Today we broke down the Christmas tree and put everything back for another year. It took an hour and a half, much less time that it took to decorate. There’s no creativity in taking decorations down, unless you count fitting the tree back in the box. It’s a little sad and a bit of relief at the same time. It’s a relief because the holidays are such a busy time of year and I tend to be intensely conscious of the Christ in that time. And that’s why it’s sad, too.
As I put away all the decorations, the temptation is to go back to business as usual. All those lovely ideas about peace on earth and the light overcoming the darkness get tucked between the pages of my schedule book. The same meetings that crowded my schedule in 2017 crowd it in 2018. For some reason, this is season for transitions, so there are a lot of folks passing, some folks making major changes in jobs or homes, and of course, lots of people wanting help raising their consciousness. This is when gyms are the busiest, whether they are physical or spiritual gyms.
This is when I remember one of my favorite Christmas poems, by Howard Thurman.
Wow, it’s the end of December and I haven’t posted in a while. I think the holidays took over my brain like an alien, turning me into one of Santa’s pod people. Truly, until the 26th hit, I wasn’t sure if I was on the ground or on my way to Oz. And now… I will happily use my massage gift certificates to get ready the joy that is or will be 2018. I used my first gift card (thanks Howard and Hazel!) for some reflexology on my feet. Well, actually, she managed a full body massage more or less and it was awesome. About half way through, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I felt very rude because I’d never asked the lady’s name and hadn’t been introduced. All I knew was that her English was minimal and she would understand if I said “too hard.” So I found out her name, or at least the one she uses so that I don’t mangle her real one and we moved on. I wanted to ask what language she speaks and learn to say thank you.
In the midst of all this, I noticed how virtuous and (gag) nice I felt for thinking these things during a massage. When did basic human decency start being something I patted myself on the back for? When did recognizing the basic humanity of others become something I had to remind myself of? Yikes! Earlier in the week, I had talked with a colleague about the ad hoc group I belong to called Quad City Interfaith Council. We were partially formed around the idea of honoring the dignity of all people. How is it that we have to have committees to make sure this happens? I think we could be better than this.
My intention and invitation for 2018, therefore is this: I’m going to go back to an old practice that helped a lot in a dark time. I’m going to spend my commute to work practicing seeing the face of the Divine in everyone I pass and everything I see. It was easy when I was taking the bus in a big city. I wonder if it will be harder or easier from my car out here in the country. It doesn’t matter, really. Being surrounded by love and beauty and good is a gift I can give myself and I won’t even need a holiday or gift card! And maybe next year, I’ll be part of a bridge of good manners and decency that crosses the divide of race and religion and unconsciousness.
I’ve just started listening to Brenè Brown’s new book about belonging. She refers to this as an increasingly divisive and divided world. She cites the current political and social chaos as part of the issue, but also talks about how it feels unsafe to say who you are and what you believe in. Everything in me wants to argue with her about whether this world is really all that divided. Yes, it’s what’s in the news these days. Who can be surprised by that? We are wired to focus on what’s wrong so that we don’t get eaten by T. Rexes and so we pay lots of attention to those voices who Rawr loudly and point their tiny talons at the “problem” people.
Before the internet gave the megaphone to a small group of malcontents, those unhappy people were mostly ignored. Downside; minorities could be ignored and abuse continued. Upside; terrorists didn’t get their egos stroked. In truth, nothing has changed except that we are more conscious of the things going on around the world than we’ve ever been. With so many different voices speaking up, it’s bound to create some chaos.
Out of chaos comes a new creation. Yes, things look grim these days. The news has not been about how many puppies were born safely yesterday. Nor has it been about how many lives were NOT lost because we can treat depression more effectively, because there’s a push towards greater acceptance of minorities and less acceptance of racism and even that the number of truly poor people in the world is dropping drastically. Did you know that peace is breaking out all over in record numbers? Seriously, google it. Just because we are now more aware of the problems in the world doesn’t mean that there are more problems in the world. It means we are waking up. We are, more and more of us, “woke”. We are learning that what isn’t pretty can still be beautiful.
I needed a few days to think and pray before responding to the events in Charlottesville. For me, the deeper message seems to come down to two things.
First, I have been a bigot. I’m not talking about participating in the subtle forms of racism that are part of American culture in the 21st Century. I don’t mean the white privilege that permeates my life – that I got well-educated, that I was raised in the upper middle class, that I can walk into a store and not be bothered, that cops are nice to me. I’m aware of the modern day slavery that is our prison industry, but it probably won’t affect me or my family because we are white. What I’m talking about is a period in my life where I was ignorant enough and blind enough to say things that now make me cringe. I know I was offending folks because they tried to rein me in. What they were unaware of is how much pain I was in. The irony of working in a crisis center while suicidal is not lost on me now, but at the time, I was so busy trying to survive, there wasn’t much brain power left to be aware of anything else. That is no excuse, but it was part of the situation at the time. Still, I said and did things that were mean and insensitive. I wonder how painful the lives of the neo-Nazis are to make them act so hatefully. I wonder how scared those white supremacists are that they no longer have cognitive function to see how self-destructive they are. Did you know that when you are really angry or scared, your higher mental function shuts down? We have evidence of that happening in Charlottesville.
Secondly, this neo-Nazi, alt-right, white supremacy thing isn’t new in our country. I remember being warned about it in high school back in the early ‘80’s. It seems to me to be a virus we keep thinking we have beaten, only to find it popping up again because we stopped actively vaccinating against it. Did you know that fleas and ground hogs have been found carrying the actual plague here in Northern Arizona? Seems unreal, right? It’s as real as the plague seen openly in Charlottesville in the past weeks. And yes, it is killing people. It has been killing people all along, although we have ignored it. Vaccination against this plague means awareness, admission of bigotry and having conversations about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism and fear that govern our lives today. For me, it means supporting affirmative action, asking my friends of in minorities how I can use my privilege on their behalf, and refusing to laugh at or make bigoted jokes.
How are you going to vaccinate yourself? Are you willing to look in the mirror and find your own inner bigot? I can tell you from experience, it’s not fun. It’s not pretty. It’s horrifying and painful. And I’d rather do that than explain to the next generation why I hid in my safe house in the midst of this plague.
Dictionary.com defines politics as “use of intrigue or strategy in obtaining any position of power or control, as in business, university, etc.” That’s actually the sixth definition, but it’s the first that does not use the word politics in the definition. If this is an accurate definition, is it any wonder that I hear folks talk about being sick of politics? I don’t like playing manipulation games, either. And yet, we all do it. We all have methods of getting what we need and/or want that are less than direct. We all hint at things we want to ask for rather than just asking. Why? For most of us (okay, me) it’s because I no longer realize I’m using a coping mechanism that worked when I was a child. Or I am making the assumption that it’s obvious what I’m asking for directly when the words I use actually mean something entirely different to the person I’m asking.
I have a friend who asked “Do you mind if I manipulate you into your greatness?” at the beginning of a class of adults. The uproar was immediate. No one wants to be manipulated. It feels like a power play. Even if the stated reason is to show you your greatness, the word manipulate makes it icky.
I have had lots of reasons to look at what manipulation means and especially what it means to “talk politics” lately. As a minister, it is mine to say the hard stuff sometimes. Like, are we really living from Principle in our interactions with each other and with strangers? Or are we just defending the status quo by remaining silent, not speaking out when we feel in our hearts something is going sideways? I don’t want to talk politics from the pulpit. I feel comfortable saying that the strategy I am willing to employ to use the inherent power that I have is really just spiritual techniques that help me govern my own thoughts. Yes, of course, there are times when I wish folks would just stop arguing and do as I say, but that’s not my usual modus operandi. I don’t want to lead a cult; I want to share a spiritual journey.
Having said that – there are some social justice issues that for me are purely about Principle. I can’t teach Oneness and sit quietly by while my LGBTQ friends are excluded from enjoying basic civil rights (like the right to work or rent an apartment while gay). I would hope I’d have the courage to intercede somehow if a woman was being attacked for wearing hijab (I grew up with nuns; one doesn’t touch the veil any more than one tugs on Superman’s cape). To be comfortable in my skin and in my role as minister, I need to put into action the things I teach on Sundays. So if that’s not okay…that’s okay.