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Gonna Take a Lot of Love

It was a strange weekend here in Columbia, Maryland.  We were listening to the radio while we cleaned up the house on Saturday morning and at the top of the hour, a reporter announced that there was another incident of random gun violence in a public area.  It took us all a few seconds to understand that this time the incident was at the Columbia Mall, about a mile from our house.

This incident--these incidents--feel to me like a sudden rip in the fabric of community.  I'm reminded of the practice of Jewish mourners who tear their clothes at the moment when their hear that a loved one has died.  I'm reminded of passage in the Gospel of Matthew which describes how the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus' death.  Violence suddenly broke out in a place where my family and thousands of other people go each week, assuming we are safe.  Something ripped open that space, some kind of rage or grief or madness, and fear and confusion flooded in.

Police were at the crime scene within minutes, and over the following hour over 200 police officers arrived at the mall according to a friend of mine who is a fire department chaplain.  As sorts of other emergency personnel were there as well, and everyone seems to have performed magnificently.  We heard story after story of people looking out for each other, pulling strangers to safety, reaching out to those who were scared, distracting upset children, lending cell phones, giving rides.

Our phone started ringing about a minute after we heard the news on the radio.  Relatives from all over the country began to call to make sure we were okay.  Then came emails and Facebook messages from friends, reporting on their own safety and making sure we were safe as well.

All those people reaching out to each other--at the mall and across the country--began to patch up the rip in the fabric of our community.  Each connection, each call, each hand extended, was a thread woven back across the tear.  We came back together in a hundred thousand different ways  Saturday afternoon and all through Sunday.

Church communities like Kittamaqundi gathered all over the county on Sunday morning to pray and sing and embrace.  I imagine that many felt a particular resonance with the Psalm of the day, number 27:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?

Though an army encamp against me,
    my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
    yet I will be confident.

For he will hide me in his shelter
    in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
    he will set me high on a rock.

In the afternoon we gathered again for a prayer service where we lit candles for the two victims and the perpetrator, for the first responders, for all of those who work at the mall, for everyone who was frightened and for all of those who have ever entertained thoughts of committing acts of violence.  We know how to show up to sadness at KC, and we know the power of God to bring light even to the darkest places.

At our Youth Group meeting Sunday night, we talked a bit about the shooting but the kids seemed a little disengaged.  I had a feeling they had been talked out by then and I think I was as well.  So we moved on and did what we usually do.  We played an extremely creative round of “Late to Work” (our variation of a classic theater game—happy to explain it off line) and then we settled in to our “FOCUS” time. 

This year, our Youth Group has been playing around with the idea of "Pay It Forward" inspired, in part, by this video.  We've been exploring how we can contribute to a situation the actions, attitudes and energy that characterize the world we would like to live in.  In other words, instead of reacting to the negative things we experience in the world by complaining or withdrawing or retaliating, we find away to contribute something positive to the situation.  We’ve challenged the kids to find ways to practice this principle by smiling at people they don’t know or making a positive comment when everyone else is complaining, etc.  

Last night, at the suggestion of one of the other adult leaders, I gave the kids a copy of the “Heinz Dilemma” to play around with--the story of a man who must decide between robbing a pharmacy and watching his wife die because he can't afford the one medicine what would save her.  It’s a scenario that was the topic of discussion on the first day of my first ethics course in college.  (The course was called “Decision-making in Situations of Uncertainty” and it was taught by one of my all-time favorite professors, Kathryn Tanner.)  The scenario was a favorite of the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg who claimed to be able to diagnose a person's stage of moral development by their response to the Heinz Dilemma.  

The kids in our Youth Group talked a bit about how Heinz would be justified in stealing the drug because a human life has greater value than an individual's financial profit (demonstrating, by the way, Kohlberg's highest stage of moral development, "universal human ethics").  But the conversation soon swerved into territory that Kohlberg didn't explore.  Didn't Heinz have other options?  Wasn't there a way that he could influence the pharmacist and persuade him to sell Heinz the drug for a lower price?  I was thinking they'd suggest Heinz take his story to the local media and have them shame the pharmacist into changing his behavior.  The kids, however, went in the other direction.

What if Heinz found a way to do something kind or helpful for the pharmacist?  What if he demonstrated compassion for the pharmacist?  Could there be a way for him to create a connection with this person so that the pharmacist would be moved to extend some kindness in return?  Suddenly, we weren't talking about a hypothetical anymore.

It was a good way to end a hard weekend.  As we look for a way to build a better world, we are going to need a lot of people to ask, "Are these really our only options?"  Do we really need to decide between lashing out and giving in, between fighting fire with fire and letting ourselves sink into despair?  And we need people who are committed to using the Power of Love to change the way things are.

Bob McDonnell and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Moral complexity makes for great movies, but it doesn't mix well with politics.

I haven't spent much time over the past year thinking about Bob McDonnell's problem.  He wasn't my governor, he's not a member of my political party, and he and I are on different sides of a number of issues.  So when the news came out this week that McDonnell and his wife have been indicted on a number of charges related to receiving gifts and loans in exchange for political favors, I didn't bother to read the full article.

But now the Washington Post is running analysis of this story and I can't stop reading.  I am not nearly as interested in the stupid things that people do than I am in their explanations for their behavior.  I'm in the meaning-making business after all.  I am interested in the stories we tell ourselves and others to make sense of our actions.  

Robert McCartney asked in his column yesterday, "How did a smart guy like Bob McDonnell end up in this mess?" His response was less than satisfying:  "a toxic mix of personal money worries, an assertive wife, a taste for luxury, and a culture of coziness between politicians and rich supporters."  What's missing in this list?  Anything that suggests that McDonnell is really responsible for his actions.  It makes it sound like it was all an unfortunate mistake.  The "assertive wife" comment is particularly egregious.  It makes it sound like McDonnell was guilty only of trying to make his wife happy and to make everything seem like it was okay.  It sounds suspiciously like a story that McDonnell is telling himself right now.

But I think simple explanations tend to be more accurate.  Instead of attributing McDonnell's actions to a "toxic mix" of anything, let's just say that McDonnell did what he did because it benefitted him and he thought he could get away with it.  Everything else is a story told to justify bad behavior:  "I deserve this", "My office demands I have this", "This is how the game works", "This was forced on me by someone else."

McDonnell's actions may be particular to politicians, but his explanations aren't.  We all try to justify our bad behavior so that we can maintain our role as the hero of our own stories.  How can we check this tendency before we get into trouble?

  • Ask:  Would I tell other people the story I'm telling myself?  Would they believe me?  This is a version of one of the most effective morality tests I've ever learned:  Would I want this published on the front page of the Washington Post?  
  • Ask:  How long would it take me to explain this?  If it would take several paragraphs, chances are you are hiding something from yourself.  The right decision is most often easy to explain.  
  • If the only explanation for your behavior is, "It's complicated", back up.  Keep it simple.


Reflections on "Captain Philips" and Stretching Our Moral Muscles

It’s been a good week for moral complexity.  After finishing “Kind of Kin”, the book I wrote about in my previous post, our family finally watched “Captain Phillips” on one of our snow days.  I was truly impressed with the way the movie illustrated the nuances in a situation that could have easily been portrayed as clear good versus evil story.

The movie is based on a true incident that I remember following in the news:  in April 2009, Somali pirates boarded an American container ship 240 miles off the coast of Somalia.  The pirates commandeered the ship and demanded a ransom.  Eventually they left the ship in a lifeboat, but they took the captain, Richard Phillips, with them.  The U.S. Navy stepped in and after a standoff that lasted 5 days, snipers shot three of the pirates and arrested one other.  Captain Phillips was freed unharmed. 

Captain Philips is played by Tom Hanks, an actor whose face and manner communicates a sense of calm and common decency.  From the very first scene of the movie, Philips is portrayed as a likeable, knowledgeable leader.  He’s a Good Guy from the start to the end of this movie.

So the moral complexity comes from how the Somali pirates are portrayed.  This is also where the movie could have failed.  The Somalis could have been greedy, drug-crazed Bad Guys who value money more than human life.  Or, they could have been portrayed as victims whose lives have been directed by forces beyond their control but whose hearts remain pure gold.

But the movie does not err in either direction.  Instead of making the pirates good or bad, the movie makes them human, which is to say, complex.  They come from a small, crowded village in a dusty town near the coast.  A group of men arrive in jeeps and round up some young men from the village, demanding that they go out to sea in search of ships to hijack.  The men are not unwilling.  In fact, a number of them vie for a few spots on the pirate crew.  But clearly, they are working for someone else who is taking advantage of their desperation. 

Because we know their backstory, we can understand why they are doing what they are doing.  But it is still clear that their actions are wrong—their use of violence to achieve their ends snowballs and results, not surprisingly, in their own violent deaths.

I love the ways that movies can make us feel connected to people whose lives are very different from our own.  We gain moral insight by “walking a mile in another person’s shoes”, understanding how their past experiences have led them to the present moment.  But in my experience, we often want to exonerate the people with whom we empathize. 

Years ago, when I was a ministry intern working in a prison chaplaincy program, I met every few weeks in a supervision group with other interns who were doing similar work.  At first, all of us were scared of the prisoners we were meeting.  Then, we all began to make connections with particular prisoners.  After a couple of months of work, we had a meeting where all the interns were talking about the prisoners they had gotten to know well.  To my surprise, all of “our” prisoners had been falsely accused and were serving time for things they hadn’t done.  Then it dawned on me.  That’s the story we had allowed ourselves to believe.  We couldn’t believe that the people we connected with, the people who we identified with, were also people who had done bad things.

Movies that invite us to make a compassionate connection with another person who is clearly doing a bad thing expand our moral abilities.  I highly recommend the exercise.

Their Own Alien: Thoughts on "Kind of Kin" by Rilla Askew

I didn’t quite finish “Kind of Kin” by Rilla Askew in time for this month’s Daughters of Abraham book group.  The truth is, I put off starting it because it was a Christian selection (the group is composed of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women, and each group takes a turn selecting a book that in some way represents their religion).  I have developed an aversion to “Christian fiction” after reading a few too many books in Jan Karon’s Mitford series and seeing movies like “Facing the Giants” in which Christianity is a magical forces that makes everything better for those who believe.

I shouldn’t have worried. People do good things and they do bad things and their motives for their actions are always complex and rarely pure.  The testimony of scripture is helpful and challenging but it doesn’t solve everything.  The book makes a good case for how the Christian faith can make a positive difference in a community, but it doesn’t do so in a simple, magical way. 

In fact, in this book Christianity mostly makes people’s lives more challenging.  It leads them to challenge the assumptions of their community and to stand up for strangers in trouble.  But behind all of their Strong Moral Positions is the question of how to care for the people we love.  Good material for my work on a “Spirituality of Us.”

The book describes how a number of different people—a Christian pastor, a politician, an overwhelmed mom, a born-again grandfather, a Sherriff, an oil worker and a 10-year-old boy—respond to a new law in Oklahoma that makes it a felony to harbor an illegal alien.  The book doesn’t attempt to represent both sides of the illegal immigration debate in this county—it makes a strong case against deporting undocumented workers and portrays anti-immigration forces in a fairly laughable way.  But it represents those who come to the aid of immigrants as having very complex motives.

One young woman has fallen in love with a Mexican man who is in the country illegally.  They have gotten married and had a child, but he hasn’t obtained legal status and is deported.  The woman’s grandfather has made connections in the Mexican community by occasionally attending a Mexican Pentecostal church.  Through his friendship with the pastor of that church, he eventually agrees to hide a group of workers who are at risk of deportation in his barn.  Another family member is fearful that immigrant Mexicans will take his job, and so he turns the grandfather in.  That man’s wife is personally overwhelmed and not particularly interested in the troubles of the Mexicans in her community, but she finds she has to take a stand when her family members ask her for support.

After days of soul-searching, scripture study and prayer, the local pastor decides that it is his duty as a Christian to give refuge to the young man who had returned to his family after his deportation to Mexico.  When the local sheriff, Arvin Halloway, arrives at the church, the result is a showdown that lasts most of a day and attracts media attention.  Church members and neighbors find themselves called to either stand by their pastor in support of his convictions or to stand with the Sherriff in support of the law.

I so appreciated Askew’s description of the reasons why so many church members decided to side with their pastor:

“Later some of them would say that they did what they did purely because Arvin Halloway told them they couldn’t.  Others claimed that they hadn’t really known anything about that law; if they had, they might have acted different.  Some said they’d just surmised that if the pastor of the First Baptist Church aimed to stand against the law (and here by the law they didn’t mean statute but officers), then, by gosh, that was good enough for them.  In the long run, there turned out to be a whole host of reasons—conscience, ignorance, rumor, the makings of a good show….”

The pastor takes a stand because he becomes convinced, through his reading of scripture, that God commands him and his congregation to do so.  But he only starts looking for Biblical guidance on the issue when he is asked directly by one of the members of his congregation to help an illegal immigrant.  And she only asks for help because that person is married to her niece and her niece showed up at her door, desperate and without any alternative.

These characters, even the ones who see themselves as responding to divine guidance, do not have pure motives.  But they do represent the way that people makes decisions, change their mind and are spurred to action.  Personal conviction plays a role.  Identifying as a member of a faith community can play a role.  But in the end, our love for particular people is what gets us moving.

That’s an important insight to bring to the immigration debate.  The conversation changes when it stops being abstract, about “illegal immigrants” in general, and becomes personal.  Askew writes about the young man being harbored in the church basement saying,

“There were rumors that the man belonged to that really good roofing crew out of Panola, and some even got it correct straight off—that he was Bob Brown’s granddaughter’s husband who had been, according to news reports, deported last fall.  The main unity to the rumors was how they all had the Mexican man qualifying as a stranger according to the preacher’s texts, but one with a local connection.  He was an alien all right, but he was somehow their own alien.” 

Talking About Love, Learning About Power


I started off my sermon this past Sunday by complaining about Martin Luther King Day.  It might have been a bad call.

My problem with Martin Luther King Day, I explained, is that I think it focuses too much on Martin Luther King.  I know that sounds like an odd complaint--the holiday falls near his birthday so it makes sense that we use the occasion to learn about King's life and to honor the work he did.  And that's exactly what our kids do in school beginning in Kindergarten.  They read stories about King's life and later, they read his "I Have a Dream" speech.  They hear him talk about his vision of what the world should be like.  They might even see a picture of him giving that speech to a huge crowd of people standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  

But here's what we don't tell our kids.  Those people did not come to Washington, D.C. to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. give a great speech about his vision for America.  They came to protest policies and conditions in the United States.  They came to pressure the government to enact civil rights legislation.  And they also called for the creation of a public works jobs program, an increase in the minimum wage and for home rule for Washington, D.C.  It was the largest protest ever held in Washington up to that point.  The size of the crowd was, in the end, even more eloquent than King's memorable words.

King was, without a doubt, a gifted leader.  But it was the movement that made the difference.  King was a part of a large, well-organized coalition of organizations that trained thousands of people in the tactics of non-violent resistance to injustice.  Because we so often lift up King without lifting up the movement, we have not passed on the organizing strategies that the movement worked hard to teach.  We teach our children and teach ourselves to admire King’s work instead of continuing King’s work.

I said all of this on Sunday as an introduction to the point I wanted to make about Jesus, so I couldn't spend much time making my argument.  To be honest, I didn't think that would be a problem because I thought everyone would agree with me.  But once I got talking, I could tell I had lost more than a few people.  "I was worried you were going somewhere I couldn't go," one man told me afterwards with a smile.  

So my King Day Complaint was still on my mind when I went running Monday morning.  I was listening, as I often do, to the podcast of the NPR talk show "On Being".  This week's show spoke to the issue of how we can tell the story of the organization that surrounded and supported King and his work--with much more eloquence and insight than I was able to muster on Sunday.  The topic was "Deromanticizing the Civil Rights Movement--and Rediscovering its Humanity".  The host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons and Lucas Johnson, civil rights activists from two different generations.  What first caught my attention was this comment from Simmons explaining the start of the Black Power movement:

And more and more, the understanding became that this is more than a moral issue. This is more than getting white Americans to love us. This is about us sharing power.

When I heard those words, it suddenly occurred to me why we tend to talk more about King than we talk about the Civil Rights Movement.  It is a way to avoid talking about power, a topic we have little experience discussing or analyzing.

When I went through a 10-day training on community organizing with the Gamaliel Foundation back in 1992, the first thing I learned was this: if we are going to talk organizing people to make change, we need to talk about how people get and maintain power.  We have to talk about privilege and class and money, topics that most of us never really discuss.  Christians especially avoid these topics.  We talk about right and wrong as moral questions and then talk about the importance of standing up for what you believe in.  We pretend that good people change the world simply through the moral force of their own good lives.

Civil Rights leaders were not naive about this.  They understood that people in power rarely share power just because it is the "right" thing to do.  They begin to share power when it becomes clear that it is in their self-interest to do so.  In order to affect people's self-interest, a movement needs to organize people to march and sit-in and vote and boycott and go to prison. 

And here's the thing:  because those who participated in the civil rights movement learned about how to acquire and utilize power to make change, they had hope.  That's why it is so important that we talk to our kids--and talk to each other--not only about what King did, but how he did it.  As Gwendolyn Zohara Simmons said towards the end of the On Being interview,

So, you know, there are changes even though there are so many problems still. So I can never give up that, on the idea that we the people can organize and bring change. That I just – I know we can because we did it. And because we did it we can continue to do it. 

Valuing Distinctiveness, Abhorring Abnormality

ImagesA few years back, my parents gave my daughter a souvenir from their trip to Turkey—a silk scarf with little metal coins sewn around the edge.  Rosa loved it, and immediately decided that she would use it as part of a gypsy costume the following Halloween.  We had great fun planning her costume.  Our mental picture of a gypsy included a long skirt, a peasant blouse, a scarf wrapped around the waist and another wrapped around the head.  But just to be sure we were on the right track, we googled “gypsy” for images.  That’s when things got tricky. 

My mental picture didn’t quite match the real life pictures of the real life gypsies, the Romani.  I started out searching for pictures of dresses and scarves and ended up reading articles about the wretched living conditions in Romani camps outside of Paris and other European cities and articles about the problems of children who are required by their families to pickpocket.  I went on to read about various attempts to assist, organize or expel these people from France and elsewhere in Europe.  I did my best to summarize what I’d learned to Rosa.

Rosa is a pretty savvy kid, and she understood that her costume was based on a stereotype that is problematic for the real life people on whom it was based.  The “image” on gypsies is romantic and exotic and a tiny bit scary.  We tell stories of the perceptive fortune-teller or the traveling band of colorful musicians, and imagine people who live with a kind of freedom and passion that we secretly envy.  

But the real life gypsies seem to have none of the appeal of the ones in our imagination.  This isn’t just because they don’t meet the expectations created by our stories.  There is a much more complex and fascinating dynamic at work here.  We’re attracted and repelled by cultural distinctiveness.  We want people to be exotic, but are deeply bothered when those same people resist assimilation or refuse to play by the rules of the dominant culture.

An excellent article in this week’s New Yorker magazine by Adam Gopnik painted a fascinating picture of these dynamics as they are playing out in France right now.  France has a strong commitment of a unified culture and unified identity--one that is accessible to everyone through education but still quite distinctive.  While there is a lot of support for multiculturalism in the United States, at least by the schools and the government, the official position in France is that everyone will identify with the universal ideals of the Republic.  All particularities will be subsumed within that larger identity.  

The Roma have historically resisted integration--or France has resisted the full integration of the Roma.  There has instead been a series of accommodations that acknowledge and solidify their status as Other including special identity cards.  But as I am learning, the relationships between "us" and "them", between the universal and the particular, between those who blend in and those who stand out, are complex.  We need people who are "not us" to know for sure who "we" are, so our identity depends in part of their refusal to identify with us.

If we take the question, "How should I relate to you?" seriously, it inevitably leads us to ask, "How should I relate to myself?"  That's when things get really tricky.  Gopnik ends his article with an interview with French philosopher Andre Glucksmann.  

"This is not about the fear of the other," he said.  "It is about the fear of oneself.  Mobility, rootlessness, nomadism--these are the facts of the new Europe.  We must read Victor Hugo.  The happy face of nomadism is all the French gone to London to be bankers.  The wretched face is the poor Roma in their camps.  And, great surprise, the miserables of our time turn out to be poor immigrants in the cold who behave like poor immigrants in the cold.  Behind it, beneath it, is the new fear of having no floor beneath one's feet.  Ordinary French people feel that a real fall is possible."  

"This obsession with the Roma is not about fear of the other," Gluksmann said.  "It is the fear of the self--of what we might become."

By the time Rosa and I really started to understand all of this, it was too late to ditch her planned Halloween costume.  We decided in the end to add an ammo belt to her ensemble.  She was no longer a gypsy—she was a Roma freedom fighter.  I’m not sure anyone beside us understood the reference.

On Being Nothing In Particular

Last week, Rosa received a challenge from her French teacher:  everyone in the class who brought a dish from their culture to the school’s upcoming International Dinner would get extra credit points.  Rosa wanted the points, of course, but she came home perplexed.  “What’s my culture?” she asked.  “I mean, I’m just American.”

Her question is a familiar one for me.  I grew up in a household that was pretty culturally generic.  My father comes from an old Quaker family from Lancaster County, PA.  My mother was the child of much more recent immigrants, her mother from Cornwall, England and her father from Ireland.  She grew up in the midst of a large Irish extended family, but since she was raised Protestant, she always had mixed feelings about her Irish identity.  She made sure we had corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, but besides that, we did not observe any particular cultural traditions from Ireland or Cornwall or anywhere else.  As far as we were concerned, we were just plain American.

When I went to college in the late 80’s, identity politics were huge.  Kids who had spent high school trying to blend were suddenly free to proclaim themselves Korean-American or Salvadoran-American or Caribbean-American and to take pride in that identity.  There were even a “half-Asian” and “wrong-side-Jewish” student groups.

At the Women’s Center, there were lots of conversations about how women “of color” needed to have a larger role in the feminist movement that up to that point had been dominated by the concerns of white women.  I was told in no uncertain terms that it was oppressive to call myself “just” American.  That implied that my heritage, my family, my story was normative while the life, family and story of people of color was some kind of deviant or qualified version of the “real” American experience.

I had to admit they had a point.  The only response I could think of was to become a hyphenated American myself.  There didn’t seem to be much by way of a Quaker-American or Cornish-American identity movement, so I figured I’d go ahead and be an Irish-American.  That got my through some tense conversations at the Women’s Center and spurred me to read poetry by Seamus Heaney. 

But then I graduated and moved to Boston, Massachusetts where there really was an Irish American community.  I went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston the first year I lived there, and was completely disgusted by the drunken hordes of idiots waving Irish flags.  Once I encountered the real life Irish American community in Southie, I really wanted nothing at all to do with Irish-Americans as a group.  I went back to just being me—a white American from the Midwest with northern European ancestry.

But what dish do I bring to an International Dinner?  “Hot Dish” would represent the Midwest, but is that a culture?  I suppose I could offer cabbage to represent the Irish, but who would eat it?  The truth is I grew up eating Spam and Hamburger Helper.  Luckily for my kids, I married a Jewish guy.  In the end, we can always bring kugel. 

I love the idea behind the International Dinner—sharing food is a great way to build community within a hyper-diverse school like Oakland Mills.  When we make room for different cultures to “show up” in our communities, we send the message that there is room for all of us here.  You don’t have to hide who you are or pretend you’re something different in order to be part of “us”.  That’s hugely important.

But “multicultural” events present people like me with some uneasy questions, all of which are worth considering as we figure out how to have a sense of "us" while honoring the particularities of the people involved:

  • Can I participate in a community where particular cultures are affirmed without claiming any particular culture myself? 
  • Can I be generically American without implying that those with strong cultural identities are somehow less American? 
  • Can I teach my kids to be proud of their family and their history even if we don’t have a sense of connection to a community of people who share our culture? 
  • Can we find strength in our own particularity and bring that to a group, even if a flag or a language or a potluck dish doesn’t represent that particularity? 
  • Can I show up to an International dinner with Spam?

Where Do You Find Sanctuary?

Back in December, during a worship service at KC, people were sharing some thoughts about practices that were keeping them spiritually grounded during the hectic holiday season.  Someone was lighting a candle when she had her morning coffee and someone was reading an Advent meditation on his email each morning and someone else praying for each person to whom she mailed a Christmas card.  But the comment that really made an impact on me was:

“I’ve made my car into a sanctuary.”

The person who said this spends a lot of time driving for work, so she has intentionally made her car into a place where she can reconnect to the Spirit.  She sets the tone with contemplative sacred music and she offered to supply anyone who was interested with a CD of quiet Christmas music for them to use throughout the month.

I was impressed with comments in large part because I could not even imagine having a sanctuary in my minivan.  When I entered my 2002 Ford Windstar, all the feelings I experienced were negative.  I was annoyed at all the things that are broken on the van, from the back doors to the back hatch to the volume knobs on the radio to the CD player (so much for the kind offer of contemplative holiday music).  I also felt resentful at Ford who recalled the van at least 5 times—shouldn’t they just admit the model is a total failure and offer to buy it back?  And I felt vaguely anxious that the van would break down yet again and require another $1,000 in repairs.

But the image of finding sanctuary in one’s car stayed with me.  This past Saturday, we decided that the time had come to get rid of the Windstar and get a new (used) car.  Our first choice was to buy the new, larger Prius V, but since the model has only been around for a year we thought it would be impossible to find one used.  But to our surprise, we found exactly what we were looking for the first place we went.

Suddenly, I’m driving a car that I feel great about.  I don’t have really high standards—I’m delighted that it starts, it stops and it doesn’t make weird noises.  What’s more, all the doors open, the hatch opens and best of all, the CD player sounds great AND I can even plug in my iPod.  The first CD I played was the one with the contemplative Christmas music.  I don’t care if the season has passed—I’m making up for lost time.  I get in the car, exhale, and imagine that I have entered a sanctuary.  It is a completely different experience of driving. 

I’ve never really thought about making a sanctuary for myself.  A sanctuary, in my experience, is a room in a church or a place in the woods dedicated to wildlife.  I might go to those places seeking beauty or solitude or peace, but they aren’t part of my “regular” life.  I need to intentionally seek them out—I don’t just stumble upon them.

Maybe I could benefit from a few more sanctuaries in my life.  Maybe I could create a few more, closer at hand, in my car or in my home or in my neighborhood.  I occurs to me that finding—or making—sanctuaries in my every day life is part of finding the sacred in the profane, part of challenging the separation we make between the sacred and the profane and proclaiming that “everything is holy now”

What about you?  Have you found sanctuary in an unlikely place?  Have you gone about creating sanctuary in a place where you need it? 

"I'm Just Not That Glowy"

A friend told me this week about a dinner party where the husband of a friend asked asked him, “Is your wife as spiritual as you are?”  He said he almost choked on his food before he could manage a response.  He had never considered himself particularly “spiritual”—despite the fact that he had worked as a chaplain and a church pastor. 

He told this story to a group of clergy and we all had similar experiences and similar reactions.  We are all religious professionals, but carry around an idea of what really spiritual people are like—serene, wise, present to the moment, untroubled by worry, able to feel a strong connection to the divine at any moment.  As another colleague put it, “I’m just not that glowy.”  We have our moments of connection and insight, but more often that not we struggle and search and worry and wish.

When I first was ordained, I worried a lot about being a fake.  Ministers, I thought, should be spiritual experts and I mostly felt like an amateur.  It didn't help that old friends were often surprised to find out I had been ordained.  I didn't seem like the "type" to them, either.  I was committed to a morning prayer practice after which I often thought, "Well, at least I did that.  That's got to give me some credentials."

I’ve become more settled in my role as a pastor over the years, but I’ve also changed my mind about what makes people spiritual.  I’ve come to think of spirituality as a human capacity like our intellectual, athletic or artistic capacity.  The people we recognize as having exceptional gifts in an area are often people who have worked hard to develop a particular capacity (I love the writing of Malcom Gladwell, Steven Johnson and David Shenk on this topic)

Sure, there is such a thing as giftedness.  Some kids seem to be able to draw better than their peers at an early age, for example.  But even the kid who can barely manage a stick figure has a great deal of artistic capacity.  She may never draw as well as her “gifted” peer, but with curiosity and persistence, even person who isn’t “good” at art as a child can become a remarkable artist.

The same seems to be true for spirituality.  Some people may have natural gifts that make it easier for them to sense a connection to God or to see the holy in the every day, but everyone has the ability to develop their capacity to do these things.  But we rarely, if ever, talk about spirituality this way. 

A large part of the problem is that we have long seen belief as the basis for a spiritual life and not practice.  If you have to believe a long list of doctrinal statements, or believe in the entire Bible before you can legitimately identify as a part of a spiritual community, it seems like the only way to grow spiritually is to ignore questions and doubts and just push yourself to believe.  That helps keep churches together but it doesn’t help people develop their spiritual capacity. 

But once we shift to talking about spirituality as rooted in practices, we find it much easier to talk about growing and developing spiritually.  The analogy to our athletic capacity is a rich one.  Have we stretched, spiritually?  What is our training plan?  Do we need to work out with a personal trainer?  Would it help to join a group?  Is there some event or experience that we could sign up for that would give us a challenge and keep us engaged?

Another benefit to understanding spirituality as a "capacity" rather than a "gift" is that it shifts us away from admiring/envying particular individuals towards appreciating the group, the team that is growing their various capacities together.  More on this topic in the coming weeks and months!

Can You Believe We're Related?

Today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the official end of the Christmas Season.  I think I've just about recovered from the explosion of work and errands and entertaining and travel that knocks me out by the end of December each year.  How about you?

For many of us, Christmas and the whole "holiday season" brings with it opportunities to connect with our extended families, including people who we rarely see through the rest of the year.  Sometimes these visits and phone calls are easy--we can laugh together and tell the honest truth about our lives trusting that the other person knows enough of our "back story" that they will be able to get what we're saying without lots of explanation.  But other times, extended family gatherings can be so discordant, so uncomfortable that we are left wondering, "Am I really related to these people?"

You can look at those tough encounters two ways:  You can puzzle over what kinds of life experiences (or differences in brain chemistry?) can make people who are biologically related so incredibly different.  Or you can marvel over the deep connection you share as family members, a connection that cannot be obliterated by conflicting political views or lifestyle choices or understanding of what kinds of behavior are acceptable at a large family event.  

When I was a kid, I learned the song "Let There Be Peace On Earth (And Let It Begin With Me)" at Girl Scout Camp.  It included the line, "With God as our Father, sisters all are we...."  The idea was that we are more likely to seek peace when we see ourselves as part of the same family as the people we're fighting with.  It's a dubious assertion, given the number of families I know that are unable to make peace among themselves.  But I like the concept.  It's another source of wonder and amazement.  I have a connection to you that doesn't depend on my ability to understand you or relate to you or even like you.  We are related because we are children of the same God.

We love telling stories of making friends or finding connections in unlikely places:  a sudden sense of being known by someone with whom we were not able to communicate in words, a deep conversation with a stranger on an airplane, a deep feeling of sympathy with the pain of someone you don't even know.  Usually these stories are about the people involved--about the exceptional insight of the person we met or the wonderful coincidence of the things we ended up having in common.  

But I think these encounters point to something more than just the two people involved.  To me, these surprising connections are experiences of the divine.  I think we are empowered to connect to others because of our shared connection to God.  Cell phones work like this.  When I call you on your cell, I imagine that our phones are connecting directly to each other.  But in fact, our connect is made possible because both of our phones connect to a satellite.  

Perhaps it seems unnecessary to insert God into person-to-person encounters like this.  And when things are going well, when we connect easily with the people around us, there's not much need to analyze why or how this happens.  But when we have to work with, live with, make peace with people with whom we have no common understanding, shared interests or innate sympathy--the belief that God has a relationship with both of us, that God loves and values all of us, can be a game changer.

But we won't call on this divine connection in extreme situations if we don't first notice and celebrate it in all the "regular" connections that weave our lives together each day.  Try this:  next time you run across someone who bothers you, offends you, puts you off, say to yourself, "I'm related to her!" or "He's part of my family!"  Maybe that's a practice for a "Spirituality of Us"?