Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Eve of All Things New

I was in college when I first heard The Pogues sing Eve of Destruction. Shane McGowan has a voice that sounds like we're no longer on the eve of destruction but the day after! But it wasn't his to start with. The song was actually written 20 years earlier in 1965 by Barry McGuire. McGuire laments the evils of the day, which haven't changed much in my lifetime, and ironically asks if don't believe the world really is about to end.

The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'
You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'
But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve of destruction.

He's right, of course, in a way. In every age we wonder. Will there be a tomorrow? Are we on the eve of destruction?

My faith takes these concerns and holds them with hot pads, and gently. Because it's true. There will be another flood, another war, another economic meltdown. There will be violence, shootings, injustice, and pain. There will be destruction, if not tomorrow, then another day.

BUT, and this is a great big BUT, I am holding out in confidence for us to prove the conventional, ironical wisdom of the song wrong. I'm holding out for hope.

Today is not the eve of destruction. It's the eve of something better, at least for the community of faithful people who call ourselves church. Halloween, All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints Day, is a good time to give thanks for the saints who have stood against the violence, injustice, and pain of the world. It's time to remember the ones who said no to war, yes to peace, and amen to justice.

It's the eve of the day when we can imagine a brighter future. In Revelation 21.6, God doesn't "make all new things" but "makes all things new." There's a difference.

To "make all new things" would be to give up on the world, to give up on us. To "make all things new" is to take all that is corrupt and violent and wrong in us and clean us up and make us better. As individuals, certainly, but that's only a minor part of the message. God makes all things new in our community, nation, and world. This is the big picture.

Evil? Yes, it's real. And it's far scarier than any Halloween mask.

But never forget that we're on the eve of God making all things new. Call it the Eve of Reconstruction.

Storms and God, Meteorology and Metaphor

Sandy took me by surprise. Not the wind, rain, flooding, and snow, not the power outages--these were clearly coming, and there wasn't much to do but watch. No, what took me by surprise was the feelings it brought up from Rita and Katrina when we lived north of Houston and the derecho winds that ripped through Virginia this summer.

Some responses come naturally. You get to know your neighbors. You share tools, propane, and tips on where to find ice. You cook meals, if you have power, for those fleeing a flooded Ninth Ward or who ran out of gas on the evacuation route. The clean-up is just work. You cut up and cart off branches, repair the shed, call insurance for the roof, and discard spoiled food. You share chain saws, shovels, and rakes. Being without power when it's hot out is miserable. You open windows, sleep downstairs, hope for a breeze. Being without power when it's freezing is even worse.

This is where those feelings I mentioned come in--not the pragmatic, "let's just get it done" things that take over while you're getting the yard in shape or cleaning out the freezer, but the feeling of powerlessness, the awe of staring into the face of nature's God and feeling incompetent, the paralysis of the fly trapped in the spider's web. The lack of electricity blurs the line between the metaphorical and mechanical. The mechanics of storm response are manageable. The metaphorics of powerlessness, less so.

No wonder people in crisis look over their shoulder for signs of God! And I suppose it's no surprise that the God we find can seem capricious, arbitrary, unpredictable, mean.

But one thing I'm only now beginning to understand is that the place to listen for God's call throughout the crisis isn't in the wind, the rain, the earthquake, or the fire. It's in the needs that emerge in the silence. And as Elijah discovered so long ago, the silence always follows the storm. God finds us, like Elijah, doing all the practical things to save our own life and then calls us from our isolation to serve the common good.

So, where is God when 16 so far have died? Calling us to help. Where is God when 6 million at last count are without power? Calling us to empower.

Some will wrongly see God's judgment in natural disasters, and the list of ills the storms address will correspond to the evils the interpreter already sees in society. But this isn't a time to look for judgment or to assign blame. It's a time to look for grace and by our actions pass it on.

If you want to make an immediate difference through the church, I invite you to write a check to the church and designate it to Week of Compassion emergency relief. Like Spirit of Joy's Blessing Quarters, 100% of designated moneys go to fund needed assistance, blankets, clean water, food, medical supplies, hygiene kits, shelter. Week of Compassion is always among the first on the ground responding to natural disasters, both here and through ecumenical partnerships around the world.

You can't completely overcome feelings of powerlessness when the storm clouds roll in and the wind begins to blow. But in the calm silence that follows, you can be part of the empowerment of recovery and restoration, one blanket at a time. And as a wider church community, we'll weather every storm together.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mary, Marry?

I worked the phones tonight at Minnesotans United for All Families, calling voters to start conversations about their opinions on the upcoming marriage amendment vote. A yes writes marriage as only between a man and a woman into the state Constitution. A no leaves room for more conversation while we work for greater equality.

Two competing feelings struck me hard. The first was just how far we have to go before all loving families are recognized. The second was admiration spilling over into awe at the energy and commitment of people who have more at stake than I do and yet are willing to set aside the combativeness of argument for the far more risky danger of genuine conversation.

But underneath it all, there was a third feeling, harder to identify. Not quite melancholy, but somewhere between sadness and hope.

You really don’t know how it’s going to go. The terrible, blank wall of a phone call to a stranger is a daunting divide to cross. But it matters. So, time and again, you pick up the phone.

“Hi, is this Mary? Great! My name’s David and I’m a volunteer with Minnesotans United for All Families calling to talk with you about your opinion on marriage …”

Mentally and emotionally, you throw yourself into the breach.

“If you had to vote today, would you vote yes and change the Constitution, no and leave the Constitution the same, or are you still thinking about it?”

That call with “Mary” tonight just won’t let me go. Like so many, her voice isn't heard in the horse-race reporting that passes for election-year journalism. She isn’t a hard-liner, yes or no. She’s still thinking about it, torn but probably leaning toward a yes vote. Sure, she has gay friends. One was in her wedding. Her husband later stood up with two of their close lesbian friends at theirs. But she just can’t bring herself to call what their friends have “marriage.”

“Is it so awful,” she asked, “that I want full equality for them and for their daughter who I love, but I don’t want them calling it marriage?”

She wants equal rights for all. She wants the benefits that go to children in married families to go to children of same-sex couples. But she feels we’ve lost so much, there’s so much change swirling around out of control in our culture, that something has to stay stable. “Can’t we just call it something else?” she asks.

“You mean separate but equal?” I ask. “No,” she sighs, “that would be wrong. I’m just torn.” “So a yes vote will make your life feel more stable?” I ask “Yes, well … no. Oh, this is so hard.”

I’m sad that she feels life has become so hectic and uncertain. She feels something eroding, but she doesn’t know what. As she kept saying, she’s torn. Maybe a yes vote, even if it hurts her friends, will keep things whole. Surely they would understand.

Most “leaning yes” people I talk to aren’t hard-line, right-wingers with an ideological ax to grind, for fear the heavenly temple will fall if a single brick is removed. Most “leaning no” folks aren’t radical anti-religious leftists salivating at the thought of anarchy. Few of us fit the stereotype.

It’s not ideological warfare we wage but day-to-day navigation of relationships with friends, neighbors, lovers, and even with our own parents and kids. And we want what Mary wants. We want a sense that our lives are whole.

As we talked, I heard a caller next to me deep in conversation with another voter. “Yes, I’m sixty, and my partner and I have been together 40 years… oh, that’s longer than your marriage? Yes, well, I just hope we can get legally married before we both turn 90… Go to Iowa? No,” he laughed. “What would we tell my mother? Yes, Minnesota. It’s home.”

There’s the humor I’ve been looking for, and it’s not cynical, not sarcastic, but gentle, hopeful, knowing, a reminder that underneath it all we’re talking about the deepest good we can find within ourselves and offer to another. It’s not about a definition. It's not even about rights. It's even more inalienable.

“So you’ll vote no?” I hear him say. “Great. Thank you.” because he knows what I also know inside. We’re talking about something larger than any law or constitution, something that can’t be legislated or judged, but something we need society to honor and protect no matter where it is found and regardless of gender, race, and sexual orientation. We’re talking about love.

“Thanks for your time tonight, Mary” I hear myself say. “I hear that you’re still undecided. I also hear that in your heart you want one thing and in your head you want another. That’s honest. I hope between now and the election you’ll talk with those friends your husband stood up for and ask them to share with you what their marriage means to them. They might be waiting for you to ask, and it might help you feel less torn… You will? Great. It’s been good talking with you.” And I mean it. “Have a good night.”