Seeing Color

Recently I read these words from African-American theologian, Cornell West. “Martin Luther King, Jr., called us to be love-struck with each other, not colorblind toward each other.”

When I look at the back of my hand, I see skin that is a light brownish pink, with darker brown spots (because I’m getting old), and fairly thickly covered with black hair. On my face, there is a scar on my chin and a small one at the corner of my lower lip. A couple of teeth are chipped. My skin is starting to wrinkle and is beginning to sag under my chin. There are white hairs in my eyebrows.

All these details tell bits of a story that you could not begin to read if you were blind to the colors and contours of my face and hand. And the hidden face of my spirit is marked with signs of my experience that you would not know unless you spent time with me and began to learn my story.

So when I read or hear people claim that they “don’t see color” or that they are “colorblind” I wonder what they mean. Are they trying to avoid seeing the particularities of real people around them? Do they really mean that everyone looks the same to them?

We’re not the same. We’re each unique. And I cannot truly relate to you, deal with you, honor your existence if I can’t really see you.

I wonder if the claim to be colorblind is an attempt to deny reality, to avoid seeing the often painful truth of the experience of others and the history we share. And I wonder if the defensiveness I hear in the use of that phrase, “colorblind,” comes from a fear of making mistakes. We’re all so afraid of making mistakes these days, afraid of asking questions and appearing ignorant; we’re so quick to judge. But we are, all of us, human, limited. We need to let down our guard and learn to accept ourselves and each other in all our imperfection.

I have to confess that my reaction to the terminology “people of color” is not positive. It seems like a term made up by “white” people and seems patronizing. We are all some color – many shades and hues. I’m a color – that light brownish pink I see when I look at my hand. In some ways, my skin color defines me – but not completely, just as your identity is partly defined by your color. We are all much more than color, but we are also each a particular color.

We need to truly see each other, and to understand that the history of the divisions, prejudices, and privileges that are part of our appearance and identity are complex. They are on our skin and they are in our spirits. We will never know or understand unless we can see each other truly.

The Only Thing That Matters

Long ago, in a class or workshop on spirituality somewhere that I’ve forgotten, I heard words I still remember, that ring true across the years. Someone quoted a saying from Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian monk from the 18th Century. He is remembered as saying, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.”

From time to time, and especially in these contentious times, those words come back to me. I think of them in relation to the wisdom that the only person I can change is myself, and the odds of that are around 51-49.

And then there’s Jesus: “Take the log out of your own eye before you go looking for the speck in your neighbor’s eye.”

And then there’s Murray Bowen and Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who taught us about our place in the emotional system, where the only way one can have an effect on the system we are embedded in is to work on our own self-differentiation and emotional health.

So when I hear news of partisan bickering or Tweets from the President and I am tempted to criticize, correct, explain or weigh in on the issue, I stop and remember that it is just possible that I will only add to the noise and anxiety. Maybe if I respond with a peaceful spirit, listen, and approach others with compassion – maybe my own peace will be healing and bring a blessing. Maybe if I don’t react, I won’t add fuel to the fire.

I do not mean that I would hold myself aloof, but that I would engage with others with peace and compassion. It might be the only thing that matters, the only thing that helps.

Thinking About Suicide

The following is a version of my column in the Rome Sentinel on Saturday, October 26.

The Bible is honest about the human condition. The writer of Psalm 88 gives voice to those who feel there is no reason to go on living.

“My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the Pit. I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like those you remember no more. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them.”

In 1982 I was a youth minister in Knoxville, Tennessee. Jim Henderson was an elder, a leader of the Hall’s Crossroads Presbyterian Church. One day Jim was at home alone. He had had a satisfying career, lived in a comfortable home, loved his grandchildren. But he had never told anyone at church of his struggle with depression, worsening since he retired. That day, he put his pistol to the side of his head and pulled the trigger. Jim didn’t succeed in killing himself, but destroyed his left eye and lost half the sight in his right. Everyone at church regretted they had not talked about suicide and depression before, as they embraced Jim and Marie as Jim recovered from his injury. No one blamed him, shunned him, or judged him. They loved him and supported him and his family as he found help to deal with depression.

Among adults eighteen and over in the United States, it’s estimated that at least ten million people reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year. That’s only the number who reported having such struggles with wanting to die. The vast majority of gun deaths in the US are from suicide.

On Saturday, November 16, at 10:30 AM Lori Robinson will speak on suicide prevention at First Presbyterian Church in Rome. Lori is a retired Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. Probably more importantly however, Lori is a 2 time suicide survivor, losing both her father and a very good friend to suicide within 11 months.

Have you ever been stunned when someone in your world takes their own life? Or tells you about a person they were close to who committed suicide? Those affected by suicide respond with confusion, fear, and despair. We struggle to make sense of it. We are shocked by unexpected, self-inflicted death. Guilt is common for survivors as they struggle to understand.

For a long time, people who ended their own lives were judged harshly, looked upon as having done something unpardonable. Their families felt they could not talk about what happened. But there is nothing in the Bible that condemns suicide. To the contrary, God knows our weakness and despair, and hears our cry.

People often believe suicidal thinking is shameful, a belief that isolates and silences those who have something important to say and need someone to listen. Lori’s presentation will provide help to talk openly and give a hopeful message to people who are considering or who have considered suicide, people who are concerned about someone else who may be considering suicide, and people who want support in thinking about how to reinvent their lives and start again. We are learning to provide support for people who struggle with depression. Come join the conversation and help to provide hope and healing.

I hope you’ll join us on November 16 at 10:30 AM in the dining room. A pot-luck lunch will follow. Join us whether you can bring food or not. There will be plenty!

Self-Indulgent Liberty

The Scripture reading from the Letter to the Galatians for this Sunday, June 30, says, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

In contrast to that fundamental Christian principle, the Trump Justice Department seeks to support discrimination and bigotry in the name of religious liberty. They are distorting the very foundation of Christian faith into a tool for division, judgment and hate.

In claiming that religious liberty protects a person from having to serve another human being whom the server finds objectionable, this claim simply denies that Jesus commanded his followers to love their neighbor.

When Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he didn’t qualify it. He didn’t say, “…if your neighbor agrees with you,” or “…if you approve of their beliefs or identity.” He didn’t say “love them only if they agree to think, believe and act like you.”

No. He gave no loophole, no exceptions, no room for distancing yourself from people whose existence disturbs your prejudices.

A purported “liberty” that allows me to look with contempt on others is nothing more than a blind, self-indulgence that the Apostle warned against. I am not fooled by this religious cover for justifying hate and fear.

Scripture teaches that no one part of the body can say to another, “I don’t need you.” We’re all human. We’re all different. We all belong.

distractions

Quote for the day: “Build economies, not walls.”

Listening to the news coverage of the negotiations over border security, you would think that no one knows or cares why people are crossing the border. All I hear is talk about trading fewer detention beds for more wall.

Really? Is that the best they can do? Can someone talk about how to address the forces driving migration?

The need for migrant workers in the US.

Violence in Central American countries.

The demand for drugs in our country.

The effect of globalization on the Mexican economy.

Families of migrant workers that want to reunite.

Come one, people! You’re not stupid. Analyze the situation and do some long-term problem-solving. Please!

Our Integrity

I just read in the Sojourners Daily Verse and Voice blog this challenging thought —

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “In the final analysis, a democratic government represents the sum total of the courage and integrity of its individuals. It cannot be better than they are.”

If that is true, we have no business complaining about, being critical and disdainful of our elected leaders. They are an expression of the collective character of the nation.

Perhaps this coming Lent can be a time of repentance and reflection on how we all can work to make this nation more whole, hospitable, honest and loving.

A Wise Ruler

A new congress is convening today. Some of us are relieved that the Democrats have a majority in the House. But for Christians, our hope is not in a political party but in leaders who are wise and filled with humility and a passion for justice. Some words of Psalm 72 illuminate that hope:

Give the king your justice, O God.
May he judge your poor with justice.
May he defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
May he be like showers that water the earth.
In his days may peace abound, until the moon is no more.
For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life:
and precious is their blood in his sight.

As I copy those words here, the image in my mind is of the families of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador fleeing violence in their homes and communities and traveling thousands of miles in search of shelter and help, vulnerable and anxious on the roads.

I will judge the success of a new congress, the worth of a government, by the way it seeks to protect the poor and vulnerable, the way it lives by the religious virtue of hospitality and welcomes and cares for those who are displaced from their homes.

My prayer for my leaders is that they seek to be like the ruler depicted in Psalm 72.

Leadership & Listening

Yesterday morning, listening to Morning Edition, host Rachel Martin was interviewing historian, Jeffrey Engel. Engel is with the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Mr. Engel shared this insight into the character and leadership style of President George H W Bush: “… from time to time, President Bush, if he had a few moments on his calendar, would call up a foreign leader, whether in Africa, whether in Asia, whether in – somewhere else, and just ask them, what’s going on in your world? What do you think is important? And just listen.”

“And just listen.” Wow.

Think about that in the context of today’s political climate in which hostile tweets and angry criticism fill the air. President Bush has been described again and again in the last few days as a man of humility. It takes humility to listen deeply to another person. Humility considers that the other person knows something, sees something, that you don’t. Humility realizes that one’s own perspective is limited and partial. Humility knows that leadership requires building relationships and managing a broad spectrum of gifts and attributes.

Many years ago a pastor colleague said, “Leadership doesn’t mean having all the answers. Leadership is about asking the questions.”

George H W Bush left us a legacy and an example of the kind of leadership our country, our world, our communities need in these days of partisan division — the gift of listening.

Thank you, Mr. Bush.

The Caravan (again)

Got back Saturday night from the trip organized by Frontera de Cristo –  http://www.fronteradecristo.org – and Cafe Justo – http://www.justcoffee.org – the Border to Border Delegation: Coffee, Migration and Faith.

One clear message I heard from the Mexicans I talked to was this: “Everyone who leaves home suffers.” No one wants to leave their home. The people who do, the people in “the caravan,” people who have to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to get them across the border, people who are exhausted and sick from walking – they leave home because they believe they have no other choice.

It’s not an invasion. It’s not a threat. The caravan is made up of people who fear they will never see their family members in the US again because the border has become so tight. They are willing to risk their lives to reunite their families.

The caravan is made up, too, of people who are so afraid for their lives that they will risk them on the highway, in the desert, in places where they don’t speak the language, in order to find safety.

Don’t believe the lies that the President and other politicians are telling about these migrants. Trump is trying inflame people’s fears and ignorance in order to get them to vote for his candidates.

Think instead about what God says. Throughout the Law of Moses and the words of the Old Testament prophets the command is repeated: “Do not oppress the resident alien in your land; remember that you were strangers and aliens in the land of Egypt.”

And remember Jesus: “Whatever you have done for one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done for me.”

There are a lot of suffering migrants on the road who long for home, family and safety. It’s not a crime to migrate. No human being is illegal.

The Migrant Caravan

Thousands of people are so desperate that they will sell their possessions, borrow money, leave behind all they have known for the chance at a better life in a place they’ve never seen, where they don’t know the language, where they don’t know anyone. They pin their hopes on an unknown end where it must be better, where it must be safer, where they will work doing anything to care for their children.

And all some politicians can do is to use the plight of these people as weapons in a partisan electoral war. If our president knows any better, he doesn’t show it. He threatens to cut off aid to the countries from where these people are coming, as if further impoverishing them will help anything.

Most politicians seems to focus on the symptom, not the cause. They focus on the perceived threat and talk about desperate people as if they were the problem instead of working with Central American governments to address causes of violence and social instability.

The people who organized the caravan call attention to the underlying needs, the forces that drive people from their homes. I hope we can see the people as human beings, not as a threat. They need peace and a safe place to live. Our leaders need to work with leaders in those countries to bring order and stability to the lives of people who endure such chaos that they are willing to walk a thousand miles just for the chance of a new life.

Dear President Trump, they deserve our help, not your scorn.