Tuesday, November 30, 2010

J’ai vide mon coeur

Our oldest son Brad, a Pittsburgh based singer/songwriter, spent a summer in Vermont some time ago working with teens in an intensive French language camp program. While there he wrote the following lyrics in French for use with the group:
j’ai vidé mon cœur   pour avoir plus d’espace,
j’ai jeté mon malheur,   il prenait trop de place,
j’ai vidé mon cœur,   j’aurais dû l’faire avant,
pour apprendre un peu   à vivre comme un enfant

nous devenons courageux
chaque fois qu’on peut faire de son mieux,
chaque fois qu’on n’a pas peur..
j’ai vidé ma tête   de ces vieilles idées,
elles me rendaient trop bête,   j’ai dû les oublier,
j’ai vidé mon âme   des histoires du passé,
les blessures et les drames   ne m’ont jamais aidé,

nous devenons courageux
chaque fois qu’on peut faire de son mieux,
chaque fois qu’on n’a pas peur..
nous ne sommes que des rêveurs,
alors choisissons un rêve qui dure,
il faut pas avoir peur,
tu dois pas avoir peur,
j’ai vidé mon cœur   pour avoir plus d’espace,
j’ai jeté mon malheur,   il prenait trop de place…
  Here's my translation/adaptation of his piece:
    I emptied my heart to gain some more space,
    threw out my unhappiness, replaced it with grace,
    I emptied my heart, should have done it before,
    to become like a newborn child once more.

        we become fearless and bold
        when we live out our best,
        when we live by our courage in spite of our stress.

    I emptied my head of old useless thoughts,
    irrational 'shoulds,' too many 'oughts.'
    I emptied my soul of tired tales from the past,
    my old wounds and dramas now banished at last.

        we become fearless and bold
        when we live out our best,
        can face our hard stresses, can learn how to rest
        and dream a new dream
        of calm fearlessness.

    I emptied my heart to gain some more space,
    threw out my unhappiness, replaced it with grace.

     I know I’m biased about my son’s work, but I find his words compelling (undoubtedly they would be even more so in French). Isn’t life too short to remain stuck with a lot of negative baggage that keeps us from experiencing the joy and blessings that are our birthright?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Undocumented Marriages

When it comes to supporting stable, lasting, loving marriages, you can put me down as a compassionate conservative. Here's a letter I had published in the September, 2010, issue of the Mennonite which suggested a more positive approach to dealing with cohabiting couples:

Editor, the Mennonite:

    Thanks for publishing Sandra Fribley's timely article on "Love, Sex and Marriage."

    Without condoning cohabitation in any way, what if congregations respectfully confronted couples who are living together as having already entered into a marital bond, as follows:

    "Whenever you a) 'leave father and mother' (form a separate social unit and become publicly recognized partners), b) 'cleave to each other' (are an exclusive couple committed to fidelity), and c) 'become one flesh' (are sexually intimate), we will hold you to the same standard of lifelong faithfulness we expect of legally married couples. While we acknowledge that the Genesis 2:24 text quoted by both Jesus and Paul predates mandates like a marriage license or a ceremony, we nevertheless believe you should take the step of registering and solemnizing the de facto ('common law') marriage you have entered into.

    "We understand you might see this step as a mere formality involving 'just a piece of paper,' but we consider it at least as important as having a baptismal certificate, a passport, a vehicle registration, or a deed to a new house. But whether documented or not, we see your joining together in the manner described above as a profound and emotionally bonding form of 'marriage.' And were you to terminate your undocumented union, we would consider it a de facto divorce, as implied in the German word for infidelity: 'ehebruch,' or 'union-breaking'.

    "We pray you will choose to have your union blessed by God and by a caring community of believers, and so will be able to celebrate a truly joyful and faithful life until 'death do you part'."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Who Was The Neighbor?

I recently read what Herman Bernstein, the United States Ambassador to Albania, wrote in 1934, “There is no trace of any discrimination against Jews in Albania, because Albania happens to be one of the rare lands in Europe today where religious prejudice and hate do not exist, even though Albanians themselves are divided into three faiths.”
     Albania, a small country on the southeast coast of the Balkan peninsula, then had a population of some 800,000. Of those only two hundred were Jews.
     After Hitler’s rise to power, as many as 1,800 Jews found temporary refuge in that country from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia, and when the Germans occupied the country in 1943, Albanians were for the most part united in their refusal to comply with orders to turn over lists of Jews within their borders. Official governmental agencies provided Jewish families with documentation that allowed them to identified as non-Jews and live safely among the rest of the population.
     This remarkable help given to persecuted Jews was grounded in the Muslim tradition of Besa, a strongly held code of honor in that country. Besa, means literally “to keep the promise.” Those who act according to Besa keep their word, and can be trusted with their very life. In that spirit, Albanians went out of their way to provide help to the strangers among them, resulting in their being more Jews in their country at the end of the war than at the beginning.
     This reminds me of the well known story Jesus once told of a beaten and robbed man left beside the road and ignored by good religious people who passed him by. In the story, given in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" he chooses a Samaritan as the hero who actually tends to the injured man's wounds and provides for his hospitality and care.
     Prejudicial attitudes toward Samaritans in Jesus' day were much like those of many Americans toward Moslems today. We look down on them as belonging to a religion that shares some of the same scriptures as we, claims to worship the same God, but which we consider unorthodox in its beliefs and practices.
     Jesus is not commending the man's religion in the story, but pointing out that when all is said and done, its what's done that is even more important than what's said, and that our do-ology is even more important than our theology.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sabbaths for the soul

    “In the world to come each of us will be called into account for all the good things God put on earth which we refused to enjoy.”    - the Talmud
    When it comes to the enjoyment of God’s good gift of time, we tend to rush instead of rest, ruminate and worry instead of savoring each passing day, each priceless moment.
    As we take time to listen, we can hear a distinctive drumbeat of passing time marked by cycles of seasons, tides, mornings, evenings, days and nights. And if we pay attention, we note a regular rhythm inside us, our own amazing heart with its constant push and pause, our own steady pair of lungs that tense and relax, breathe out and breathe in with life-giving regularity. 
    Reflecting on this life pattern, one  that contributes to our soul's healing and renewal, poet Diana Zimmerman writes, “It’s not the rhythm humans make--planned and precise. Constancy is its rhythm, the repetition of crashing, sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle, and then retreating into the sea. It’s nature’s rhythm--the rhythm that we live: the in and out, the up and down, the high and low, the coming and going.  The perfection is not in its predictability, but in that it comes steadily, one after the other. Like days.”
    Along with nature’s drumbeat, there is the rhythm of holy time. The seven-day week, unlike the solar year or the lunar month, is divinely initiated. Six days we are to labor and do our work, but the seventh day is to be a holy “shabat” (rest), a time for recuperation and renewal for ourselves, our hired help, and even our work animals. It was to begin Friday evening with the entire family gathering to light the sabbath candle and to experience a time of quiet, a hallowed break in the routine of the week. 
    Some of us find it hard to experience regular sabbaths for the soul. Our good works and busy weeks prevent us from finding much time and space for God. “Wisdom does not in itself fill us,” someone has said, (but) “it creates an emptiness for God to fill.” Sabbaths represent this kind of invitation for the Holy to indwell us.
    We can also experience holy time in the rhythm of the Christian year, when we hear the drumbeat of God activity through annual reenactments of sacred events. We start with Advent, a time of expectant waiting and longing, followed by Christmas and Epiphany, celebrations of light and hope. Then comes Ash Wednesday, marking the start of forty days of soul searching leading to Holy Week, with its Maunday Thursday reminder of Christ’s last meal with his followers. This is followed by Good Friday, the darkest of all days, then by Easter, the brightest. 
    This healing rhythm reminds us of how God breaks into time, then ascends and leaves us to savor the Spirit’s renewing presence.
     And then returns all over again.

Friday, November 26, 2010

How Microlending Could Revolutionize How We Help The Poor

One important way to help those in need, especially those unable to earn for themselves, is through generous giving. Another way we can offer much needed help, especially to those able and eager to work, is by making generous loans available from our savings.

Through a variety of new microlending programs, it is now possible to assist enterprising individuals both at home and abroad while still having those investments available for our own needs in later years. Meanwhile, our money is helping others in ways that offers them dignity and opportunity rather than simply charity.

This should be celebrated as an astounding option, one that deserves to become the retirement plan of choice for all justice-minded people.

Far too many of us, for far too long, have been anxiously banking on our stock portfolios for our financial futures. By speculating in a largely consumer-driven financial system we have become dependent on the fortunes of Wall Street for our security. Even “socially responsible investing” (avoiding alcohol, tobacco and/or military related enterprises) still largely supports luxury and convenience related products and services that tend to benefit the well-to-do far more than those who lack the basic means of supporting themselves.

What if our focus shifted from investments that are merely “socially responsible” to those that offer a "hand up" to those who truly need it?

But wouldn't that be a risky strategy?

Surprisingly, the default rate on microloans has been extremely low, based on the experience of organizations like MEDA (Mennonite Economic Envelopment Association), Oikocredit, the Calvert Foundation and other microlenders. MEDA, for example, often makes loans to partner groups of small scale entraprenuers committed to seeing to it that no one defaults as a condition for everyone remaining eligible for future loans. This kind of accountability, along with the determination of these borrowers to succeed in order to survive, adds to MEDA’s confidence that such investments are as safe, if not safer, than those in the stock market.

But shouldn’t our retirement savings grow for us rather than providing a mere 1-3% rate of interest?

In a capitalist system we always face the risk of future inflation reducing the purchasing power of our monetary savings. But in light of Christ's teaching on not storing up anything for tomorrow, period, is it too much to expect that we should be content with modest interest rates--primarily to cover the costs of administering our retirement funds?

Since borrowing in Bible times was primarily done by people who were destitute because of famine or other disasters (rather than for capital investment in land or other means of production) any form of usury was frowned upon. In another tradition, Mahatma Ghandi condemned “wealth without work” as one of his “seven social sins.” How can followers of Jesus justify making easy profits by simply placing our bets on a gain-driven economic system, even if to “make our money work for us,’ or to “keep up with inflation”?

In our personal experience, when the economy took a nose-dive in 2008, the savings our employers had invested for us in mutual funds lost a ton of value. But what we had invested in IRA’s designated for microlending remained secure. Besides, we had already enjoyed the benefit of reducing our federal income tax liability through those investments. For us, that seemed good enough.

If many of us were to transfer the bulk of our investments into microfinancing, we could have an immediately positive and dramatic impact on thousands of people’s lives. And if all devout believers worldwide were to do so, plus give generously from their store of wealth, extreme poverty could be virtually eliminated.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

In the Home of the Jailed

It’s not often that we think of prisons as holy spaces, but I’m struck by the number of persons on the holier side of history who have spent years of their lives in chains or behind bars. In the Hebrew Bible there were people like Joseph, Jeremiah, Daniel and others, and in the New Testament, there were John the Baptist and many of Jesus’s disciples, most notably Paul, who wrote many of his letters from there. And throughout the centuries there have been countless numbers of people in prisons for their faith, like John Bunyan, John Huss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and many others. All of which has led people of faith to take a special interest in all who are imprisoned. While many in our prisons and penitentiaries today are of course guilty of crimes of all kinds, their cells nevertheless become places of suffering, isolation and extreme emotional stress that should concern all of us.

What should be our response when in our land of the free we have an astonishing 2.3 million people behind bars, the largest number of people in prison of any country in the world, including China.

In the Hebrew Bible there is a model for a safe place for offenders known as cities of refuge. They were ordinary cities in every respect except in these cities people could find refuge who felt they were in danger of being lynched for a crime, as an act of revenge, if they believed they were innocent, or had unintentionally harmed or killed someone. There they were offered sanctuary in communities where they could live responsible and more or less normal lives. My dream would be to have every community, every congregation, become a kind of city of refuge, not for coddling wrongdoers, but for mentoring them, holding them accountable, and helping them to become responsible and productive fellow citizens.

We Americans are Great Givers

An open letter to our Third World neighbors:

    In spite of everything you may have heard to the contrary, we Americans do give very liberally. Many of us even outdo the poor widow in the Bible, the one Jesus commends for offering up her last penny. Indeed, we often give so far beyond our means that we have to borrow to our limit in order to keep up our rate of giving.
    Unfortunately, not much of that generosity benefits charities or our local churches. In that department, we Christians north of the Rio Grande contribute an average of only about 3% of our incomes. And of that money, usually well over one-half goes for things like air conditioning, heating, maintenance and mortgage costs for the buildings in which we worship and fellowship--up to two hours a week (unless we’re on one of our weekend vacations)--as well as to cover the salaries of those we hire to care for, lead and teach us, the members. So we hope this explains why so little of our charitable giving can actually go to meet the needs of the poor around us--or to the south of us--or to help propagate our faith. 
    To be honest, we admit that the bulk of our really cheerful giving is done at places like Wal-Mart, K-Mart and the nearby Quick-Mart. We do love to shop, and tend to give most generously for things like pet food, snack food, junk food, convenience food and for the array of fine foods available at our favorite delis and restaurants, much of it imported from countries like yours where labor is cheap. And we also contribute large sums to the automobile and oil industries, so that we now have more licensed vehicles to fuel and maintain than we have licensed drivers to drive them. In addition, we willingly give more and more of our incomes to banks and furniture outlet stores for ever larger and more comfortably furnished homes.
    You might wonder, Does all of this giving reflect our real values?
    Actually, yes. Each time any of us gives another offering at yet another cash register, we are saying that, at that moment at least, we consider that product or service worth exactly what we are investing in it. In the same way, when it comes to offering our gifts to God, as an expression of our love for our Creator and for our neighbors, we are also stating, quite specifically, the actual value that represents to us.
    Are we ever bothered by where all our money goes, and how quickly it is gone? Or that every year, in the US, most of us contribute far more to our nation’s military budget than we do to our church’s missionary budget?
    Yes, of course we're bothered, in light of our living in one of the wealthiest and most heavily armed countries in the world. And yet, for whatever reason, God, unlike our national government, doesn’t actually demand any tribute from us in return. God asks for our joyous and generous offerings, but so far hasn’t insisted on actually collecting all the rent we owe for living on this blessed part of the planet.
    So what would you do if you were in our shoes?

Something Amazing at Macy’s

On November 6, 2010, a group of some 650 singers from the Philadelphia Opera Company joined together in an unusual conspiracy. They arranged to be at Macy's in Center City Philadelphia at high noon,to mix in with the crowd of shoppers there and then, on cue from their director on a second floor balcony, sing the Halleluiah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. All of this was accompanied by someone on Macy’s giant organ in the large foyer area of the store.
     A video recording of the event became quite a hit on YouTube, as a rare musical feast that caught the startled shoppers completely off guard. Many were obviously amazed and moved by the unexpected performance, either because it brought back fond memories of it as a loved and familiar part if their past, or as a masterpiece they were hearing for the first time.
     Some of the listeners looked up and raised their hands in awe or held them over their hearts. Others were using their cell phones to take pictures of the musicians all around them and/or were calling others to have them listen in. Still others were excitedly talking to each other as they listened with wonderment.  And of course all joined in an extended and heartfelt round of applause after the last drawn out “Hal-le-lu-jah!” at the end of the piece.
     As a person of faith, I was deeply moved by the performance on YouTube, and it was certainly an experience aptly described by a sign one of the organizers of the group held up at the end, “You have just experienced a random act of culture by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.”
     Maybe we should all find ways of expressing some random, creative, and impactful kindnesses of our own this season, expressing our Hallelujahs and our confidence in who shall reign forever and ever.
     This could be in the form of a surprise visit to someone at a nursing home, an offer of some child care for a frazzled parent in need of a break, a note  of appreciation for a past teacher or pastor who has made a difference in our lives, or an invitation to dinner for a new immigrant family in the community. 
     May such Hallelujahs resound everywhere!