we escalate the myth of redemptive violence or its hateful rhetoric looking for a scapegoat. We must confront evil in sacrificial love as many of the teachers did in this latest tragedy, saving the lives of students as a result. We remember a Parent who willingly entered into our distress and in so doing lost His Son, and believe this is the Way forward, that good can overcome evil.

We now grieve our loss of those whom the world was not worthy at Sandy Hook Elementary. But let us grieve all our lost sons and daughters and their dreams massacred. Let us support each other through these storms, physical and mental, regardless of geography and access to power. Let us continue to wait together expectantly and actively for the Prince of Peace, hoping that in finality our chains will lay broken at our feet and that our tired, poor and huddled masses will one day breathe free on solid ground. In our fear and brokenness we trust that the fears of the wicked will all come true, as will the hopes of the godly. Thank you for your continued prayers.

Submitted Thoughts on Power (Redux)

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Christianity

I began this blog two years ago as a forum for sharing thoughts about God and life and to practice writing. Last month, for the first time in my life I submitted an article for publication. I was excited when the editors expressed interest in my work, but ultimately it did not work out. The submitted article was a remix of sorts of one I posted here a year ago, thus many of these ideas will be familiar to regular readers. However, I felt I put enough time into it and perhaps added a few new worthwhile thoughts, that it was worth posting the updated article. Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene stormed the East Coast causing major flooding and power outages from the Outer Banks to New England. Our experimental suburban community missed the worst of Irene as she passed through Connecticut. We lost only a few trees whereas some folks south of us had their homes swept into the sea. When the damage was surveyed following the tempest it became evident Hurricane Irene would not primarily be labeled a wind or water disaster, but a power crisis. In our small state alone approximately 840,000 people were left without electricity. Many of our neighbors continued to be without power for nearly a week, some still had no electricity or running water after a fortnight.

We couldn’t help but notice in the aftermath of Irene how frequently the term “power” was used as a euphemism for electricity. There were outcries for the restoration of power. Voices united in an attempt to get their power back. Neighbors expressed concern for each other, especially the elderly and disabled, who had lost their power. Radio stations changed their programming to air simulcasts of the evening news for the benefit of the powerless. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the nation to get power back to the right people. Everything power.

While electricity is a measurable indicator of power, the overuse of the word caused us to think about the real connection between power and resources in our culture. It is said that those who control their resources control their destiny. But do we collectively stop to think about how our resources are being allocated? Or how this power is being attained? Whom it may have been stolen from? It can often appear that our manifest destiny is simply a winner’s take on highway robbery.

Inevitably, an uproar of attention and assistance follows when people who are used to being in power lose it. Yet rarely are the oppressed aware they too have a voice due to frequently being occupied with more elementary needs such as simply surviving on limited resources and inadequate education. Standing up for one’s rights takes a backseat to drowning out harsh realities through self-injurious decisions which can lead to generational imprisonment. Who is intent on restoring power to these brothers and sisters?

Whose voices cried out for the powerless in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Who unites on behalf of the youth in our failing schools that are more segregated today than they were a half century ago? Who has the courage to incessantly pray on behalf of the disproportionate number of people of color who are murdered in our inner-cities and sentenced to inordinate prison sentences for first time offenses?

Are we aware that 86 percent of black fourth graders in our country currently read below grade level and 58 percent are functionally illiterate? This disparity contributes to the projection that one third of black males born today in the United States will become incarcerated during their lifetime. Complicating matters is the fact that by 2050, half the population of the United States will be comprised of people of color, yet 90 percent of our current lawyers and 80 percent of our law students are white. In a country which overwhelmingly selects attorneys as leaders and policy makers we have a problem.

At a recent Yale Law School symposium on educational disparity and minority youth, Susan Taylor, of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, stated we have lost our way. Ms. Taylor added that at age 65 she wishes she could rest, but that she will not so long as “the village is on fire and our children are in dream-crushing pain.” She poignantly asked, “What are our churches preaching?”

What are we preaching? More importantly, what are we as the Body of Christ proclaiming in our actions above our rhetoric? God appears to be fond of using people outside the clergy to stand in the gap and call out the way things are versus the way things should be. What if God is calling all of us to be a modern day Amos? A church of the ordinary, refusing to continue selling whole communities into captivity and unwilling to persist in disregarding our treaty of brotherhood.

I write this as a white man cognizant of the irony and tension in these questions. Conscious of the evils of racism and socioeconomic inequality. Armed with stats and few solutions. Though, I am also a white man with a tithe of Cherokee blood running through my veins, the same blood spilled on the Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago. Yes, I continue to benefit daily from the institutional racism forged by the inhumanity my forefathers impressed on others. However, this type of oppression can only persist so long before the oppressed begin to be represented within the oppressor. We share the same blood and thus hopefully begin to remember that we belong to one another.

We live in a culture divided against itself because we have bought into the illusion of us versus them. One of my heroes in the faith is Father Greg Boyle, founder of the largest gang intervention and re-entry program in the country, Homeboy Industries. Through Homeboy, former rival gang members work side by side baking and silk screening and Father Greg has pointed out there’s only us. Father G proclaims, “Once you have kinship, you can get to justice and peace. But if you think there’s an us and a them, we’ve got too far to go. And so the task is to remember that we belong to each other.”

Perhaps societal reconciliation starts with realizing that undoing racism and redistributing wealth cannot be goals in themselves, but that these are inevitable byproducts of knowing Jesus and committing to a relationship with Him and each other.

Jesus did not simply help the poor, he was the poor. While some have honorably joined Jesus in the streets, the Good News is not a mandate to poverty. It does however point us to regular interaction with the powerless and does so for all of our benefit. The Western church has frequently taken to either ignoring these folks or at best “serving” them on our own terms. I see now the Gospel is calling me not to simply do things for the poor but to do things with the poor, to share life together, not just an infrequent meal. Building these relationships aids in moving from judgment of the burdens they bear to awe of the things they have had to carry. If the Kingdom of God is forcefully advancing, we are not being called to RSVP but to participate now, and it is the powerless who know best how to lead the way.

As we try to discover what it means to be a dominant people in a dominant culture and also participate in this Kingdom, we hear the Spirit’s call to find out what it means to visit orphans and widows in their distress in our own communities. This voice led me to working with adolescent foster care youth in New Haven where I am privileged to be able to connect our society’s orphans with food, clothing, shelter and family. Many days I find myself standing by their side in Court facing possible jail time in front of Judges or sitting by hospital beds during the onset of mental illness. On better days we move into college dorm rooms, pick out furniture for first apartments or get out of Connecticut for a day to take in a comic book convention or basketball game.

God has promised us all a life abundant and these words have power. Recently I overheard another hero in the faith explain that the best things in life are “darn near impossible” to achieve. But we believe in the midst of life’s adversity there is a Way. We pray as we storm the gates of Hades together, that the strength of unified action in suffering love can be a hurricane force bent on restoring power to those without. Will you join us?

(Note: At the time of this writing, I had been led to believe that I had Native American ancestry. A 2014 DNA test revealed otherwise.)

Today, February 19, 2012, marks the 70th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the displacement of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt’s order declared, “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.”

Authority was then given to Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt who lied to the public and reported that Japanese-Americans were involved in sabotage and espionage despite having no evidence to back these claims. Sound familiar?

"All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area (San Francisco) by 1:00 o'clock noon, Tuesday April 7, 1942"

In April 1943, Dewitt testified before a House of Representatives Naval Affairs Subcommittee, saying, “I don’t want any of them (persons of Japanese ancestry) here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. The west coast contains too many vital installations essential to the defense of the country to allow any Japanese on this coast. … The danger of the Japanese was, and is now-if they are permitted to come back-espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty.”

Attorney General Francis Biddle and many in the Justice Department, on the backing of the actual intelligence gathered and the principles of the U.S. Constitution, strongly opposed the evacuation and imprisonment of American citizens, regardless of their ancestry. However the western United States (encompassing California, Washington. Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and the then Territory of Alaska) was declared to be under the authority of the military’s Western Defense Command. “War Relocation Camps” were prisons created to incarcerate thousands of Japanese Americans until Order 9066 was rescinded two years later in 1944 and the last of the camps closed after four years in 1946.

Forty-six years after Roosevelt’s order, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the “grave injustice” done to both Japanese American citizens and permanent residents during the 1940s. The act authorized reparation payments to be made, which would total $1.6 billion over an 11 year period, and noted the internment of Japanese Americans was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The attacks on Pearl Harbor certainly could not be condoned, but neither could our shameful response to imprison innocent American citizens out of fear. While self-preservation dynamics have played on repeat in U.S. foreign and domestic policy over the last century often resulting in tragic consequences, my intent here is not to dwell on our national sin. Instead, this history lesson is an occasion to look at the man in the mirror. What is it about fear that so often trumps my own sound judgment? Perhaps more importantly, am I to be held responsible for my actions in response to being wronged?

In 2005, some dear friends and mentors in Montana invited Jaime and I to participate in a marriage class using Dr. Emerson Eggerichs’ “Love and Respect” curriculum. To this day I have not seen a better exegesis of the practicalities of the Biblical definition of marriage. One of Emerson’s phrases that stuck in my head is “Our response is our responsibility.” In speaking of his wife, Emerson says “Sarah doesn’t cause me to be the way I am. She reveals the way I am.” He expounds by noting that a grain of sand in a human eye may ultimately lead to infection and loss of vision, while the same grain of sand in an oyster can lead to secretion and then a pearl. Eggerichs points out that the speck of sand in both instances is only an irritant that “reveals the inner properties” of both the eye and the oyster. Adversity cannot force us to behave in a certain way, it can only test and then reveal who we already are in that moment. To further illustrate the point, Eggerichs notes that a rose crushed underfoot reveals a pleasant aroma, whereas pressure applied to a skunk yields a much different result. When times get tough, are you a rose or a skunk? Too often, when the inner properties of my personality and soul are revealed under pressure, no one is mistaking me for a fragrant flower.

In three days, Ash Wednesday will usher in the season of Lent and offer a period of reflection and repentance. Forty days of intentionally preparing for Christ’s death and resurrection. In both small and large opportunities created by adversity, I wish to be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to dedicate the upcoming 40 days to welcoming difficulties and making my enemies my teachers.

What can we give up that has been pathetically playing the role of God in our lives? What can we engage in, that can increase our discipline and love, such that we refuse to be the cause of “grave injustice”? Lord, help us to relinquish self-preservation, to welcome sacrifice, and to remember that “One cannot be just a bystander, for a bystander cannot be just.”

The best stories are unpredictable.

It was the evening of December 8, 2011 and I was in a risk-taking mood. Just a week and a half earlier, on the morning of November 27, 2011, while teaching an adult Bible class, I invited my Church family to assist with serving the orphans of our society. I told them of my social work case load of 16 youth ranging in age from 15 to 21, all removed from their homes and biological families. Young people who never exited the State’s system of foster care through reunification with their families or by adoption to new families. As thirteen of my 16 youth were over 18 years old at the time, there weren’t too many people lining up to help with providing Christmas gifts, instead preferring to donate to the cause of younger children in foster care. As Thanksgiving had just passed and Christmas would rapidly be approaching,  I mentioned that if I could raise enough money, say $400, I could purchase each of my kids at least a $25 gift card. Not enough to make a significant purchase, but enough perhaps to let them know that someone cares about them and that they are not alone.

The brothers and sisters at the Ward Street church of Christ immediately responded to this call and two weeks to the day of my request had already donated over $1,000 toward gifts for my teens. Folks were willing to give more and made sure I knew they were ready to give whatever was needed. People were so eager to help, I had to make an announcement to stop having funds donated. I would have a hard enough time wisely spending the money that had already come in.

Enlisting the help of my wife, gift cards were obtained from Ulta for makeup for my lone female client, from Chili’s for one of my college students, from Game Stop for a couple of my high school guys, from Target, the mall and so on. $100 was reserved for a young man trying to save up for a computer and when his foster mother was told of how the money came to be obtained, she said she “smiled for three days straight” reasoning that if someone was willing to ask church folk for money on behalf of foster kids that they “must have at least a little bit of church in ‘em.”

But there was one young man, whose case had recently been assigned to me, for whom I wanted to do something a little more extravagant. 17 years old, he had a decision to make prior to his 18th birthday in early January of whether to continue receiving services from the State and remain in his foster home, or to forego any further relationship with the bureaucracy and take his chances on the streets. He is the type of kid you can’t help but like due to his authenticity. For example, he informed me he was having a hard time making a decision about what to do at 18 as he feels he can only plan one day at a time and did not simply want to sign paperwork indicating an agreement he was not prepared to keep.

In looking for ways to build a relationship with this young man we came to talking about his favorite sport, basketball, and lamented the NBA lockout which was threatening the cancellation of the entire season. I asked him what team he followed and he confidently stated he was a Lakers fan, a rarity here in the Celtics’ backyard, and that his favorite player was Kobe Bryant. I chuckled in surprise and told him that I have been a life-long Lakers fan and that my favorite current player is Derek Fisher, who was acquired by the Lakers in the first round of the 1996 NBA draft along with Kobe. I asked him if he had ever been to a game and he laughed as he said no. I admitted I had never been to a game either, even though I lived in L.A. for a couple years, and teased that maybe we should go together some time.

Now here I was, sitting in front of my laptop on this early December evening, looking at tickets on StubHub for a prime-time Lakers-Knicks matchup at Madison Square Garden slated for February. The NBA lockout had finally ended and I was thinking, “Why not?” One answer was the insane ticket price of $175 a seat, close to an even $200 after fees. But I figured with All-Star point guard Chris Paul looking for a trade to the Knicks to form their own three-headed monster of CP3, Melo and Amare, and the Lakers coming to town I couldn’t really expect tickets to be less expensive in an arena that seats only 19,763. I informed Jaime I was thinking of buying two tickets, one for my foster youth with donated funds and that my seat would be financed in large part by gift subsidies from my mother who normally sends $150 my way between Christmas and my own early January birthday. I theorized this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for both myself and my client and my supportive and amazing wife mirrored my excitement encouraging me to purchase the tickets.

I was still hesitant to click the orange “Checkout” button, when I read that Chris Paul had just been traded. To the Lakers. And just like that, the tickets were ours. When I thanked the church the following Sunday for affording me the opportunity to serve in such fashion and explained the idea behind the purchase, there were many a teary eye among the congregation. Then it was my turn to feel the waterworks coming on when 9 year old Steven Pawloski approached me after services with a big smile and insisted I take his recently earned $20 bill so that my client and I could “buy snacks at the Lakers game.”

I couldn’t wait to tell the young man about the tickets. When I was finally able to track him down a few days later and I told him we would be going to see Kobe play live as a Christmas/Birthday gift, he laughed in disbelief the way I imagine Sarah may have when she heard through the tent flap she was to have a son in her old age. He didn’t have much to say, but it was the first look of joy I had seen on his face in the two months I had known him. His foster mother later told me he had reported the news to her with a mixture of happiness and sheer confusion, asking “Why would he do this for me? He doesn’t even know me.” To which she replied, “People don’t have to know you to want to do something nice for you.”

But in the days leading up to the game, the Paul trade to the Lakers was vetoed by the league, the Lakers would find the condensed scheduling of a lockout-shortened season especially tough on their veteran legs leading to a woeful road record, Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony was injured and it was announced fellow New York All-Star Amare Stoudemire would not be playing in the game after the tragic loss of his brother in a car accident. However, good spirits prevailed as we would still be able to see Kobe and D-Fish. Plus, with all of the Knicks’ firepower disabled, it appeared a lock we would see a L.A. win in our first NBA game.

I didn’t know who Jeremy Lin was until the night before the event. I was discussing the upcoming game and the opportunity it was going to build a stronger relationship with my client, when a co-worker mentioned the Knicks had some undrafted guard who went to Harvard and had been buried deep on their bench who had apparently found his way into the starting lineup and led the Knicks to a three game “Lin-ning” streak. New Yorkers and their losing team were finding love in a hopeless place as the California-born Lin, whose parents are from Taiwan, became the first Asian-American player to start an NBA game and lit up the Nets, Jazz and Wizards in a five day span averaging over 20 points a game. With the help of the New York City hype machine, suddenly Friday night’s matchup against the Lakers was again being billed as a marquee show, only this time due to a player who wasn’t even on the Knicks roster on Christmas day and was reportedly sleeping on his teammate’s couch.

The drive down to Manhattan provided ample time to hear my client’s own story from his perspective and our night was off to a good start as we walked through a lit up Times Square on Friday evening en route to the game. It appeared we were in good company as we approached “The World’s Most Famous Arena” with many fans dressed in Los Angeles Purple and Gold. There were also scattered Blue #17 jerseys fresh off the press that had already begun to circulate especially among the Asian-American fans in attendance. The souvenir stand on the lower concourse sold out of Lin jerseys before the game even started.

The sold out crowd was buzzing prior to the opening tip as we all looked forward to finding out if “Lin-sanity” could be sustained through a visit from Bryant, the league’s leading scorer, or if the novelty act was up. I was confident of the latter and leaned over to ask my client, ‘How much do you think we’ll win by?” He smiled as he shrugged his shoulders and declined to give his pick.

It did not take long to realize the young man had been wise in not counting Lin or the Knicks out. A couple minutes into the game, Lin knocked down a three from the corner over 7”1’ Center Andrew Bynum putting the Knicks up 3-2, and he didn’t look back. Lin set up Tyson Chandler for a bucket that put the Knicks up 5-4. They would not trail again. A jumper, a second assist to Chandler, another jumper, followed by a Lin steal and layup forced a Lakers timeout five minutes in with the score 13-4. Jeremy Lin was outscoring the Lakers himself by five points. My client and I looked at each other shaking our heads in disbelief and remarking that the Lakers looked tired after last night’s overtime win in Boston.

The electric New York crowd became more energized with each Lin basket and assist as the Garden’s Jumbotron incited cheers of Je-Re-My! Je-Re-My! Nearing the end of the first half, Lin blew past Derek Fisher on a fast break spin move and his following acrobatic lay-in gave him 18 points, gave his team a 9 point lead and won the hearts of all frustrated Knicks fans for life. The Knicks have this elaborate alumni program and kept announcing “Once a Knick, Always a Knick!” before announcing the attendance of Larry Johnson, Anthony Mason, John Starks and Walt Frazier at various points throughout the game. I found myself thinking that even if Jeremy Lin’s overnight sensation story doesn’t last another week, he already had earned himself an alumni pass based on the crowd’s admiration.

There wasn’t much to be pleased about as a Lakers fan as Kobe started the game 1-of-11 from the field and Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) had three more personal fouls than he had points (zero) shortly into the second half. Kobe appeared jealous of Lin by the mid-third quarter and awoke his Black Mamba alter ego as he began splashing ridiculous fade away jumpers over the backboard while double teamed and even awed the New York crowd with a laser pass to himself off the glass before tip passing to Pau Gasol for his only assist of the game. Kobe’s gunning brought the Lakers within 6 on a couple of occasions, but the basketball Linja could not be stopped.

Lin hit a three pointer in the face of 7”1’ Pau Gasol, then pump faked another Laker before connecting on a 20 foot jump shot, before splashing yet another three from the corner sending the crowd into a frenzy. Lin invoked memories of the NBA Jam announcer exclaiming “He’s on fire!” and “Is it the shoes?!?” While the originator of the latter phrase, Spike Lee, looked so enamored standing courtside I thought he might immediately switch out his #2 Landry Fields jersey for Lin’s #17. Not that Fields would have even minded, as he owns the couch Lin is sleeping on, and despite only scoring only six points in the game he tweeted afterward “Most fun I’ve ever had playing ball. Plain and simple. God is great! Congrats to @JLin7.”

Jeremy Lin, the Balling LINJA, Energizes the Knicks and Provides Inspiration Beyond Basketball

It sure looked like Lin and his teammates were genuinely having fun out there. Jumping and shouting and laughing with joy while playing the game. And while Kobe had laughed Lin off as a nobody the previous night when asked about him, it was Lin who had the last laugh metaphorically on Friday. He put the nail in the coffin when he called for a clear out with two minutes left in the game, causing the fans to rise to their feet in anticipation. He drove past Matt Barnes and split the Lakers’ seven footers once again finishing off a circus shot and the chants of “Je-Re-My!” morphed into “M-V-P!” Spike Lee and Justin Tuck of the Super Bowl Champion Giants (it pains me to write that) were bowing to him from their courtside seats, which I’m sure if Lin even noticed among the celebratory chaos, would have made him uncomfortable given his strong Christian faith and humble personality. After the game he praised his teammates with a few sports clichés, but was never self-congratulatory and thanked God for allowing him to live his dream. Certainly his performance was worthy of accolades as after Friday night’s game, Lin had scored more points in his first three NBA starts than any player in the modern history of the league. To borrow a line from Ron Burgundy, I wasn’t mad, I was impressed.

As we walked out of Madison Square Garden amidst drunken New York fans, the young man I took to the game came away with a similar impression of Lin, noting “I have to respect him.” People who have attended events at the Garden for years and covered professional sports in New York noted it was “one of the coolest nights” in the history of a landmark arena that has seen so many unforgettable events and “one for the ages”. I would have to agree. Neither I nor the young man will ever forget Friday night. The night Jeremy Lin cemented his status as a star and provided hope that all things are indeed possible, even for the overlooked and underrated. Sometimes all you need is an opportunity and to know that someone believes in you. Despite our team’s loss, I hope my client and I can both hold onto this lesson we witnessed firsthand.

It seems things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes they turn out better.

When Hurricane Irene stormed the East Coast three weeks ago, she caused major flooding and power outages from the Outer Banks to New England, cementing her status as the storm of a generation. Her fury blew into Connecticut on the last Saturday night in August and maintained a stranglehold of fear and awe through Sunday morning. She lost her hurricane classification upon landfall, but try telling that to the folks in East Haven whose homes were swept into the sea with the storm surge. While Connecticut missed the worst of Irene, which spun west of her initial forecast, approximately 840,000 people were left without electricity in our state alone. Many of our neighbors continued to be without power for nearly a week, some in the state still had no electricity or running water after two weeks.

Fortunately, our household did not lose electricity and we were able to facilitate a home church service during the storm for those who were willing to brave the strong winds, torrential rain and downed trees. Including one tree in our backyard which could have done some serious damage to the house had it fallen in the opposite direction. This video taken just down the street shows how close we came to losing our power.

 

But in the hours and days following Irene, as the damage was surveyed it became apparent that Irene would not be labeled primarily a wind or water event, but a power crisis. My place of employment located on the New Haven coast sustained significant water damage and power outages, forcing us out of our workspace for nearly three days before cleanup crews and generators allowed us to return. School openings were delayed for days as the electricity could not be quickly restored. Food went bad, perishable items had to be stored in coolers packed with ice, and folks took cold showers if their water was running at all.

Having not lost our electricity, our home felt an island with a unique vantage point, a hill from which it was possible to observe Irene’s impact without much feeling it. This came as somewhat of a convenient disappointment, convenient in that our own hot showers were uninterrupted, disappointing to my wife who was secretly hoping for a chance to hone some post-apocalyptic survival skills. But viewing the crisis from within the eye of the storm allowed the societal concept of power to rise to the forefront of my thought.

Growing up in Southern California, I am no stranger to power outages, blackouts and rolling brownouts as our electric grid was often ill-prepared for hot weather and the resulting energy consumption. However, I couldn’t help but notice during the aftermath of Irene how frequently the term “power” was used as a euphemism for electricity.

There were outcries for the restoration of power. Voices united in an attempt to get their power back. Neighbors expressed concern for each other, especially the elderly and disabled, who had lost their power. Radio stations changed their programming to air simulcasts of the evening news for the benefit of the powerless. Utility company crews worked through the night to restore power. Electricians arrived from across the nation to get power back into the right hands. Power. Power. Power.

While electricity and utility resources are certainly indicators of measurable power, the overuse of the word caused me to think about the real connection between power and resources in our country. It has been said that those who control their resources control their destiny. But how often do we collectively stop to think about how our resources are being allocated? Or perhaps how these resources, this power, is being attained or who it is being stolen from? Is it possible that our manifest destiny is just a winner’s take on highway robbery?

I am writing this as a white man cognizant of the irony and tension in those questions. I am also a white man with Cherokee blood running through my veins, the same blood that was spilled on a Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago. The inhumanity my forefathers impressed on others, the institutional racism that persists from which I benefit daily, can only persist so long before in a very real sense it becomes a part of you. I may be 90 percent oppressor, but also10 percent oppressed. And so from within this internal conflict and for this tithe of my bloodline I will question. I will speak.

Undoubtedly, there is an uproar of attention and assistance when people who are used to being in power lose it. Fine. However, the poor and oppressed are not aware they can speak up because they have never held power. Never been allowed to taste it. Their voice can rarely be unified as they are too occupied with survival or are drowning out their harsh reality through poor decisions that create a cyclical environment, a generational imprisonment. Who speaks on behalf of these brother and sisters?

Whose voices cried out for the powerless in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina? Who among us is united on behalf of the youth in our failing schools that are more segregated today than they were a half century ago? Who is expressing outrage at the maltreatment of our elderly and the lack of access for the disabled, at times other than immediately following a hurricane? How do we go about changing our social programming and services to benefit the powerless rather than simply sustain bureaucracy? Who stays up through the night praying on behalf of the disproportionate number of people of color who are murdered in our inner-cities and sentenced to inordinate prison sentences for first time drug offenses? Perhaps we need not to worry about getting the power back into the right hands, but acknowledging that we all have a hand in distributing power and that we need to take care of each other.

Why?

After all, there are many of privilege who would now claim that equal rights have been achieved. That the playing field has been evened. That we even have a black President as proof.

An answer in short. One third of black males born today in the United States are projected to become incarcerated during their lifetime. Forty-eight percent of black males are growing up without a father in their household. Eighty-six percent of black fourth graders in our country read below grade level and 58 percent are functionally illiterate. In the Spring of 2011, only 15 percent of Connecticut black youth met proficiency goals on the standardized math and science tests compared to 60 percent of white youth. By 2050, half the population of the United States will be comprised of people of color, yet 90 percent of our lawyers and 80 percent of our law students are white. We still have a problem.

Elizabeth Eckford walks alone to join Carlotta Walls and the rest of the Little Rock Nine to integrate Arkansas' Central High in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision

On September 16, 2011, I was privileged to attend a symposium on “Educational Disparity and Minority Youth” hosted by the Quinnipiac School of Law and Yale Law School. Present was Carlotta Walls Lanier, of the Little Rock Nine who first integrated the Arkansas school system in 1957 amidst threats of being hanged by a hateful mob. Hearing her first person account while taking in her grace and dignity made tears of justice want to roll down my cheeks.

Susan Taylor of of the National CARES Mentoring Movement and former editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine was also present and noted “we have lost our way, we have lost our minds, and we need to admit that.” Ms. Taylor stated that at age 65 she wishes she could rest, but that she will not so long as “the village is on fire and our children are in dream-crushing pain.” She poignantly asked, “What are our ministers doing? What are our churches preaching?”

I pray that we can preach Jesus in our actions above our rhetoric or expressed values. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). This should give us the courage to be good news for the poor, to proclaim freedom and forgiveness to the imprisoned, and to restore sight to the blind. As the good folks at The Village Nation preach in Northridge, CA, when asked “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” our answer must be “Yes we are.” We must stand up for the powerless, because they are our brothers and sisters, their blood is our blood. Their pain is our pain.

One can disagree if they wish. Some will continue to keep their politics in a vice-grip. But consider Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s words:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. But If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?”

This sounds like the Gospel to me. Why the news of Jesus Christ is good, why God’s works holds value. For He too stands with the egg and not the wall. I pray that this truth can produce within us a stranglehold of fear and awe such that the strength of our resulting unified action and service can be compared to a hurricane force; a force bent on restoring power to those without.

Disclaimer: This account and the views and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author and are not necessarily reflective or representative of any State Employee Union in Connecticut or any other State of Connecticut employee.

All over the country Thursday night people stayed up into the early morning hours to witness the end of Harry Potter film saga. In Connecticut however, more than just the wizard fanatics had their sleep disrupted as thousands of state employees lay awake, wondering if their careers were destined to meet their own killing curse upon arriving to work Friday morning.

Those following the labor situation here in Connecticut may not have much sympathy, as the estimated 6,500 layoffs of state employees follows the rejection of a money-saving labor deal previously negotiated between rookie Governor Dannel P. Malloy and the unions. The tentative agreement that was being counted on to balance the budget called for wage freezes for two years, a raise in the retirement age, and slight changes to the pension and healthcare plans offered to state employees in exchange for no layoffs for four years. The health care changes mainly consisted of mandates for regular health checkups in an effort to offset the future cost of health care by addressing health issues before they metastasize.  Especially in light of the difficulty our neighbors and friends have experienced in the private sector in recent years, the proposed concession package was likened to a sweetheart deal and ought to have been an easy yes vote.

Ah, what ought to have been. Instead, despite some deft negotiating, the unions botched the communication of the proposed agreement to its members. First, it took far too long to respond to false claims about the deal being circulated via state employee email (i.e. taking all State employees of our current health insurance plans and placing us all on the Husky or SustiNet Medicaid plans). Second, the union reps then presented the tentative agreement at the same time they implored all members to vote for it, creating a perception that the union had removed all choice in the matter and that the vote was just a formality. Well, Americans and especially New Englanders don’t like to be told what to do (for proof Wikipedia the American Revolution). Finally, the union’s own bi-laws prevented a popular vote, requiring that 14 of the 15 state employee unions and 80 percent of all voters approve the deal in order to ratify it.

But enough about the union leaders, because as Kristen Chenowith sang so poignantly in Wicked, “I guess we know there’s blame to share.” I understand the “no” votes from those looking to retire soon after a lifetime of service and even some of the sentiments from workers who were around during the last layoffs nearly a decade ago and felt they had already sacrificed repeatedly, including our vote just two years ago to accept furlough days and wage freezes. But on the whole the 40 percent of workers who voted the deal down appear nearsighted and egocentric. Many of the more seasoned workers confidently voted no, believing that their seniority would prevent them from being laid off and that concessions on their part were not worth the positions of their younger co-workers. Of course, my bias is with the younger generation, being in my late twenties with a wife and three children ages three and under to care for.

Unfortunately for all of us, many of these folks who voted no did not consider that even if they were among those fortunate to keep their jobs, that the state’s fragile economy will not likely be able to avoid at least a double-dip recession with the loss of an additional 6,500 incomes and taxpayers. It seems they did not also consider that our already stressful and often unmanageable social services caseloads would be oversaturated due to the absence of our departed co-workers, ultimately disservicing the very folks we aim to help. Sadly, it seems we have forgotten the Biblical message behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Friday morning arrived and in a sad but not unexpected manner, the least senior workers in both front line and supervisory positions were the first to be let go, despite their previous votes in favor of the concession package. The death march began after nine and continued until noon, one dedicated worker after another being escorted to their pink slips. Despite reports indicating that the administrators gave the news with as much dignity, respect and professionalism as one could hope for in the face-to-face meetings, images of people sobbing and their distraught expressions are hard to shake. Some of these folks just closed on homes or condos, others are newly married, planning weddings or expecting newborns. Most have poured the remainder of their lives into the clients they serve, staying late into the evenings, skipping lunch breaks and fighting the inefficiency of bureaucracy for more hours than they could count to be paid for.

Around 10:30 am, I was visited by a co-worker and sister in Christ with messages of encouragement and notice of a prayer vigil on my behalf. Shortly thereafter, I received a message from another co-worker and sister in Christ who reported she had woken up in the middle of the night last night with a sudden urge to pray for me and my family. This was echoed by another co-worker, who did not know I was a Christ-follower but also woke up mid-sleep to pray on my behalf. Incredibly touching and encouraging.

To be perfectly honest, I gave up worrying about potentially being laid off mid-June when the union voting date was announced for a day when I was already scheduled to be out of the state working and it was confirmed there would be no absentee voting or alternate voting times. With my small slice of democratic voice denied, I felt God speak peace into my life that the ultimate results were in His hand. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing professionally and have been methodically working at a slow pace with Jaime to prepare for bi-vocational church planting. I began thinking maybe a forced layoff would be permission to pursue such paths at a greater clip and that otherwise would be confirmation that perhaps I have more to learn and more to offer as a social worker.

As noon approached, the co-worker who sits closest to me was heart wrenchingly given notice and then news trickled in that workers and friends who were hired the same day I was in May 2007 were also being let go. It seemed my name was next on the list and I prepared to put on a smile, to accept a new direction from God. But ironically, I was called not by an administrator, but by a client in need of their immunization records from a health clinic faxed to their summer employment site by 2:00 pm or face the loss of their own position. So out into field I went to save a job while contemplating losing my own.

This sundial in New Haven's Edgewood Park was once a murder scene, but the daylight transforms a former place of darkness into a children's playground, giving hope to us all in times of adversity

While out in the community, I drove by New Haven’s Edgewood Park, where I had recently taken my three year old daughter Clara on Connecticut Trails Day in early June. Although we saw much of the park on our walking tour that day, I had not had an opportunity to visit the large sundial near the entrance to the park where Stanley Street meets the Boulevard. This particular location has come to mean a great deal to me since I read the remarkable story of Vicky Coward, whose 18 year old son Tyler was shot and murdered right next to this sundial just over four years ago on July 12, 2007. As I passed the park in my car, I pulled over to walk to the location of Tyler’s demise to pray over the spot, and to breathe peace into the lives of his family and the park; perhaps as a means of restoring peace to my own soul. But I was surprised to find that the sundial which had projected visions of darkness in my mind’s eye since reading of Tyler’s death, was now fully alive in the summer sun, a unique sculpture slash water park in which small children clad in bathing suits were frolicking in the streams shooting from the rock. I could not imagine that this space being shared by joyful families was the same location in which Ms. Coward lost her son to an act of senseless street violence. It was altogether stunning and beautiful to realize that a history of darkness tied to a location does not solely determine its prospects for light, and I envisioned the darkness surrounding the office layoffs as being transformed into a bright meeting place of joy in the not-too-distant future.

Upon my return to the office, I discovered Round One of the layoff notices had been completed. The list of pink slips stopped just before my level of seniority, as measured by the arbitrary nature of my being hired in a permanent position versus a durational one from day one. But please do not cease your prayers on our behalf and certainly for those who were not spared anxiety and anguish today. I pray that the union can resolve this issue and that jobs can be salvaged before the deadline in August. I pray that if I am eventually laid off that I will have the courage and humility to pursue the Spirit’s direction in revisioning the definition of vocation. I pray that if I am able to keep my position that God would use me to positively impact the lives of the young men and women I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with. Regardless of the outcome and the current uncertainty of this chapter of life, I am certain that just like the Harry Potter books, the last line of this series is destined to read “All was well.”

In a society inflated on independence and engorged on ego, we do not look kindly on regulations or discipline. Little thought is given to what can be learned and discerned through mutual submission and thus we all suffer. This is America. This is me.

Our overemphasis on individuality is clearly seen in our culture’s meager attempts at group meetings and decision making, whether in school settings, work conference rooms, book clubs or church bible studies. We sit down in a room full of others to discuss a particular topic or to make an important decision. But despite good intentions, folks often leave feeling disenchanted or apathetic, rather than productive or encouraged due to overly loquacious leaders, filter-less and frequently repetitive comments from a few and the silence of a fearful or disinterested majority. Ever been here?

I confess I have camped in all three spots, ineffective group facilitator, discussion dominating personality and hidden among the mass of the disenfranchised or unengaged; I am not above the fray. But as I prepare to teach a class along the lines of “Re-Visioning the Church” this Fall, here are some thoughts on how we can perhaps improve on ineffective interactions and shift the paradigm from individual to communal contribution.

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Seasoned improvisational comedians are a joy to watch because aside from wielding uncannily quick wit, they demonstrate superb collaboration. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock fame, was recently interviewed about her new memoir, Bossypants, and was asked what she learned during her time with the Chicago based improvisational comedy group Second City and at ImprovOlympic, a comedy theater and improv school a block from Wrigley Field.

Communal Discernment advice can be gleaned from theologians (St. Ignatius) and comedians (Tina Fey) alike

Her response was intriguing and insightful. She noted that when she would teach improv to new students, she would begin by asking “When do you enter a scene?”

“Well, when you have an idea,” the rookies would say.

“No,” she would reply. “When do you enter a scene?”

“When you think of something funny to say.”

“No,” would come the rebuke. “ The answer to ‘When do you enter a scene?’ is, ‘When someone needs you’. You are only to enter when someone needs you.”

Fey stated, “It’s this great mindset of contributing, but as a group.”

Contributing as a group requires that people enter the conversation when they are needed. Brilliant. But how do I know when I am needed? Surely, the arrogant or overconfident are likely to believe they are needed frequently and the quiet or those with low self-esteem will underestimate the value of their contributions and err on not speaking enough.

Enter the Conversation Covenant, to which I was first introduced in November 2009 during a New Monastic School for Conversion weekend in North Philadelphia. The folks at the Simple Way and Camden Houses did not shy away from asking us to enter this covenant of respect as a matter of first importance, believing that in order for conversations to be most fruitful and transformative, all persons must consciously make room for the Holy Spirit to move among the community.

Rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel, here are the guidelines of the Conversation Covenant, slightly modified, as written up recently by the New Monastic folks for use in their fourth P.A.P.A. Festival held just a couple weeks ago outside of Philly:

Conversation Covenant

1.          All persons must agree to the covenant of respect.

2.          We commit to respecting each person in the group, especially when we have different viewpoints. We will listen to what the Spirit is offering us through each other. When we are challenged by another’s perspective, let us lift up our confusion or concern to God, that we may achieve greater understanding.

3.          Let us speak the truth in our own heart. Let us not argue with each other. During appropriate times, may we engage in a mutual search for deeper understanding of the complex and multi-faceted faces of God.

4.          Let us make sure that each person is heard, that there is a balance of sharing among all participants. During discussions, let us not speak twice until every other person has had the chance to share.

5.          Let us allow a brief period of silence after someone has spoken before the next person speaks, that we may drink in the meaning of what each has offered.

6.          Step Up / Step Down: If you are a person who tends to share readily, it is your responsibility to be mindful and make room for others to speak. If you are a person who tends to be quieter, it is your responsibility to take opportunities to make your voice heard.

7.          Priority of voice: People of color and women will be given first priority in speaking or sharing.

8.          Let us allow someone to pass if they do not wish to share. After everyone has shared, let us make room for those who have passed to add their thoughts.

9.          Let us remember with gratitude that the Spirit of God is in each person in our circles.

The Step Up / Step Down guideline, number six above, is a beautiful expression of the interdependent nature of Shalom and challenged me throughout that first weekend as it continues to today. I frequently struggle to limit myself to only one comment in group settings until everyone has had a chance to share, but when I make the effort to try to step down, I listen to others’ contributions more attentively and value their comments to a greater extent. Even comments I disagree with allow opportunities for me to “make my enemy my teacher.” Limiting what I share also hopefully allows my own contribution to be more efficient and effective while forcing me to acknowledge that if God wishes to speak, He can do so through any and all of us, reminiscent of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

St. Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish theologian and founder of the Jesuits, believed communal discernment of God’s will could be assisted by asking a series of three questions. Following his lead, should you find yourself in a group setting with something to say, first ask yourself, “Does this need to be said?” If yes, the follow up question should be “Does this need to be said now?” If again in the affirmative, the final question is “Does this need to be said by me?” or as Tod Vogt of Mission Alive rephrases it, “Am I the one to say it?”

The discernment process outlined by Ignatius limits my own will and intervention in a conversation and fosters trust as individuals are brought to recognition that if God has something to say or to reveal, it will be said or revealed through someone in the discussion. We need everyone’s voice, not just the usual suspects. When a group is willing to step up and step down in this manner, relying on the Spirit to speak, we can feel confident that God’s voice can be heard and that His direction can be made clear.