Faith and Racism

racism cloudThere are only a few hard and fast rules in the life of faith. One of them is that you cannot be a person of faith and a racist. The two are mutually exclusive. You can be a person of faith who is working earnestly to eliminate the vestiges of racism in your life. The standard here is not perfection, the standard is progress. If you are in a church on Sunday while believing that some races are inferior to others, you are a hypocrite. Period. No exceptions. Your best course of action would be to skip church and spend your time getting education and attending workshops around racism and issues of diversity.

Some would argue that this kind of absolute statement is inappropriate because it will cause people to stop engaging in discussion. I beg to differ. There are some issues in which there is no middle ground. The majority of issues do have a number of valid viewpoints inherent in them, but some are so important that a middle ground simply doesn’t exist. We have allowed for a middle ground in issues of race in the hopes that people would come around, but in truth the middle ground has been used as a place to hide for far too long. Church leaders may be afraid that if they speak out on issues like racism they will lose members. The truth is that they never had those people to begin racism handswith.

Until we are willing to take a strong stand on issues that frankly cost people their lives every day, we aren’t people of faith. If we aren’t willing to make a meaningful commitment to our spiritual lives, then our spiritual lives have no meaning. If we aren’t willing to say to friends, family members, acquaintances, coworkers, even strangers we encounter on the street or in the grocery store that racist attitude and action are not acceptable, then our faith is gossamer thin and more illusion than substance. If these statements bother you, it’s a pretty strong indication you have some work to do.

The Six Dimensions of Everything

We are trained to believe there are three dimensions. I don’t believe that. I believe there George Floydare at least six dimensions to everything. By now you would have to be living in a cave without internet (the nicest caves have WiFi, by the way) to not have heard that the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd. I say the department did it because while the officers on the scene were the direct cause, the culture in the department is the broader cause. The fact that other officers stood around while Derek Chauvin, et. al. knelt on his neck is clear evidence that this isn’t an isolated problem within the Minneapolis Police Department – or any American department. As we assess this incident there is the act of Chauvin, the culture within the department, and the failure of other officers on the scene to overcome those factors and intervene. That’s three dimensions right there.

The fourth dimension is the militarization of the police in America that rendered violent protestwitnesses to the murder powerless to intervene. Even with people capturing video of the murder, Chauvin and his colleagues persisted. Clearly the officers didn’t see anything wrong with their actions. How could bystanders intervene? They wouldn’t have had a chance if they tried to intervene physically. The fifth dimension is the city’s hesitation in arresting Chauvin and his colleagues. The city attorney spoke of wanting to be sure he had all the evidence before making an arrest, but if I go out onto the street and kill someone in front of witnesses who take video of my actions I can promise you I won’t be walking around free for a few days while the city attorney gathers evidence. The sixth dimension is race, and all of its implications.

Now consider the demonstrations and subsequent violence around the country. The first protestsdimension are the peaceful protesters. The second is the presence of outside agitators who appear at these events. They have different agendas – some are anarchists, some just like to incite violence, there are allegations some may be foreign nationals – but their methods are to agitate protesters and increase the likelihood of violence. The third dimension are police, national guard, and others charged with containing the protesters and others on the street. The fourth dimension are the local government officials, the decisions they make and the things they say, wise or foolish. The fifth dimension is the media, their presence for better or worse, and the insights they provide the rest of us into what is happening. Finally, the sixth dimension is each of us at home. How will we respond? How will we interpret what is happening and what will we be called to do?

I mention all of this because when we look for solutions to any problem we tend to over Kaepernick Floydsimplify the problem, reduce it to a single cause and try to find a single solution. The we wonder why our “magic bullet” never works! We can address the officers who participated in the murder of George Floyd, but if we don’t address the culture that allowed it to happen we will be here again in the near future. We can change police departments, but if we don’t address the cultural oppression of people of color all we do is push the anger back under the surface where it will wait for another trigger to bring it to the surface. The truth is that we have a lot of work to do and we have waited far too long to begin.

Sadly, at times like this there is no shortage of people who want to tell us how we should respond. I am amazed at people who want to tell us with great specificity how we should act, not taking into account each of our abilities and aptitudes. Nobody can tell any of us how best to respond. The message we need to hear is that we must respond, we must reach out across the divide that is race in America, that each of us has a stake in this change, and that none of us gets to sit this one out. Start now.

Unseen Casualties

chronic painThe most important casualties of the current pandemic are those with COVID 19. They are the victims and they are receiving most of the attention – as they should. Then there are those who desperately want to be victims, the conspiracy theorists and those who feel their rights are being impinged upon when asked to wear a mask to protect their fellow citizens. They are the infantile cry babies, and should be ignored completely. In the middle are those of us with chronic conditions who have been unable to get treatment during this crisis. Some of us remain unable to get treatment because of irresponsible behavior on the part of our providers.

Consider Advanced Pain Management, a multi-State pain management conglomerate. Closing all their clinics on March 17, they assured patients that it was for everyone’s protection. For profit healthcare rarely does anything to protect anyone other than itself. More than two months later, the vast majority of their clinics remain closed. The exceptions are a few in towns so small they couldn’t even get a bus to stop at the local gas station. Meanwhile, patients in metropolitan areas wait for some movement and cannot get answers. We can get phone appointments, but if we need more than a refill or a phone call we are told to go to our primary care physician or the local emergency chronic pain cycledepartment. Neither of those places will treat someone with chronic pain, of course. They may order imaging or lab tests, but whatever the results we are referred to the still-closed pain clinic for treatment.

You may be thinking we should suck it up, but some of us are risking permanent injury while we wait for our clinics to reopen. In my case, I now have involuntary muscle movement and loss of range of motion. You may be thinking, “find another clinic.” The problem with that is the pain industry has made it very difficult to switch clinics for fear the patient might be trying to get more narcotics – even when your clinic is “temporarily closed.” Further, there is no way for a new provider to get medical records from a clinic that isn’t open. The clinics hold all the cards, and right now some of them aren’t even coming to the table.

Every time I pass a “heroes wear scrubs” yard sign I have to laugh. Yes, some of them do in fact wear scrubs. Others have been withdrawn from the battle by irresponsible employers like Advanced Pain Management, their patients left to fend for themselves. That’s not healthcare, it’s cover your ass behavior by the worst of for-profit medicine. Tell me again that we don’t need healthcare reform, please.

How Things Work

At one point in my life, I was very concerned with how things work. I very much wanted explanations for things both knowable and unknowable. I didn’t so much care about why they worked, that was a question that I found much less interesting and at times frankly irritating. Why something works doesn’t really tell us much about how to fix it should it break. How it works is what we need. I suppose I developed that interest in my twenties when I was a field service engineer in the medical field.

windbagWhen I moved on to working in healthcare the question was still how. How was this person’s body or mind supposed to function was the knowledge that would help us to alleviate discomfort. Why it worked that way was in large part irrelevant, a great question for philosophers (perhaps) but an exercise in missing the point to those who wanted to alleviate suffering. Moving to religion and spirituality, my focus was the same. How does the universe work? Why it works as it does was something I found to be above my pay grade.

Now, as I approach sixty, my priorities have shifted. I find most people who like to carry on about how things work – even people I generally like – to be little more than giant wind bags. That’s especially true in spirituality, where the biggest mistake we can make is assuming that we know how things work. What hubris! Just shut up already! What I see now is that neither the how nor the why are all that important. What is important is that things work. Beyond that, I believe we are here to experience them rather than solve them as if they were a problem. Life isn’t a problem! It certainly contains problems, but life is an experience. What’s more, we can’t solve life by explaining it away! The time we spend off in our heads trying to rationalize everything is time we miss out on living. Don’t let fear win the day, and don’t die without having lived!

Sticky, Messy Emotions

I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.

germanwwiisaluteMy parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.

Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.

Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As helenkellercatwe learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.

People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.

 

God in Crisis

There are more than a few people wondering where God is in the midst of the current pandemic. The reason they can’t seem to locate God is that they are looking for God, if not love, in all the wrong places. I have written about this before, but it takes repetition godnohereto overwrite an old message that has been deeply embedded: God is a companion, not a rescuer. Maybe that’s why God lets us mess things up over and over again – we, and not God, are the ones who have to clean our messes up. Of course, many of us just stand in the wreckage of our bad choices waiting for God to come clean them up. When that doesn’t happen, we decide that God doesn’t exist rather than recognize God isn’t our personal housekeeper.

Are you looking for God in the midst of this pandemic? Perhaps you should start by lowering your gaze from the heavens to the people around you. The truth is that everybody and everything you see is a bearer of God. If you want to see God, look at the suffering person next to you and help them. If you want to experience God, allow yourself to be helped without holding back. If you want to work with God, find some people interested in helping in a similar way and work with them to improve a situation. You may find you have been looking for a flamboyant, drag queen God when the truth is that God is much more mainstream and so you need to revise your search terms. Look instead in the mundane, the everyday, the decidedly unspectacular. You will find an abundance of God there!

Who’s the Snowflake Now?

bomb shelterBack in the good old days when I was a child, back yard fallout shelters for the soon to be arriving nuclear winter were all the rage. Those in the know and with the means had them installed and stocked them with canned goods in a kind of pre-survivalist form of denial. Everything you needed to survive, the theory went, could be stocked in your underground hideaway. The fact that it would take hundreds to thousands of years for your neighborhood to be habitable above ground apparently wasn’t of concern. You would be just fine underground, killing your neighbors who tried to access your shelter before you could seal the door. There were countless movies made during this time that played out these scenarios ad nauseum. Funny, though, I don’t remember any fallout shelters including a toilet.

This all sounds great, right? Except that if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the snowflakeskind of person who would have a backyard bomb shelter would never make it. It was the conservatives who were hawks when it came to war that wanted the shelters, and it’s the conservatives today who are crying about their rights being restricted after weeks (not decades) of staying at home in a decidedly half-ass sort of way. It’s the conservatives who don’t want to wear a mask to protect others and feel the need to strut around with their long guns at their side, something most definitely ill advised in the middle of a nuclear winter. It’s the conservatives who dismiss science in favor of their own opinion and feel the need to reopen the economy at the cost of thousands of lives. Clearly, they would feel the need to reopen the door of their fallout shelter against scientific advice as well. After all, they know their rights.

Nature really does abhor a vacuum, even if it is between the ears of a snowflake.

Why Didn’t God…?

As someone who has been in the religion and spirituality biz for a long time now (cue the old guy jokes), I can tell you that the most frequently asked question in religion is some version of the title to this post. Why didn’t God ______________? You can fill in the blank with anything you can imagine – and people do exactly that. Why did Grandma die, why didn’t God save my puppy, why was I assaulted, why did it rain on my wedding day, why does God allow [everything we don’t like], the list goes on and on. The answers given to that question, sometimes but not always by well meaning people, are almost as numerous as the questions asked. All of them, save the one I am about to give you, are nonsense.

The reason God didn’t do what you wanted or hoped God would do is because you misunderstand the nature of God. It’s not your fault, you got your faulty images from institutional religion. Institutional religion lies to you all the time because it isn’t in the truth business. Institutional religion is in the marketing business. They want to keep you coming back for more and putting money in the collection plate. They try to get you to do that because that’s how they stay in business. Therefore, they will tell you some version of “it’s your fault.” God doesn’t rescue you because you are a sinner, or don’t have enough faith, or love the wrong people, or used to masturbate to a picture of Marie Osmond in a Tiger Beat magazine. These are all wrong answers.

The correct answer is that God doesn’t rescue us, God journeys with us. God isn’t a superhero or a helicopter parent, God is a companion. The vision of God you have been sold is defective.

I will be writing more about this in the near future, but in the meantime you might want to consider every story you ever heard from the scriptures of your religious tradition. If you do, you will find that many of them contradict the teachings of your tradition. You will come to see that institutional religion, and in some cases the authors of scripture, make their living not by telling you the truth but rather by convincing you that their version of God is better than the others. Many times they tell you that right after insisting that there is only one God – a direct contradiction to their marketing campaign. The good news is that you can learn to see for yourself, and clearly!