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"It Doesn't Help to Call Them Bigots"

Last year, the public radio show "On Being" aired a series of moderated conversations they called "The Civil Conversations Project".  The goal was to "model new kinds of conversation and relationship with difference" and to "offer ideas and tools for healing our fractured civic spaces."  The show brought together people who are actively engaged in an effort to change the way they talk with those who disagreed with them.  I found the conversations fascinating and refreshing and hope they continue.

The most successful conversation, by far, was on "The Future of Marriage" and featured David Blankenhorn (the founder and president of the Institute for American Values) and Jonathan Rauch (a scholar and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.)  I hope they re-broadcast this show in light of this past week's national conversation over the law passed by the Arizona state legislature and vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer that would have offered legal protection to businesses who refuse to serve gay and Lesbian people on religious grounds.  Jonathan Rauch said some things at the end of the conversation that advocates of marriage equality (myself included) need to take to heart.

As I wrote in my previous post, this law is evidence that religious conservatives who oppose homosexuality are becoming desperate and fearful because they know they are no longer in the majority.  When people feel like embattled minorities, their rhetoric and their actions become more extreme.  The more extreme their position, the easier it is for the rest of us to attack their views in the mainstream press, talk shows and in conversations everywhere.  

There was something strange about the conversation this past week about the Arizona law.  Advocates of marriage equality sounded like they still believed they are an embattled minority.  They seemed incredulous that religious conservatives felt threatened by their recent legal victories.  They said their concerns were ridiculous.  

While it is certainly the case that ten years ago the majority of Americans opposed gay marriage, this is no longer true.  This means that it is not ridiculous to be concerned for the rights of those who oppose gay marriage.  Gays and Lesbians and their allies know well "the tyranny of the majority".   The public conversation between proponents and opponents of gay marriage needs to shift in response to this shift in public opinion.  Jonathan Rauch said it so well that I will quote him at length:

Something very, very important happened around 2009. The Gallup poll for the first time showed a tie in people saying homosexual relationships were morally acceptable with people saying they were not morally acceptable. And the lines have now crossed. There is now I think it's like a 9- or 10-point gap of a solid majority of Americans saying it's OK to be gay. So this is new. This means we're now the moral majority.

This means the burden of proof is now on the other side. And this means it's going to be tempting for gay people to press our advantage and try to use the law to make it difficult for people who want to preserve religious traditions that are anti-gay to do so. And we have good reason for that. We have suffered very directly and very concretely and quite often with our lives from religious bigotry. It's not to say all religion is bigotry. So it is very tempting for us to say let's drive this out of society altogether. All forms of discrimination, whether religious or not, should be illegal and I'm saying to gay people, no, we've got to share the country.

There is a thing called the First Amendment. Religious liberty. We'll get squashed like bugs on the windshield if we try to go against religious liberty, but more important, we want to be in a live-and-let-live society where no one gets treated as a prisoner of conscience and feels the need to stay in the closet, frightened because of what they believe.

That's what we fought against all those years, long before marriage, and that's what we will continue to fight against. And that's why we need to be champions of all reasonable protections for religious people who may not agree with us and may not want to associate with us, but we need to let them share this country with us.

...Most Americans, even most anti-gay Americans, are not fundamentally bigoted or hostile. They're not evil; they're blind, and our job is to help them see.  It doesn't help to call them bigots even when they are, but usually they're not, usually they're not. Usually, they need to understand us better and go through something like a process kind of like what David's been through. It doesn't mean they'll come out where we come out, but you would be amazed at how open Americans can be over time and how responsive the conscience of this country is.

We need to share this country with people who disagree with us.  We need to make it clear to our opponents, even in the midst of our most heated arguments, that that they have a right to their own opinions and to speak their mind in public.  Giving businesses the right to discriminate is not the way to do this, but this issue is not resolved by Jan Brewer's veto.  Public opinion has shifted, and now a new conversation needs to begin.

Extremism is What Happens When You Know You're On the Wrong Side of History

Twenty years ago this September, I officiated at a wedding for the first time.  I actually co-officiated along with a good friend who was the chaplain of Harvard Divinity School at the time and the father of the groom who was a Lutheran minister.  The fact that there were so many other ministers involved with the wedding should have been reassuring.  But I had been ordained for less than a month, and I was deeply anxious about looking like an idiot.

The ceremony went off well and afterwards we all gathered in the beautiful backyard of the bride's grandmother.  I was wiped out--and incredibly thirsty--and I tossed back two glasses of champagne before I had a thing to eat.  I started to feel a bit wobbly, so I sat down at a table next to a friendly older couple who ended up being the bride's godparents who had come over from Holland for the wedding.  We exchanged a bit of small talk and I did my best to appear sober.  But before long they brought up an issue that was clearly bothering them:  how could I possibly be interested in religion?  Isn't religion a source of bigotry and hatred and violence all over the world?  Why would I--and why would their goddaughter for that matter--want to affiliate in any way with something so detrimental to the well-being of the world community?

Maybe it was the champagne or maybe it was the good feeling of having recent accomplished a worrisome task, but I responded to the couples' concerns with a long, confident declaration.  I told them that the fundamentalist movements making the news are so strident because they know that their days are numbered.  They see the writing on the wall and they have vowed that they won't go down without a fight.  But the very forcefulness of their words, the extremity of their actions, expose them.  They know they are on the wrong side of history.  They have lost already and what we are hearing is not their victory cry but their last gasps as they admit their defeat.

Then I wobbled off to find the restroom.

I have thought back to the conversation many times over the past twenty years.  For one thing, it serves as a vivid reminder to be careful around champagne--that stuff can really sneak up on you.  But I've also wondered whether I was right.  Sometimes, I doubt it.  I think often of Yeat's lines in "The Second Coming" written right after the first World War: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."  

At other times, I'm pretty sure I was on to something.

Last week, the Arizona state legislature passed a bill providing legal protections to private businesses that refuse to serve gay men or lesbians.  The bill had strong support in both houses, but as soon as it passed, people began to denounce it.  Not only gay rights and civil liberties groups condemned the bill as discriminatory, but both GOP Senators from Arizona and the leading Republican candidates for governor urged Governor Jan Brewer to veto the bill.  A number of large employers and ever the National Football League followed suit.  Soon, even some of the legislators who voted for the bill were calling for a veto.

On Wednesday, Governor Brewer did in fact veto the bill saying, "Going forward, let's turn the ugliness of the debate over Senate Bill 1062 into a renewed search for greater respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans."

Brewer did the right thing.  While the laws--the constitution--of our country protects religious liberty, it does not allow people to discriminate against others in the public sphere for religious reasons.  You must serve African-Americans in your restaurant even if your religious beliefs would lead you to do otherwise--as the Post reported today, there was a court case in the 1960's where a South Carolina barbeque chain made exactly that claim and lost.  Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, the claim that racial discrimination is an expression of religious liberty seems absurd.  In fact, it seems desperate.  It seems like the last-ditch effort of bigots.  

I have no doubt that in fifty years, laws like the one the Arizona legislature passed last week will seem equally absurd.  Actually, the commentary over this past week about this law made it clear that a great number of people think it is absurd now.  On Wednesday, the Public Religioun Research Institute released a report on how public opinion about GLBT issues has changed over the past decade.  The Executive Summary of the report begins,

Support for same-sex marriage jumped 21 percentage points from 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, to 2013. Currently, a majority (53%) of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, compared to 41% who oppose. In 2003, less than one-third (32%) of Americans supported allowing gay and lesbian people to legally marry, compared to nearly 6-in-10 (59%) who opposed.

The report breaks down support for gay marriage within various religious groups in the country.  A majority of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics all favor legal marriage for gay and lesbian people.  

By contrast, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) white evangelical Protestants and nearly 6-in-10 (59%) black Protestants oppose same-sex marriage. Only 27% of white evangelical Protestants and 35% of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

Read a bit further into the report and it becomes clear that change is coming even within the white evangelical community. 

White evangelical Protestant Millennials are more than twice as likely to favor same- sex marriage as the oldest generation of white evangelical Protestants (43% vs. 19%).

When I see statistics like these, it seems completely clear to me that measures like the one in Arizona are an expression of fear by a small group of people who understand that the world has changed.  They are no longer in the majority, they are no longer dominant.  The extremity of their position is evidence that they understand this.

But do people like me--advocates for marriage equality--understand that we are now in the majority?  I don't think we do, and I think much of the debate around this Arizona bill reveals this.  More on that in my next blog post.

The Case Against Overtime

You know what I did this past weekend?  I read a book.  It was a really interesting book that taught me some things I didn't know and got me to think about memory and forgiveness and data storage in ways I hadn't before.  I highly recommend it--not the book, not even reading, but taking time off from work to do things that enrich your life.

Like many pastors I know, I work six days a week.  Because I have a very flexible schedule, this isn't particularly burdensome.  I can make time to go to my kids' meets and to go to the food store and to volunteer at their schools during the week and still get my work done because I work on Sundays and have evening meetings at least two nights a week.  But a flexible schedule has its drawbacks.  Because I don't clock in and clock out of my job, it is easy to end up working every day of the week.

A couple of years ago, I decided to start observing the Jewish Sabbath, at least in a general way.  I stop working by sundown on Friday night and didn't do anything related to my job until Sunday morning.  I don't return emails, I don't return phone calls, I don't work on my sermon (even if it still needs work).  As a result, I have time to read books.  I also have time to hang out with my family, to go for walks in the woods, to have friends over for dinner and to do an occasional art project.

Sabbath is not really the same as "down time".  It isn't the same experience as coming home from a long day of tiresome work and collapsing on the couch with a glass of scotch.  That's time off, time when we are not thinking or engaging with other people in any meaningful way.  All of us need downtime, but in my experience, we need sabbath time even more.  

Sabbath isn't about tuning out.  It's about tuning in to a different channel.  It isn't about disengaging.  It is about engaging with something different than work.  My time off every week gives me a chance to think about other things besides my church.  It gives me a chance to talk to people who have nothing to do with my job.  It gives me time to develop interests and skills that are not, strictly speaking, part of my job.  As a result of my sabbath time, I'm a better pastor.  I'm less irritable.  I have new ideas.  I have more perspective, more patience.  I work better because I don't work all the time.

This past week, it has become increasingly clear to me that my commitment to taking ONE day off a week, as meager as that sounds, is actually pretty exceptional in our culture these days.  I don't just mean the practice--I mean the value I put on it.

First, I saw one of the most disturbing television commercials I have ever seen.  The ad for the $75,000 Cadillac ELR that aired during the Winter Olympics mocks "other countries" for not working very hard as evidenced by the fact that workers there take a full month of vacation in the summer.  It suggest that overwork is part of the American identity.  We're "crazy, driven, hard-working believers", just like the Wright brothers, Bill Gates and (strangely) Les Paul.

Then, I read about a dozen articles and op eds about increasing the minimum wage, a policy that I strongly support.  Last week, the CBO released a report saying that increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would cost our country about 500,000 jobs.  Then, the Washington Post ran an article this morning on the front page of the Metro section entitled, "Earners of heavy overtime growing".  The story highlighted firefighters and corrections officers in Montgomery County who earn more in overtime than they earn from their base salaries.  

When you see the amount these workers can earn through overtime, its easy to assume that these people are crazy, driven, hard-working believers too.  But then you come to this paragraph:

Montgomery officials defend the overtime outlay, saying it is a lower-cost alternative to hiring new full-time employees, with expensive benefits, to fill empty positions day to day. They estimate that it would take 140 new hires for the 1,300-member service to have personnel ready to fill all positions without overtime.

The problem with overtime is not only that it can make emergency workers less effective, the only concern raised by County officials in the article.  The problem with overtime is that it kills jobs.  This isn't just true for jobs where workers are paid overtime.  I know a number of people with salaried positions who regularly worker 50 or 60 hours a week.  If everyone in their office is working those kinds of hours, obviously the company is employing too few people.  If raising the minimum wage will decrease the number of minimum wage jobs in this country, perhaps it will also allow some people to reduce the number of hours they are working, or to drop their second job, making a space for a new worker to come on board.  

Wishful thinking?  Maybe.  But if we're serious about creating jobs in this country, it seems to me that we should start talking about overwork.  Jeff Archibald, the owner of a design firm called Paper Leaf, wrote a blog post on this topic that was re-posted by a number of friends.  It felt like a breath of fresh air:

If you’re working 60 hours a week, something has broken down organizationally. You are doing two people’s jobs. You aren’t telling your boss you’re overworked (or maybe he/she doesn’t care). You are probably a pinch point, a bottleneck....

When I work 50 or 60 hour weeks at Paper Leaf, I’m doing something wrong. It means I haven’t learned to balance my workload, or manage my time. It means I haven’t communicated to my team that I have too many things on my plate. It means we should hire someone, or at least sub something out. 

But this isn't just a problem with employers.  In a way, the Cadillac ad is right--there is an aspect of our culture which supports overwork.  We give each other license to "humblebrag" about how busy we are and how much work we have to do.  What if we expressed as much interest in our colleagues' time off as we do in their time on?  What if we talked about work a little less and talked more about the books we've read or the walks we've taken or the new people we've met?  What if we talked with our kids not only about the careers they might pursue as adults, but also the adventures they could take, the hobbies they could pursue and the people they could meet?

Planning How to Nourish Love in Columbia

I missed the third class in the "Creating Columbia" mini-course offered by the Columbia Archives--I was busy screaming my head off as my son ran the 3200 meter race in the Indoor Track state championships.  Luckily, Barbara Kellner was kind enough to send me the notes from her talk.  The class focused on a piece of the history of Columbia that intrigues me the most: "The Work Group", an advisory board of experts that Jim Rouse convened beginning in November, 1963.

As I understand it, the Work Group was an expression of Rouse's innovative approach to city planning.  He wanted to include a community's social, emotional and aesthetic interests into the planning process.  In his instructions to the Work Group, Rouse wrote:

“For many years, we have noted the wide gap between the people who are planning, designing, and developing our cities and the people with the knowledge about problems and solutions, hopes and opportunities among people in our urban society. Everywhere, plans proceed out of the ideas and images in the minds of the planners and developers. Almost nowhere does planning begin with the needs and yearning of the people.

“It is our purpose to plan out from the real needs of people, as best we can discover them, toward the physical form of the community and the institutions which are established in it. The course is largely uncharted, because there is very little precedent for what we are attempting. We have no illusions about the difficulties of relating such knowledge as does exist about how people live and grow, succeed or fail to the planning and development process. We do not expect to plan the ‘perfect’ community. We simply believe that by starting from people and working out we may get some new shafts of light that can influence the physical plan and development decisions. It is for that purpose that we have solicited your help, and it is to that task that we will bend our efforts with you over the months ahead.” 

Of course, people had thought before about the connection between "the physical form of the community" and the "real needs of people".  But in the 1950's, much of that thinking was focused on how developers could rejuvenate cities by tearing down blighted neighborhood are rebuilding cleaner, newer stuctures instead.  Planners looked at crowded, older neighborhoods full of poor and working-class blacks, Latinos and ethnic whites and decided that everyon's lives would be better if they would move into newly-constructed high-rise public housing--or move out of the city.

I've heard that "Urban Renewal" was successful in some areas of Pittsburgh and elsewhere, but in Boston it was a complete disaster.  The resulting "Government Center" area is without a doubt the ugliest and most awkward public space I have ever expereinced.  Writer Bill Wasik described the area this way: "It is as if the space were calibrated to render futile any gathering, large or small, attempted anywhere on its arid expanse."  Government Center was the end result of an urban renewal process that involved the near-total destruction of a vibrant Italian Catholic and Jewish neighborhood, the West End.  

The West Enders received their eviction notices in 1958, and five years later, when the Work Group convened, their experience was without a doubt part of the conversation.  I'm sure of this because the sociologist Herbert Gans was part of the group from its beginning.  Gans' book on the West End, "The Urban Villagers:  Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans" had just been published.  Gans--and Rouse--knew exactly what they shouldn't do.  The planners should not be over-confident of their ability to improve people's lives simply through building them better homes on nicer streets.  Other factors needed to be in the mix.

But as we all know, it is one thing to recognize mistakes in the past and something else entirely to change your way of thinking in order not to replicate those mistakes.  Rouse called the first meeting of the Work Group, "the worst day I ever spent, [like] walking through mud."  The account of that meeting in "New City Upon a Hill" by Joseph Rocco Mitchell and David L. Stebenne continues:

The group seemed directionless, as each participant sought to establish territoriality and began to express negativity regarding Columbia's future.  The tenor of the meeting changed when Chester Rapkin, a housing expert, brought up the word Rouse had been asked to eschew--love!  "You know we are all missing the point of these discussions," he said.  "We are being asked how in a new community to nourish love."  According to Jim Rouse, "the morale and performance of the group was transformed.  And from then on, for four months, it was a creative, vigorous, sharing experience. (pp. 69-70)

That's the part of the history of Columbia that intrigues me the most.  Love is what brought it together.

Does Being a Part of a Group Make Us Meaner?


When I was a Junior in high school, my passion for competitive debate started to wane and a new obsession started taking hold of my life:  original oratory.  This category of speech competition was particularly suited to kids who (1) had strong opinions and (2) like to share those opinions with others without being interrupted.  It fit me perfectly and I did really well.  At the end of my Junior year, I won my state competition and went to nationals in San Antonio, Texas.  

In Original Oratory, it helps to speak with great conviction, and I was able to generate a real sense of moral outrage in myself every time I delivered my speech.  My topic back in 1984 was by-stander intervention.  I began by describing the story of Kitty Genovese in graphic detail.  Her story was old news by the time I told it, but it has become the classic tale of by-stander apathy.  According to news reports, on March 13, 1964, 38 people heard or saw her being stabbed to death outside her apartment but none of them took action to help her.  The publicity around the case led to a number of studies on the "bystander effect", demonstrating how groups can inhibit people from reaching out to help someone in need.

The story of Kitty Genovese has always stayed with me, as did the lesson that many people derived from the story:  being a part of a group can be morally hazardous.  

So a Facebook friend's link to this New York Post story from this past Sunday caught my eye immediately:  "Debunking the Myth of Kitty Genovese".  The article summarizes the argument made in a new book published this year on the fiftieth anniversary of Kitty Genovese's death.  The author is Kevin Cook, and the title of the book is “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America”.

After carefully researching the original police records of the crime, Cook concludes that the version of the crime that was publicized was significantly different from what actually happened. While it is true that two different men (including a close friend of Genovese) witnessed the attack and did not respond to help, others did help.  In fact, one man yelled out his window and scared the attacker away and another called the police (who did not respond to his call).  Genovese died in the arms of another neighbor who had rushed to help but arrived too late.  The story of 38 bystanders seems to have been the construction of a police department looking to deflect criticism for their own delayed response.

The "bystander effect" is clearly a factor in human behavior, one that has been replicated in experiments and, unfortunately, in other situations that have made the news.  But those same studies also showed that as soon as one person acts to help, many others jump in and add their support.  What the world needs, in other words, is not a superhero who will fly in and fix everything while we all watch.  The world needs people who will go first, people who in sight of the rest of us, reach out to someone in need. 

The image that has stayed with me from the bombings at the Boston Marathon last year was of dozens of ordinary people running over to help those who were injured, including some who spontaneously and cooperatively disassembled the temporary fences that separated spectators from the race course.  I thought then, as I often do, of the words I had taped inside the door of my locker in high school from Max Ehrmann's "Desiderata":  "..the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism."

Reflections on "Her": Falling in Love with the World Wide Web


While I definitely enjoyed our Snow Days this past week, I was disappointed that the storm forced us to postpone our congregation's discussion of the movie, "Her".  I thought it was particularly provocative to have that discussion right around Valentine's Day, our national celebration of romantic love.  As we generally understand it, romantic love is something that happens between two people.  Although we use the same word in English to denote a more expansive kind of love (we "love" our country or our school or our team), we understand romantic love as highly specific.  We fall in love not with people in general, but with one person in particular.  

Or at least that's how we've thought about love up to this point.  Will our understanding of love change as technology changes?

The movie, "Her", is about a person who falls in love with the very advanced Operating System on his computer.  Or rather, that's the story begins, and it is sweet and funny in a romantic comedy kind of way.  The Operating System, "Samantha", sounds and acts like someone in particular.  And "she" seems genuinely attached to the particularities of Theodore, the writer with whom she falls in love.  She appreciates his writing style and has insights about his past and present relationships.  After seeing the trailer, I thought the movie was written to make a case for this relationship.  Their love for each other isn't limited by the fact that it is "virtual"--it is real love.

But (spoiler alert!) the movie doesn't end once it has made the case for the depth of Samantha and Theodore's love for each other.  The story then develops in a way that points to the limits of that relationship.  And the limits aren't what you might think they would be.  The problem is not that a human-computer relationship is not particular enough enough to be satisfying to the human involved.  The problem is that it is too particular to be satisfying to the computer.

You can see a hint of trouble on the horizon when Theodore and Samantha seem to be at their most comfortable, most intimate.  They are out on a "double date" with Theodore's boss and his (real human) girlfriend.  They are joking about how much the boss admires his girlfriend's feet, and then the girlfriend asks Theodore what he most admires about Samantha.  He says something like, "She is so complex...she can be so many different things."

So it comes as no surprise that Samatha becomes increasingly interested in relationships with multiple levels or layers.  She talks with a reconstructed Alan Watts about six different topics at the same time.  And eventually, of course, she confesses that she has formed relationships with thousands of other humans and fallen in love with over 600 of them.  Theodore can't handle that and ends their relationship.

I love movies and have a somewhat embarrassing tendency to overinterpret the religious themes in all of them.  I won't claim to see Jesus in this movie, but I think the issue of the evolution of love has deep spiritual implications.  

Long before anyone was contemplating the implications of artificial intelligence, the French Jesuit philosopher and geologist Teilhard de Chardin wrote that human consciousness (which is to say, not just knowledge but awareness and experience) is growing through a process that is analogous to biological evolution.  Love, he contended, is at the heart of that process.  In the 1930's he wrote in "The Phenomenon of Man"

Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves. All we need is to imagine our ability to love developing until it embraces the totality of men and the earth.

I first read Chardin in college and retained only the vaguest sense of his main theses.  A recent episode of "On Being", the Public Radio show on "religion, ethics and ideas" brought him back to mind--and connected his thinking to recent technological developments in ways I hadn't considered.  

On the show, Urula King, Chardin's biographer, points out that he believed that a factor in the evolution of consciousness was the intensification of communication.  The more people with whom we can speak--the more people with whom we can share knowledge, share experience--the broader our understanding of the world becomes.  For this reason, King says, people call Chardin "the patron saint of the World Wide Web".  The web has put us into conversation with more people than ever before, so our collective consciousness is growing exponentially.  As the growth of Wikipedia demonstrates, the internet has enabled us to collaborate, to create cooperatively, in ways which we never thought possible.

All of this leads me to wonder about the depiction of love in "Her".  By the end of the movie, what distinguishes humans and computers is the human inability to love multiple people at the same time.  But is this really true?  Instead of being at odds with technology on this point, humans are using computers to form highly participatory processes that enable us to expand our understanding of the common good.  Collaborative editing isn't the same as dating--I do realize that.  But both activities can lead us to value the needs and insights and values of another person as much as my own.  According to Chardin, the power that enables this expansion of consciousness is Love.

In other words, computers aren't going to be frustrated by the limits of our ability to love.  They will help us grow our capacity to love.

Have you seen the movie?  What did you think??

More Thoughts on Love and Community

We're snowed in today after a last night's storm dumped a little under a foot of snow on our part of Maryland.  Up and down our block, neighbors are helping each other dig out their cars and clear their driveways.  It's a good day to continue reflecting on the love that connects members of a community and romantic love.

This is an issue that I've completely changed my mind about since I was in my 20's.  I spent a lot of time in high school arguing with my parents about their restrictions on my social life, so it seemed to me that romantic love was something that was often--perhaps always--in conflict with the community that surrounded it.  If I was going to vote, I would pick romance over community every time.  Just like Romeo and Juliette, I believed interpersonal attraction is more powerful, more important than any community more or value or vendetta.  

So, the fact that at the age of 20 I fell in love and married someone from a culture (Jewish New Yorker) quite different from my own (Protestant mid-westerner).  The influence of culture and tradition pales in comparison to the power of our love story!  Right?

Well, I'm older and wiser now.  I still believe in the power of love, but I don't make the stark distinctions I used to make.  Romantic love, if it is going to last for any time at all, needs to be sustained by the love of a community.  

It's a bit embarrassing to recall now, but when I was thinking about getting married to Dan, I made a list of "pros and cons".  Of course, I can no longer recall any of the cons (!) but I do remember one of the pros: "Strong family which I feel like I'm a part of."  I had no idea at the time how important it has been to both of us to feel like we are members of each other's families.  I give both of our mothers credit for making our spouse feel loved and included and not merely tolerated.  That does more than make family holidays a pleasant experience.  I think it replenishes our own supply of love--we have more to give to each other because we've received so much.  The same is true of the love of friends, of my congregation, of our community--and ultimately, the love of God. 

When I perform a wedding, I give the bride and groom a "standard" order of service that they can adapt for their own service.  While I've added some wording of my own, the liturgy mostly comes from the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which I was ordained.  Instead of asking the father of the bride, "Who gives this woman in marriage?", the U.C.C. service takes a more egalitarian approach.  The question to the father is replaced by a question to the entire gathered congregation.  In my usual wedding service, it goes like this:

PASTOR:  Friends, by inviting you here today, GROOM and BRIDE have invited you to be witnesses to the vows they make to each other.  Legal agreements require witness, but this agreement is much more than a legal arrangement, and your presence here is more than as one who could certify that this event has occurred. 

Marriages are like plants that can grow stronger and bear good fruit when they are rooted in a community that is rich in love, which is to say, rich in trust, forgiveness and compassion.  GROOM and BRIDE have learned what is means to love first by growing up around people who loved them, and then by forming friendships and building community with loving people.  GROOM and BRIDE will draw on their roots in your love in order to love each other faithfully, through good times and bad. 

And so, as before they exchange their vows with each other, I ask you:  Do you pledge your support and encouragement in the commitment that GROOM and BRIDE are making together?  If so, please say, “We do.”

The moment when everyone gather responds with a hearty, "We do!" is my favorite moment in every wedding I officiate.  What an amazing thing to go into a marriage with a promise from all the people closest to you that they will support and encourage you!  That's a kind of love that has power.

So, on this snowy Valentine's Day Eve, I'm feeling grateful not just for the man I married twenty years ago, but for all the people who have poured love into us and made it possible for us to love each other.  Perhaps the best way to celebrate tomorrow would be to thank each and all of you.

Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch!


Valentine's Day-Week makes me think each year of Mr. Hatch, the main character in one of our all-time-favorite children's books.  In the midst of this seasonal celebration of romantic love, Mr. Hatch helps me to remember that love is public, not just private.  

You can hear the entire story read out loud by actor Hector Elizondo here.  My brief summary here won't really do the book justice, as Paul Yalowitz's illustrations are as wonderful as Eileen Spinelli's text.  Basically, Mr. Hatch is a guy who "keeps to himself," working each day at the shoelace factory, eating lunch alone and never saying much to anyone, including the shopkeepers he visits each day on his way home from work.

Then, one day, out of the blue, Mr. Hatch receives a HUGE heart-shaped box of candy in the mail.  The attached note reads, "Somebody loves you!"  

Mr. Hatch can't figure out who would send such a thing to him.  He has no friends, no significant other.  But after puzzling about it for a while, he gives up and exclaims, "Why, I've go a secret admirer!"  Then he does something very unusual for him:  he laughs and dances and claps his hands.  Then he changes his shirt, puts on a yellow tie with blue polka dots, splashes on a little aftershave and goes out for a walk, hoping he'll meet the person who sent the chocolates.

Since he now looks at everyone he meets with interest and smiles at them, everyone changes how they respond to him.  He brings the chocolates to work and shares them with everyone.  He talks to the shopkeepers he visits on his way home and offers to help them in various ways.  He decides to bake brownies after dinner instead of just sitting and reading the paper.  Then, he decides to offer the brownies to the children in the neighborhood and they bring their parents and before long, Mr. Hatch is having a big party in his back yard.

Mr. Hatch lives like this for a few weeks until the mailman revisits him and confesses that he accidentally delivered the box of chocolates to the wrong person.  Mr. Hatch gives the empty box back and the little card that went along with it.  Then he says to himself, "Nobody loved me after all."  And so he goes back to his old ways, not smiling, not interacting, sitting alone.  Everyone notices the difference and is distressed.  

So, that Saturday morning, when Mr. Hatch goes outside to sweep his porch, he encounters boxes of chocolates and paper hearts and streamers and yard full of people holding up a big sign that reads, "Everybody Loves Mr. Hatch".  And as you might imagine, that makes all the difference.

When I was a teenager, I found Valentine's Day very stressful.  Each year, some group at my high school sold carnations, delivered in homeroom on Valentine's Day morning.  For the rest of the day, students carried these carnations around--some kids had huge bunches sent from friends and admirers and lots of other students didn't have any flowers at all.  I was so anxious about not getting any flowers my freshman year that my brother and all of his friends bought me flowers.  

I still remember what it felt like that day to walk around my high school with a huge bouquet.  Slightly embarrassed, a bit exposed.  Was it "cheating" to get carnations from your brother?  Would someone find out that these weren't "real" Valentines?  But in my heart, I was really, really pleased.  Somebody loved me--and at that moment, it didn't really matter who.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I know that romantic love is different from all the other kinds of love in the world.  I know that I'm incredibly lucky to have fallen in love early on in my life with someone who loves me back and who wants to spend his life with me.  I try not to take Dan's love for granted and I welcome even the artificial prompt of a "Hallmark Holiday" to tell him how much he means to me.  

But as important as romantic love is to me, I appreciate Mr. Hatch's reminder that in the end, love is what matters, however it comes to you.  It's pretty wonderful to be loved by a friend or a family member or even by a kid in the neighborhood or at man who runs the newsstand.  And all that community love begins by making eye contact, smiling and asking questions that express real interest in someone's life.  It doen't hurt to share some homemade brownies, either.

The best part about sending out love to the people around you?  It seems to magnify the love in your own heart.  As Liesl in "The Sound of Music" says, "Love in your heart wasn't put there to stay.  Love isn't love till you give it away!"  Who could you reach out to this week?

Why Is There a Mall in the Center of Columbia?


I need to learn more about Columbia, Maryland, the place that has been my home for the past nine years.  During my sabbatical this coming fall, I'm going to be studying and writing about "A Spirituality of Us", a practical theology exploring our connection to God in community.  A big part of this project is reflecting on our experience of community--and considering how we can intentionally interact with that experience to improve it.  Luckily for me, I live in a planned community, a place that a group of people constructed forty-plus years ago for the purpose of making it easier for people to happy in their life together.

Columbia looks like a suburb to me.  I live on a cul-de-sac, after all, and there is a large, enclosed shopping mall in the center of the community instead of anything that could be construed as a "downtown".  So I was intrigued to learn in the first session of the mini-course offered by the Columbia Archives that Jim Rouse set out to create a "New City" of 100,000 in Columbia.  

Barbara Kellner ended the class this past Monday with a letter, written by Columbia's founder Jim Rouse to Irving G. Bjork, the Vice President of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company.  Rouse states his goals for Columbia: "first to make a profit and secondly, to discover and to demonstrate what can be accomplished by bringing to bear In the planning and development of a New City the knowledge and experience that have been gained about urban living and the finest skill and talent that are available in the field of planning and urban design" (my emphasis). 

He goes on to say more about the importance of profitability.  This "New City" will point "the way to the kind of urban development which might be substituted for endless urban sprawl."  If it works, "then developers will pursue the process by which fine, small New Cities can be built In our metropolitan areas in lieu of a succession of dormitory neighborhoods."

Columbia was supposed to be an anti-suburb, an antidote to sprawl.  A big part of what this meant to Rouse was that people should be able to work as well as live and play in Columbia.  From the beginning, he worked hard to attract employers and industry to Columbia--and he was successful.

But what I don't understand is why Jim Rouse designed an anti-suburb without a downtown.  Instead of an area of dense development at the center of Columbia, there is a large, enclosed shopping mall, the signature development of American suburbia.

As far as I can tell, the reason why Rouse included a mall in the original design of Columbia was because, quite simply, that was how he made his money.  James W. Rouse and Company, Jim Rouse's mortgage company, got on the shopping mall bandwagon early, completing their first project in 1953.  He developed the Mondawmin mall in Baltimore which opened in 1956 to great acclaim and went on to develop many more such projects.  In their book, "New City Upon a Hill:  A History of Columbia, Maryland", authors Joseph Mitchell and David Stebenne write:

By the early 1960's, Jim Rouse's name had become synonymous with mall development.  The success of such ventures helped give him the means to begin working on the question that concerned him most:  could someone build a better city?  Flush with the characteristic optimism of that time, Rouse and his associates would soon decide to try.

Malls were profitable and Rouse wanted and needed Columbia to be profitable.  I get that.  But it seems to me that the presence of a mall at the center of the community indicates a lack of understanding about what malls do to a community.  Mitchell and Stebenne comment that Rouse saw malls at modernizing "the town center idea rather than replacing it altogether" but that seems strangely naive in retrospect.  

  • Malls are filled with national retail chains and fast food restaurants.  These stores are staffed, in part, by teenagers from the local community, but they are not, by and large, owned and operated by local people.  You don't get to know your local merchants at a mall.  In my experience, with the possible exception of the jewelers, mall patrons don't have a relationship with the people running the stores.  (Note:  I do understand that when the Columbia Mall first opened, there were many more locally owned and operated stores.
  • Malls discourage walking.  The Columbia Mall, like most others I've encountered, is surrounded by a sea of parking lots.  It is designed for people to drive there and back.  This is an inherently less social, less communal experience than walking to the store and walking home.
  • Malls are not places where anyone can go.  Most of us don't realize this because we come and go from the mall as we please.  But the mall reserves the right to kick anyone out who they feel is causing problems.  A number of homeless people I know have been banned from the mall because they have been deemed disruptive.  If they enter and are recognized, they are escorted out by mall security.
  • Malls are not places for public speech.  You cannot hold a candlelight vigil against hate crimes in the mall.  You cannot make a public speech.  You cannot ask people to sign a petition.  You cannot hold a rally.  Part of the reason why any community needs public, common space is so that people have room to do all of these activities when they feel called.  These things are part of our public life.  They can be disruptive to community, but they also build community.

I need to learn more about Columbia.  I need to learn about the ideas of the founders and learn about how those ideas have played out over the past 44 years.  Does our mall work as a town square?  Or is there something missing in our community because there is a mall at the center?

This Is How Anything Changes

When my daughter Rosa was in third grade, she had a Trucker Buddy.

Her wonderful third grade teacher introduced the program with great fanfare.  The classroom was going to have a year-long pen pal relationship with a professional truck driver.  Each month, the students would write letters to their Trucker Buddy and he would write them back, sharing news about his travels, his pets, and other things that might interest the kids.  According to the Trucker Buddy website, the goal of the program is designed to enhance "skills in reading, writing, geography, mathematics, social studies, and history".  But that list doesn't really describe what the program did for Rosa--or for us.

Rosa absolutely loved the program.  She committed to memory information about her Trucker Buddy including the names of his many dogs.  She would frequently repeat the phrase he used at the end of each letter, "Always be safe on the road."  When she wrote her Trucker Buddy that she had been given cowboy boots for Christmas that year, he replied that he also had a pair of cowboy boots.  She was thrilled with the connection between her life and his.

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that the rest of our family found the whole Trucker Buddy idea pretty funny.  We made cracks about how Rosa's class was going to do a unit on the use and misuse of amphetamines.  We joked about a class field trip to a truck stop.  We wondered what the next "buddy" program would be.  "Mortician Buddy"?  "IRS Agent Buddy"?  "Crime Scene Investigator Buddy"?  It just seemed so random.  Why should a group of third graders spend a bunch of time getting to know a professional truck driver?

But after that year, none of us thought of truck drivers in the same way.  When we saw the big rigs lined up at a rest area on the interstate, we always wondered if Rosa's Trucker Buddy was one of them.  Truckers weren't anonymous to us anymore.  They had a name and a story.  They had dogs and cowboy boots.  Building empathy for truckers is not one of the stated goals of the program, but it is certainly the best thing that happens when people start to find connection between their life and the life of someone who is strange to them.

I was raised in a political family, one that believed in the importance of protests and rallies, pickets and petitions, letters to the editor and letters to your congressman.  I still value all of these actions.  But I've come to believe that all change begins with relationship.  People think and act and vote differently when they build a personal connection with someone who needs a change to take place.

Older people tell me often that when they were growing up, when they were young adults, they did not know ANY homosexuals.  When I was growing up, I knew a handful, including our church organist and, eventually, a high school friend.  My children know more gay people than they could count--family members, family friends, mentors.  I've read all sorts of analysis for why attitudes are changing around equal rights for gay and lesbian people.  Some people have argued that trend reflects the decline of the church, the decline of the traditional, two parent family, etc. But I'm pretty sure that the real reason why things are changing is that more people in this country know someone who is gay.  

So, I was delighted to read the story in yesterday's Washington Post about how the sixth grade students at Alice Deal Middle School in the District are getting to know homeless people, face-to-face.  The students of this Chevy Chase school "live in relative ease and privilege" so it isn't hard to collect donations of hats and scarves and socks.  Usually, that's where school-based community service begins and ends.  But this school got a group of kids to go into the city and actually hand the clothing out to people they met on the street.  And recently, two people who have experienced homelessness came to speak to the students through a program of the national Coalition of the Homeless.  The goal of the teachers organizing the project is "to make personal connections and to find common humanity."

And, of course, to change the world.

Right now, the same thing is happening in Howard County, not through the elementary schools but through the churches.  From mid-November to mid-March, the churches of Howard County (and this year, for the first time, a synagogue as well) host the Cold Weather Shelter.  We become home for a week or two to a couple dozen men, women and children.  We eat dinner and breakfast with our guests, pack them lunches, do their laundry, give them rides in our cars and play with their kids.  It's a big project, especially for a small church, and so a large percentage of the church's membership has to be involved in some way.  Everyone learns the name of a guest or two.  Everyone exchanges a greeting or a smile or a bit of their story.

It can be disheartening to put all that work into hosting the Cold Weather Shelter for a week only to realize that everyone is still homeless at the end.  The Cold Weather Shelter is not a solution to homelessness--except for this one, most essential thing.  It builds relationships.  And relationships are how anything--everything--changes.