Wednesday, September 25, 2019

America Will Survive This. Whatever This Is


At last night's meeting of National Capital Presbytery a bunch of friends and colleagues who I hadn't seen since last spring stopped to offer their condolences on the death of my mom over the summer. Their kindnesses got me to thinking about the weeks around mom's death, and it brought back to mind a story I meant to share. So here it is:
Back in mid-July I took a cab to National Airport to catch a flight to Chattanooga to be with my mother as she neared the end of her life. Mom, who breathed her last about ten days after my cab ride, was a life-long New Deal Democrat who believed passionately in the American project. One of her few regrets, I'm certain, was not living long enough to see the end of the current administration. In fact, we spoke specifically of that desire about a year before her death, when it seemed reasonably likely that she’d be around long enough to cast another vote for a Democrat for president. Alas, that was not to be.
Actually, by the time I made it to her bedside in mid-July she was fading in and out of consciousness so no real conversation was possible. That’s a shame because mom would have loved to hear about the cabbie who drove me to the airport.
He was a delightful middle-aged Ethiopian man who has lived in the States for about 20 years. Has cab radio was tuned to NPR’s coverage of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s testimony to congress, so I asked him what he thought.
He smiled and said, “America will survive Mr. Trump.” I said that I hoped so but sometimes feared that the damage being done to our institutions through these years would be lasting and profound.
Then he told me a story about why he believed in the future of the great American experiment in self-governance, liberty, and the rule of law.
He said that during the first few weeks of the Trump Administration, when the first ban on immigration from specific majority-Muslim countries was imposed, he was taking a fare to Dulles. The passenger was a Moroccan man on the first leg of his journey home. On the way to the airport, the Moroccan man expressed his personal fear in light of the ban and his broader fearfulness about the future of democracy here.
The cabbie, whose home country is about 40-percent Muslim, told me, “I said to him, let me tell you something that is happening at Dulles right now.” He then reminded me of the dozens of attorneys who showed up at the airport in January, 2017, to offer legal assistance to those trying to enter the U.S. from Muslim countries. While some of the lawyers were part of immigration rights groups, many just showed up when they read news reports and felt moved to help in any way they could.
The cabbie said, “that is the real America, and it will live a lot longer than Donald Trump.”
My mom would have unabashedly agreed with him. Then again, she thought she’d survive the Trump years, too. I hope the cabbie was right. I hope our institutions are stronger than the impulses of those whose self-serving, self-dealing, self-centeredness threatens their future. And ours.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

September 11: An Apology


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There’s really nothing to say about September 11 that hasn’t already been said either far more bombastically than I have ever felt or far more eloquently than I have ever achieved. Thus I doubt it adds anything to the word mountain to say, simply, “I’m sorry.”
Yet the need to apologize best captures what I’ve long felt about that morning, and that feeling has only grown with the passage of all these years since 2001.
On that bright, clear Tuesday morning we were, oddly enough, all at home. We had just moved in to a co-housing arrangement in suburban Cleveland over the previous weekend. We had planned to spend the morning getting our two boys enrolled in school.
I was stretching for a morning run when, as I recall, we got a call from a friend prompting us to turn on the TV just a few minutes before the second plane flew into the south tower. Like millions of others, we watched in shock and horror as the first reports came in.
Before the towers fell, I took off on a run.
Running is often my time of prayer and meditation, and it surely was that morning. I was due to begin a new job at a church in Cleveland Heights the following week, and, as I ran, I kept having the same thought over and over again: now it is our time, now it is our time.
The moment the second plane flew into the south tower it was obvious that this was a terror attack, and before I took off on that morning run, the speculation was rampant that the attack was the work of fundamentalist Islamists. To me it was as clear as that morning’s sky that the U.S. response would be to declare September 11 a day that will live in infamy and, like December 7, 1941, before it, the end result would be war.
But the thought running through my mind – now it is our time – was not about responding to violence with violence. It was not about responding as a patriot going to war. It was about responding as a follower of the Prince of Peace to the suddenly urgent call to put peacemaking at the center of the life of the church.
That’s why all I have left to say about September 11 is, “I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry that we failed to make peacemaking the central calling of the church in these first decades of the 21st century. I’m sorry that we could not persuade the neoconservatives in the American government to pursue justice and accountability through means other than invading Afghanistan. And, although for one, brief, shining moment world public opinion was loudly and clearly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I am sorry that we failed to disrupt that fiasco before it cost a half million lives.
I’m sorry that we allowed an energized peace movement in the United States to be coopted by the Democratic Party and the first Obama campaign. We were not unaware nor indifferent to that process even as many of us – myself included – went door-to-door to help Obama get elected. Nevertheless, I am sorry we failed to create a more compelling and persuasive narrative imagining new lines of peacemaking in that moment of hope and promise.
Perhaps had we done so, new leaders would have emerged who might have helped us avoid the catastrophe the culture has collapsed into in these awful years of Trump. As he invokes the memories of September 11 today, and lies yet again about his own actions that September morning, all I can manage to say is, “I’m sorry.”

Monday, August 12, 2019

Remembering Mom

Mom, celebrating 90 years in October, 2017

The little Presbyterian congregation that I serve in metro DC has spent this summer studying the 25th chapter of Matthew, and asking ourselves what it would mean to be a church shaped primarily by that foundational gospel text.
I probably should have just told them about my mom. She spent her entire life living out the deepest meaning of that chapter from the New Testament.
When I was sitting with her a few days before her death, I picked up her Bible and read those verses from Matthew 25. Mom marked up a lot of passages in her Bible, but she didn’t actually mark any of the verses I just read. I don’t think she needed to be reminded of them because her life testified to the importance of those words for the way she chose to live her days.
When mom encountered people who were hungry, she figured out how to feed them even though she hated cooking and wasn’t really all that much into food herself. She helped countless poor families throughout Chattanooga figure out how to navigate systems so that they could get breakfast and lunch for their children.
At the same time, she fed us day by day, and though she didn’t find a great deal of joy in the kitchen, she did find joy and share it at the dining room table. We ate dinner together as a family almost every evening of my growing up, and I know that practice passed along to the next generation. There is, of course, something profound and sacramental about breaking bread together, and we are shaped through such simple practices. At the table that my mother set, we were shaped for the kinds of service that our parents provided in their professional lives.
When mom encountered people who were naked she clothed them. She was part of the Neighborhood House system in North Chattanooga from its earlies days, both donating and delivering all kinds of gently used items of clothes that made their way to families in need. She stood in solidarity with poor families in their most trying times, and served them in ways as simple and profound as finding shoes and winter coats for their children, and in ways as complex and difficult as going to family court with them.
One of my strongest memories of mom is of going with her, after the Christmas Eve candlelight service here, into Chattanooga’s public housing projects to deliver Christmas to families whose trees would be far less richly adorned than the one I’d wake up to the next morning on Avalon Circle.
When mom encountered lonely people, she visited. In retirement she volunteered in all manner of ways, answering calls for Chattanooga’s crisis line often on holidays, serving as a hospice volunteer, and, in work that brought her deep joy, volunteering for years at the little house in the Children’s Museum where she often reconnected momentarily lost little ones with their parents.
Although she would likely have rolled her eyes at the divinity school vocabulary, what I’m trying to say is that my mother understood incarnational theology. That is to say, she deeply believed that whatever she did with and for the least of these – the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the lonely, the children of Chattanooga – she was doing with and for Jesus.
You always have a choice when you look at others. If you look for the worst in others you’ll find it. If you look for the Christ in them, you’ll find that, too. You’ll also find yourself a whole lot happier.
I learned from my mother that complicated abstract responses to unanswerable questions do not add up to a life of faith. Entering the kindom prepared for you from the foundations of the earth is not about your answer to the abstract question about the divinity or humanity of Jesus; it’s about seeing the divine spark in every human being and treating them the way you imagine you’d treat Jesus: with kindness and humility.
Thirtysome years ago I gave mom a wall-hanging for Christmas with the words from Micah 6:8 – do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Mom served the least of these through that lens. She was a fierce advocate of basic fairness, and a system rigged by and for the rich and powerful deeply offended her. She walked through every day with a loving kindness that touched everyone she encountered. And she always shined the light on others, being an incredibly supportive partner to our dad, a proud parent who always showed up for each of us, and a loving, doting grandma who, as Kaycee noted, taught her grandkids that there are some things an Ensign doesn’t do.
I was never clear on what those things are, and I’m pretty sure that her kids and grandkids stretched her imagination on just what things were acceptable. I will leave those things to your imaginations. In that way, as well, mom grasped something profoundly important: if you begin with love you can build and hold on to relationships through most any challenge.
In recent years it was challenging to get out of places with mom. Some of that was because her body started giving out long before her indomitable spirt waned, but most of it was because most everywhere we went with her she would run into folks she knew and they would want to stop and talk with her. Mom spent her lifetime building and holding on to relationships that began with her loving spirit.
She extended that curiosity to people in every walk of life. She knew the family stories of every principal in all of the schools that she served, and she also knew the family stories of every custodian.
My mom never turned down a chance to talk with an old friend, or a new friend, or a potential friend. She had a curiosity about life that drove her to want to learn about you, and a fundamental kindness that compelled countless folks to want to share their stories with her.
Throughout scripture salvation means wholeness, it means well-being, it means communion with God and with neighbor. All of that begins and ends with love. Mom lived and loved into such salvation day by day, and she rests in it now and forevermore. Hallelujah. Amen.