Surviving This Hell

The world is going to hell! There is more than enough evidence in the horrific stories popularized by the global 24/7 news cycle. Millennials are spurning commitment in record numbers such that the only ones wanting to get married these days are gays and priests!  Social, cultural and religious norms are crumbling.  What’s it all coming to?

Fast approaching my 65th birthday I’ve caught myself saying more than once, “Old people have been saying the world is going to hell for centuries, but this time it really is!” It generally elicits an intended chuckle. But just beneath my attempt at self-deprecating humor, a serious question festers. Are things getting worse? Have we chosen a fast-track to self-inflicted destruction?

It’s not just that murder and unthinkable forms of violence have become de’rigueur in our cities. Hideous acts of fanatical terrorism compete for public shock and outrage. Heightened electronic security and safety awareness training could not prevent the rape of a U of M freshman in her third-floor residence hall this past weekend. These are not just issues of personal safety; they beg questions about our collective, social sanity.

And it is not just what we do to each other that is killing us. Nine out of ten lakes, rivers and streams in SW Minnesota have been found to be unsafe for swimming no less consumption. What about the cattle that graze these fields and effects on the food we consume? What carcinogens is Jeb the Dog ingesting when we allow him to drink from Minnehaha Creek on his twice-a-day walk in the park?

I don’t have an answer, only questions! We cannot escape the urgency of the issues. If we don’t know the answer then we better ask, “Are we asking the right questions?” Maybe asking, “Is the world going to hell?” is the wrong question. Maybe it’s not even a good question. Perhaps its simply a kind of pretend-question that reframes the obvious, the sort of question that merely dabbles in curiosity only to assuage our feelings of powerlessness.

Are we willing to ask the right questions? Do we really want to face the truth? When it comes to senseless violence and acts of hellish inhumanity, its profoundly important to know who is asking the question. A 65 y/o white guy in Minneapolis? A 20 y/o black male in Baltimore? A Syrian mother fleeing to save her Christian children? A devout Muslim in Texas seeing the tenets of his faith mocked in cartoon fashion? If we disagree about the question we are bound to come up with different answers.

At 65 a few things are abundantly clear. I sure as hell do not have the answers like I once thought I did! Hell, I’m not even sure what questions to ask anymore. There is just one thing of which I am absolutely certain… our world will only solve the life and death issues confronting us if we begin to formulate questions and answers together!

This demands that we do a significantly better job of listening to one another, as well as to the whole of creation once teeming with life but now gasping to stay alive!

Authentic dialogue and sincere engagement with those other than ourselves offers our best hope for coming up with the questions and answers vital to the survival of life as we know it.

We Must Stop for It to Stop

The sirens blared for two minutes last evening at sundown in Israel. This time it was not because of some immediate terrorist attack. The sirens marked the beginning of Yom HoShoah, the Day of Remembrance which concludes this evening at sunset.

Why do we need such a day? Can anyone forget? Well, yes, many do! Humankind seems to have a perverted capacity to replicate, again and again, such inconceivable brutality and unspeakable violence. We remember because we must be reminded never to forget.  We delude ourselves if we think the Holocaust could never happen again.

The precedent of the Armenian genocide provides a timely admonition. Pope Francis unleashed quite a diplomatic stir last week by marking the 100 anniversary! 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated by the Turks — yet, the government in Ankara took quite the offense that anyone would call it for what it was and remind others of the unspeakable horror some would have us forget.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin doesn’t want us to forget the Armenian genocide either. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J. and author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics. The rabbi observes that the Armenian Christians, like the Jews, were seen as a threat by the traditional hierarchy of Ottoman society.

Salkin reminds us that “like the Jews, the Armenians became better educated, wealthier, and more urban.”  Isn’t this often the aspiration of many minority populations as well as the paranoid response of entrenched hierarchies? The rabbi writes, “like ‘the Jewish problem’ that would be frequently discussed in Germany, in Turkey they talked about ‘the Armenian question’.”

The Turks had precedents to guide and encourage them as well. The rabbi tells how the Turks delved into the records of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and revived its torture methods. So many Armenian bodies were dumped into the Euphrates that the mighty river changed its course for a hundred yards.

Rabbi Salkin would admonish us today…

In America, the newspaper headlines screamed of systematic race extermination. Parents cajoled their children to be frugal with their food, “for there are starving children in Armenia.” In 1915 alone, the New York Times published 145 articles about the Armenian genocide. Americans raised $100 million in aid for the Armenians. Activists, politicians, religious leaders, diplomats, intellectuals and ordinary citizens called for intervention, but nothing happened.

The Armenians call their genocide Meds Yeghern (“the Great Catastrophe”). It served the Nazis well as a model. Not only the act of genocide itself — but also, the passive amnesia about that genocide. “Who talks about the Armenians anymore?” laughed Hitler.

We want to claim some sort of moral superiority today — claiming it cannot happen again, citing occasions like Yom HoShoah, Meds Yeghern and moral voices like that of Rabbi Salkin. But, it can happen, it does happen, it is happening.

Sometime today, let’s each take two minutes, just two minutes. No sirens will wail, no rabbis or popes need exhort. Sometime, this day, let us set aside a mere two minutes — not so much to recall the past but to acknowledge the present.

Will anything change? Will we be the generation to finally put a stop to the horror of ethnic cleansing? Historic precedent suggests the odds are not in our favor. But, try we must. Like the Pope and Rabbi’s solitary voices, each of us is called to speak the truth.

Each of us, if only for two minutes sometime today, can pray. But even more we must resolve, “Never Again!”

_____________

Rabbi Salkin’s really fine article can be found [here].

Drinking Poison

Do you ever stumble over the Our Father? No, not whether to wrap it up with “for thine in the kingdom, the power…” or chop it at “deliver us from evil”. My problem is more than linguistic. From time to time I get hung up on “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes the words hold up a mirror revealing more than I want to see or admit, more than I am willing to give.

Yesterday a friend shared just how complex and convoluted our emotions can be. Reflecting on my post about loss and grief, he confessed an unwillingness to acknowledge anger, an emotion with which he has come to recognize a complex and difficult relationship. Recently, as he probed more deeply into experiences of sadness and fear he has discovered that feelings of anger were being masked by the other two emotions.

My friends honesty challenges me! Yes, loss and grief — as we live these out day by day — get all bunched-up and tangled with feelings of fear, sadness, anger, betrayal, remorse, you name it! Often, unmasking one emotion reveals others joined at the hip complicating and confounding our ability to disentangle from the emotional mess. Reciting the Our Father can become a jarring reminder of the paralysis I sometimes feel around my need to forgive.

Jeanne Bishop, the author I referenced yesterday, had the ultimate challenge of forgiveness! Her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child were brutally shot by a gunman awaiting their return from a celebratory dinner with Jeanne and their parents. It’s a heart-wrenching, compelling story of forgiveness, something I am incapable of replicating right now.  My emotions remain too entangled, my vices too entrenched for such magnanimity.

Yet, Bishop’s words return, over and over, offering wisdom to the degree I am willing and able to hear:

Hating is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die!

Jeanne Bishop was strengthened by a determination not to give her sister’s killer that emotional power over her! From the moment that the police told her that Nancy and Richard had been murdered, she sensed in her deepest core that hating the person who did it would affect him not a bit, but it would destroy her.

Our emotions are complex and convoluted and frequently mask others more entrenched. Grief from deep loss, anger over genuine injury, hate welling from despicable behaviors can ensnare us. They can kill us.

Self-interest is not the most altruistic of motivations.  Yet, it serves as the most basic of moral imperatives to forgive — we must not give to them that power!

___________

See: Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015. p. 45.

Facing Facts… All of Them!

Delusions are really dangerous. Denying reality abdicates responsibility only at our own peril. It is not that pretty bad and awful “things” are happening — people, human beings, are doing those pretty nasty, horrible things to one another. We can turn a blind eye, deluding ourselves with denial — the consequences are lethal.

All the more reason to open our eyes, face reality — all of it!  There are some hopeful and positive things happening amid the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq and the carnage of war in Gaza. We imperil ourselves if we shut-down, look away, aren’t paying attention.

Case in point… what percentage of people in Minneapolis-St Paul do you think are even aware that the Muslim community is nearing the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan? Media reports would reenforce the dangerous delusion that Christian, Jewish and Muslim relations are accurately symbolized by perennial strife in the Middle East.  Not true — or at least it need not be so!

There is a wonderful story out of London that gets buried in the on-slot of bad news. Just like Ramadan (ends at sundown, July 28), I bet virtually none of us are aware of the courageous and inspiring actions of Rabbi Natan Levy. He has stunned members of the Jewish community across England by observing the Islamic month of fasting. [link]

Like millions of Muslims across the globe, for 30 days, he will not eat or drink from sunrise and sundown and refrain from sexual intercourse. The 40-year-old religious leader said he was encouraged to take part after witnessing first-hand the lack of engagement between Judaism and Islam.

“I hope this gets us thinking and talking as a community about two things; the hungry poor in our midst, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Ramadan is a time for charity and hungry people care about hungry people,” he told the Jewish News in London.

Some of us will remember that Pope John Paul gathered leaders of the world’s religions at Assisi to pray for peace shortly after 9/11. How many Americans are aware that in the very same overture he encouraged Catholics around the world to fast on the last day of Ramadan 2001 (December 17) as prayer for peace and gesture of mutual understanding? The dominant political rhetoric of the moment buried that part of the pope’s appeal and it went virtually unreported.

Yet prophetic actions like those of John Paul and Rabbi Levy are happening still and closer to home. Each year the Muslim community of Minneapolis-St Paul shares a Dialogue Iftar Dinner to which non-Muslims are invited. “Iftar” is the name for the meal at sunset that breaks the day’s fast.  This year the dinner will be held in North Star Ballroom at University of Minnesota at 7:30 PM on Saturday, July 26th. I feel honored to have been invited.

None of us can put an end to the animosity that grips the Israelis and Palestinians. We cannot protect the Christians fleeing the perversion of religion in Iraq. But’s let’s not succumb to negativity and despair, deluding our ourselves that we can do nothing. Yes, we face some pretty painful facts. But open our eyes we must! We can change the reality in which we choose to live.

Here is a simple suggestion… what if we each called our churches and asked that a prayer in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters concluding the Holy Month of Ramadan be included in our services this Sunday? Our prayers for world peace can become so rote and anemic as to be meaningless. Why not make our prayer explicit in a way that might actually transform our attitudes and actions?

Who was it that said, “There is no one so blind as the one who will not see.”? Let’s celebrate and create real evidence that humans — yes, even those we hate and kill as well as those we love and embrace — are created in the image of God. No exceptions!

A Bad Day Amid the Ruble

Yesterday was a pretty crappy day! Anyone paying attention would have to conclude that we are in pretty dire straits.

Long gone is the consoling image of Pope Francis’ head pressed in prayer against the wall separating Israel and Palestine on the road to Bethlehem. Who even remembers Pentecost Sunday with Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew hosting Presidents Abbas and Peres in a prayer for peace?

Now Israel has begun a massive ground offensive in Gaza, a passenger plane was shot down in the Ukraine leaving some to say the pilots should have known better than to fly over a war zone, all the while Iraq implodes leading me to wonder what the hell is the point of tens of billions of US dollars and tens of thousands of human lives!

Our collective anxiety and national paranoia are epitomized in the White House lockdown yesterday because an unattended package was found on the lawn. It turned out to be nothing!

On our fenced borders a humanitarian crisis unfolds as children relegate us to bumbling and blundering about an appropriate response. Some would send drones to patrol the border reinforced with even higher fences. They would fast-track legislation to close porous loopholes in US immigration policy.  For God’s sake (literally), it’s not as simple as all that!

Before these zealous protectors of the “American way” adjust their flag lapel pins or a candidate requests another contribution from a faith-based PAC I would ask two things. Please, review your own family history and immigrant roots — why did your family come? … how were they received?

Instead of going to church services this Sunday I propose that more of us stay home and silently pray with Scripture instead. We would do well to begin with Mt 2:13-23, the Flight into Egypt.

Those familiar with the practice of Ignatian mediation might want to assume in prayer the role of the innkeeper — hearing ourselves say, feeling in our own managerial hearts, “There is no room here for you in our inn.”

Or, reenact with Francis the trek to Bethlehem.  Pick a wall, any wall in your home will do.  Press your head against it in silent prayer.  Absorb the tension and anxiety of Mary and Joseph as they traveled this route.  What were their aspirations, what does every child — Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, American, Guatemalan, Ukrainian — deserve?

Yes, there is plenty of evidence to indicate the world is a mess and hurting. Despair is one response. Feeling impotent is understandable. Shaking our heads in disbelief is not an option!

 

A Death Too Many

Do students still read The Diary of Anne Frank in school? For our generation it was chilling and fresh. Less than twenty years had passed since the 14-year-old had been betrayed, deported to Auschwitz and died in the Bergen-Belsen camp just a few weeks before it was liberated in 1945. Yesterday would have been Anne Frank’s 85th birthday.

With the naiveté and innocence characteristic of youth we thought we were studying the horrors of the Holocaust. Only much later did I recognize that a youthful Anne presents herself as the picture of indomitable hope, if not happiness. It now seems incongruous.

Although she was held hostage in hiding, Anne felt secure. She had the solidarity of family although there was precious little more than an oak branch visible through a solitary window to break the monotony of each day. She wrote with youthful idealism and imagined a bright future.

Her diary stops with a stark sentence: “This is where Anne’s diary ends.” Anne was prevented from writing after she was imprisoned in the concentration camp. We remember her still youthful spirit and grieve that one so full and free did not live to celebrate her 85 years.

Students reading The Diary of Anne Frank today bear the ignominious distinction of being hostages in a way my generation never had to imagine. American students today – along with their families – fear school is where their life stories may end.

Tuesday’s shooting in Oregon is at least the 74th instance of shots being fired on school grounds or in school buildings in the last 18 months. There have been at least 37 school shootings in 2014, which is just barely half over. We are on pace for nearly one shooting per week since the horror in Newtown, CT.

Georgia, which passed an expansive pro-gun law this year, has been site of the most incidents, with 10 shootings reported. Florida was next, with seven. Tennessee claimed five, and North Carolina and California was home to four each. Atlanta was the only city that had three. Shootings across 31 states have made this a truly national travesty.

What sort of society has America become? What horrors are we willing to tolerate? What will end our collective sense of denial? When is enough enough?

In no way do I equate the incalculable tragedy of the Holocaust with the insanity of gun violence in America. I do want to hold up the example of one, solitary young life. We collectively grieve the death of Anne Frank because, together, we came to know her.

Emilio Hoffman is the 14-year-old who was shot dead in Oregon.  Police are still looking for a relationship between Emilio and his killer.  Emilio’s generation lives within a different sort of hiding.  Our national betrayal of them is equally horrendous.

Are we so fragmented as a nation that our students must study within protective custody? …that the death of even one, solitary student in our schools is not one death too many?

Clearly, America is not exempt to social insanity! We have long past the realm of legal rights – we are living a moral obscenity. What hath freedom wrought?

Doing Our Mothers Proud

Sunday will be the eighth Mothers Day without my Mom. I no longer turn away from the greeting cards prominently displayed at Target. Pop-ups offering flowers interrupting my web-surfing don’t make me sad as they did. Yet, I still miss my Mom and wish I could tell her again – with new insight and fresh motivation – how much I love her.

A few days ago I even posted a request on Facebook: share your best suggestion for how those of us who have lost our mothers are to mark this weekend holiday. Friends offered some great ideas: make one of her favorite recipes, do something she enjoyed doing, share favorite stories about her with others, visit someone in a nursing home.

The suggestion I like best did not come from Facebook but from columnist Nicholas Kristof. The world community is increasingly aware and outraged by the 276 school girls kidnapped by religious fanatics in Nigeria. His “update” from yesterday deserves to be read [here] regardless of his great suggestion for celebrating Mothers Day.

Neither Mr. Kristof nor I begrudge anyone celebrating our mothers with flowers, chocolates or out-for-brunch. I wish my Mom were here to enjoy them. Kristof’s brilliant idea is to celebrate them by honoring the girls still missing in Nigeria. Think of their mothers’ anguish.  In my family’s case this would be especially appropriate.

Regulars here will recall that my favorite Grandmother was orphaned at age 7 and sent from Boston to South Dakota on an orphan train. Her formal education ended at the third grade. My mother earned the highest score in her county on her eighth-grade standardized exam. However, cultural values prevented her from going to high school, despite the protestations of her teacher, because my grandparents presumed she had enough education for what they envisioned her future to be. (Read my previous post [here]).

The greatest threat to the extremism of the Nigerian kidnappers is a girl with a book. Boko Haram, whose name means roughly “Western education is a sin,” admits responsibility for this violent abuse being played out in Nigeria. The greatest antidote to their fanaticism would be to educate and empower women. I am absolutely certain my mother would agree.

Kristof offers a number of excellent suggestions: One would be a donation to support girls going to school around Africa through the Campaign for Female Education [link]; a $40 gift pays for a girl’s school uniform.

Or there’s the Mothers’ Day Movement [link] which is supporting a clean water initiative in Uganda. With access to water, some girls will no longer have to drop out of school to haul water.

You may wish to support something closer to home. This year I plan to send what I would have spent on flowers for my Mom to Avenues for Homeless Youth [link].  On any night in the state of Minnesota, 4,000+ youth and young adults are homeless and unaccompanied by an adult. Youth homelessness has jumped 63% in Minnesota since 2009.

Other than keeping the pressure of global outrage on the tragedy in Nigeria, there is little you and I can do to rescue the kidnapped girls. Whether our mothers are with us to receive our expressions of gratitude and love or they have passed from us, there is still so much we can each do to honor these girls and celebrate the lives of our mothers.

Let’s make them proud!