Monday, July 27, 2015

God Was In this Place

Yesterday I made my annual trip to North United Methodist church for a service led in part by our Duke interns to the Global Interfaith Partnership's Umoja project.  For those who do not know the Umoja project is an interfaith program that provides support for infants and vulnerable children in Western Kenya.  As a long-time board member I have seen the project mature and every year.  As part of that growth,  we have two interns from Duke Divinity School spend several weeks in Kenya at the project schools where we support these youth. Elizabeth Styron and Kadeisha Kilgore were the two women who went this year. They offered their ability to minister to the families in Kenya, give an American presence that helps continue to cement the relationships we have developed with our congregations, the teachers and the guardians in Kenya that make the program work.

Our interns always bring back information that is hard to collect from shorter visits and certainly from this side of the world.  This year was no different.  They told stories of a young girl taking her national exam to earn her opportunity to further her education,while her mother lay dying at home. As this young woman was trying to advance her own life her mother lost hers.  This tragic story is an extreme one based on a common theme.  The students we support in Kenya know that education is the way that they will transform their own lives and the lives of their community.  Their energy toward getting good scores, which are necessary to move on in school, is remarkable.  This story stunned but did not surprise me.  Many of the students I met and others have seem laser focused on school, when not having to find ways to meet the basic needs of life (food, shelter and physical safety).  The interns allow for seeing those moments in a day-to-day action and thus not simply a snapshot of a moment.  We learn a great deal of how our program is doing something powerful in Kenya.

At times there are doubts about the efficacy of our program in any important way.  We can say feed 3000 children, providing school fees for 100 students, and so on is something, but we can also think of thousands more that could use the support.  Worldwide we see daily places where our time, money and energy can be put to use and even at home there is hunger, abuse, and undereducated children we pass on the way to work.  However, one of the things the interns always bring back for me is the nature of the relationship, the connection of souls.  We aren't simply providing access to food and school, we are building community together.  That girl who is working on her future, knowing her mother is dying at home teaches us the power of what we are doing.  Watching our graduates who are off to university and coming back to change their community shows me that our small, directive and personal program is doing something far more than trying to create a giant program that dumps money into a community without the connection.

There are times I have had doubts about what we are doing, when there are problems with securing food, when we hear about the failed ability to help all who qualify, when it just seems like a drop in the bucket I can listen to the interns who come back and I am reenergized.  I see it in the eyes of a girl taking a test, a guardian who proudly shows off a test score or a boy who smiles and says God will provide for me and God brought you to me.  Hope is a slippery thing to grab onto at times, but today I have hope.  Thank you to Keisha and Liz for bringing that back from Kenya for me.  It is better than any carved wooden giraffe.  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Donald Trump, the WWE candidate

Donald Trump is at the top of several Republican primary polls going into the debate season which starts in August.  It means that he will be seen as a legitimate candidate and be on the stage when some former and sitting governors and senators will not.  Several pundits have acted like this is somehow surprising and attempt to explain it away.   I don't understand their surprise.  Donald Trump has been part of celebrity culture as long as I can remember.  He is a larger than life figure and plays that role very well.  There was a time when people looked at Trump as a symbol of American Capitalism. However his personal life, TV shows and of course his bombastic speech have made him the perfect symbol and champion of the followers of the right wing noise machine that is built on constant outrage.  Will he get the nomination or be elected?  No he won't.  In fact once votes start to mean something the more establishment Republicans will rally around a single candidate they think could win.  Likely Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, both with executive experience and good relationships inside the party and can appeal to some moderate Democrats.  But as this Sunday dawns the morning shows have made Donald Trump the opening statement across the board.   
Donald Trump is a celebrity who is acting like a candidate.  An egomaniac that has spent his life looking for adulation, telling us how good he is, how wonderful, smart, sexy and virile he is.  He in fact is like a template for a pro-wrestling heal who people love to hate but will cheer for him when he turns on someone they hate more.  And that is exactly what Trump is doing.  Tapping into an anti-establishment feeling that has been the bread and butter of the right wing radio screamers, Trump is getting the followers that feed off his fame and angry language. 
For some Trump's celebrity can be seen as a negative, but as a culture we tend to worship celebrity. Right now it is part of what drives those that show up at his rallies and tell pollsters they like him.   Celebrities have become like house gods.  People try to connect with celebrity more and more and with social media it has become easier.  We look to those people who are famous for what to wear, how to talk, and sometimes seek their divine intervention on our lives using connections to them as good luck charms.  I once saw a woman in a casino cover a slot machine with pictures of a particular boy band to the point she couldn’t even see the wheels.  As she pulled the lever she would call to the members to help her win.  While that is an extreme I think there is an unconscious idea that fame means the person is special, bigger than us.  Trump is a perfect storm in that his celebrity and wealth has been admired and worshiped for decades and now he is the voice of so many who feel put upon by a culture that is less comfortable open bigotry that Trump is embracing.  A group of people who daily are bombarded by childish rhetoric designed not to inform but to bring out emotion.  So Donald Trump makes sense in our current culture.  That is sad.  It will be fun to watch for a while.  If you aren’t the target of his hateful rhetoric.  Now we just need a face to rise up and take him on.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex

While I know it has been a while since I have written here I feel like the world has made it difficult to actually express myself in any real way.  I cannot understand how to express myself on some matters but several recent stories in the news and in my life has me thinking once again about how screwed up our culture has become about sex and sexuality.  But the story that has pushed me out of slump is one that would make me angry if it wasn't so clearly comical.  You see it is another example of the failure of the lack of sexuality education that is meaningful.  In Texas a high school has had a huge outbreak of Chlamydia.   Their approach to sex education is "Don't Do It" and they will talk about if for a total of 3 days each year.  This does not prepare young people for the reality of the fact that we are born to be sexual beings and that those drives, feelings and subsequent behavior is often ignored. 

We are born to have sex, it is a primal drive and it extremely pleasurable.  It is also something that uncomfortable for people to fully discuss in our culture.  Virtually everyone is sexual to some extent and those that aren't often see themselves as wanting to be able to explore that part of themselves.  In fact it drives much of human behavior throughout our evolutionary history and sexual desire can be blamed for both great tragedies and great accomplishments over the millennia of human civilization.  But as we evolved as a species and as societies developed, how we approach our sexuality has changed.  Most human cultures don't simply act on sexual desire without conscious thought and we can find someone attractive and even desirable without abandoning the civility that has created our own structure of how sexuality works.  While there are in fact some communities that open sexuality are the norm, they are often hidden from the larger society and even when known are seen as an aberration and not ubiquitous.  But we know that we all have the desire and even if you are married and deeply in love you can still easily find someone else attractive but that doesn't mean you have to act on those feelings.  That is what it means to be human.  One of the things that clearly separates us from the other members of the animal kingdom is the fact that we have evolved beyond that need and we can control our desires, sexual and others.

so what does that have to do with education?  Well that is a learned thing.  The social contract that we all agree to, especially in Western culture, is that we are not rampant sexual beings and we approach our sexuality as more than a physical thing.  Our behaviors must have thoughts associated with them.  We can talk about being in love, but in the current human condition, expressing our sexuality requires us to take on responsibility.  For young people, understanding that responsibility means learning about it.  The physical, emotional, and dare I say spiritual aspects of being as sexual being are all learned and how we incorporate them into who was are as a human being is an important goal. 

Now one can argue that this should be the exclusive purview of the parents.  Frankly I wish that were something that was done. It use to be.  Parents talked to their children about sexuality, to various degrees. Mothers helped daughters understand what to expect from their first sexual encounter and some cultures, even today, teach how to pleasure a partner when they are married or coupled in the fashion of that culture.  Human sexuality was part of the education even in religious cultures that spoke of sexuality as part of the covenant of marriage.  But like many things we have professionalized the most basic of human growth and development.  I fear most people are no longer equipped to have serious conversations about sex and sexuality with their own children.  Evidence of this is a commercial for an anti-drug campaign.  A boy comes home to find his dad with a display to talk to him about his surging hormones, the discomfort is abated when the topic switches to talking about drugs instead of sex
It appears talking to our kids about sex is so taboo we would rather do anything else.  Thus we want the schools to do it, but that became classes about plumbing and disease.  The problem is there is another aspect of our culture that revels in sexuality as a sales tool and sign of popularity.  It sells so much that a horribly written fan fiction of Twilight that had a BDSM theme sold a million copies and currently is spawning two movies that we titter about.  So young people who see value given to the child stars they followed coming out of their shell and doing explicit performances like Brittney Spears,  and Miley Cyrus or the fact we have made cultural heroes of people like the Kardashians confuses students when the only learning they are given is to have a teacher emphasize waiting to experience sex until marriage.  (Leaving out the fact that many places some of those kids can still not get married).  We also question young men who pledge virginity but that is a different post.

So what do we do?  I wish I had a magic bullet, no one does.  But what we know is that comprehensive sexuality education from an early age will in fact help make our young people grow into more mature and responsible sexual beings.  Discussions of sex not as a necessary evil but as a much of a pleasure of our existence as anything else; while at the same time discussing the amazing responsibility that comes with being sexually active at any level.  That is what works in other countries including Canada and frankly much of northern Europe.  We can do better.  Perhaps we need comprehensive sexuality education for all of us, at every age.  We can discuss not only how to view our own sexuality but how we pass down needed information and support for the next generation.  I don't know.  But stories like the Texas school are not as rare as we think.  Two decades ago it was suburban Atlanta that caused a firestorm.  Then came the idea of rainbow parties and high school kids playing a scary game on the internet meeting strangers for sex in an online 7 minutes in heaven kind of game.  As a culture we must continue to try to understand the issues of sexuality and the fact that we cannot stop young people, especially with the freedom they have today, from exploring their own growing sexual desires at younger ages.  We must also not assume that saying no is the answer.  Can we get past our own discomfort and find a way to do it?  What do we need to do it? 

 

Friday, February 6, 2015

The President Was Not Wrong

So on Thursday, the President spoke at a National Prayer breakfast.  In the speech he said these words:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

This, of course, sent the right wing crazy, but also several on the left.  They scream that the President was making a moral equivalency between ISIS and Christianity.  They said it was an attack on all Christians.  They said he was ignorant of the Crusades and mentioned that they were efforts to fight Muslims terrorists.  It was quite remarkable.  But what they are missing is the simple fact that the President was right.  The simple fact is that the actions of ISIS are a perversion of Islam that is not unlike perversions of other faith traditions that led to atrocities throughout history and up to very recently.  To paint all of Islam with the brush dipped in the blood shed by ISIS is silly and as silly as holding today’s Christian’s responsible for the Crusades.  But let’s be clear.  Even if you could make the argument that the Crusades were about fighting to take back land in the Middle East considered Holy to the European Christians who went to fight the Arabs there, one cannot explain how the killing of Jews along the way was justifiable and not a Christian mob who saw themselves doing God’s work.  The President is simply pointing out in this speech that we must be cautious of how we see groups like ISIS and how we generalize them to all of Islam, or even argue that Islam somehow supports this kind of brutality. 

But the noise machine and others will have none of it.  They will tell you what the President thought and how he hates Christianity and how he is making an excuse for ISIS.  But that is not the truth.  But truth and the noise machine are not friends.  In fact they conveniently ignore that he brought up civil rights in the equation so that they can so easily dismiss the clear evil that was part of the Crusades or the Inquisition as being over 600 years ago.  But what they won’t address is that it was Christian teaching that led many to not question slavery or even Jim Crowe in our nation’s history.  A history that is troubled and rarely fully addressed.  Funny story, at the same time there were preachers in pulpits saying things like enslaving savage Africans will break their will and they will find salvation, there were many in the pulpit using the same text to condemn the institution of slavery.  And that is what the President was alluding to in his speech.  That religion can be the lever to move people and that is can be manipulated to do evil and justify it as sacred. 

Ta-Nehesi Coates, writing today in The Atlantic says:

Now, Christianity did not "cause" slavery, any more than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.

Mr. Coates points out correctly that the analogy is not only solid, but important to any discussion about religions role in defeating the evil that is ISIS.  Going back to the imagery of the Crusades and frankly the Middle Ages in Christian Europe, it was often Christian leaders who called for mass killings and their followers who would carry it out.  Jews were slaughtered in many places simply for being Jews, this time of year, near Purim and Pesach that almost always coincides with Lent and Easter, priests would rile up crowds to descend on the Jews in a town to punish them simply for a different faith.  It used made up stories of Jews murdering Christian children, known as the blood libel, to make Matzah or Hamantaschen and the murderers truly felt they were making the world better through purging of the infidels in their midst.  Sound familiar? 

But we need not look back 600 years.  Near where I grew up in Massena, NY in 1928, a young girl went missing a few days before Yom Kippur and the city officials were convinced the Jews had ritually sacrificed her.  When it was later discovered that she got lost and fell asleep in the woods (easy to do in the region even today when you get outside of town) people still believed this.  But this blood libel is alive and well today in many places including among the Christians of Poland according to a 2008 study. 

Christian actions and words have led to horrors in the past that can’t simply be ignored while holding all of Islam responsible for the actions of the lunatic death cult called ISIS. 


The President was simply pointing out these Middle East thugs are not a novel invention in human history and we must be careful of how much we draw from their invoking the name of God in their actions.  We can so easily generalize their actions to all Muslims or think that this is the definition of Islam and that somehow that is waiting for us from all Muslim.  So instead of being outraged that the President addressed the issue in a strong way, perhaps you should use this to open up dialogue to address the real issues.  That religion can be used to commit horrors beyond imagine in the name of God, and that this must be stopped.  The best way is to promote freedom and take religion out of the hands of civil authority and to focus on not trying to demonize an entire faith, but understand the struggle that faith is going through as the radical members have created such a powerful profile.  Want to screw with an Islamic radical, invite a Muslim to your seder or your child’s baptism.   Each and every faith evolves as it matures and goes through its own form of enlightenment.  We are living in the time of that struggle in Islam. But what we must understand that while the words are different and the prayers have another language this is not new and that is what the President was saying.  It may be hard to hear, but it will help in the long run to combat the radicals.  But that will only happen if we recognize them for what they are, and that they are not unique in the grand scheme of things. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Life And How to Live It

Yesterday in my hometown there are people gathering to say good-bye to a man who has passed away way too soon.  A woman who graduated high school with me lost her husband at an early age. Her close friends come together to help comfort her as her life changes so drastically.  This tragic death pushed me further to think about the role of death in our lives. I became acquainted with death as a teen when my dad died. When Linda died my entire life was thrown into complete turmoil.   Later I had colleagues and friends pass away and more recently it seems I have entered an age where all of us who grew up together are facing the death of our parents.  While we know death is always there, it shocking.  Death travels with us our entire life, like a an old dog you take with you on a road trip.  Most of the journey it sleeps in the back, we forget it is there until it barks.  Sometimes even causes us to change the direction we are headed.  Death will always interrupt our lives.  How we react to this is the trick.     

As someone who works in a religious setting I get asked on occasion what I and/or Judaism thinks about death and afterlife.  In fact Noah asked me today if I would rather have an eternal but boring afterlife or no afterlife at all.  I didn't respond well because most of the time I answer those questions from the position of an educator. In this case I told him I had been thinking about it a lot lately and I don't have an answer but I am not certain I would want a boring eternity.  

In my work it is easy for me to skirt the bigger philosophical questions about the afterlife by saying that Judaism doesn't speak much about if. Much of Judaism focuses on the now not the next life.   However there is a lot of interesting views of an afterlife in Judaism.  When I talk about them I am teaching, or explaining what tradition teaches, often I repeat the caveat that it is not what I believe, but what our tradition teaches.  You see I don't believe in the afterlife image so common in our western civilization thought.  I can't imagine a heaven and hell that is populated by people for an eternity that is like a glorified and carefree version of life today or constant torment.  There is no way that I am comfortable with a God that would create that situation.  It makes no sense to me and seems to have grown out of a composite of various attempts to understand the meaning of life that often ended so abruptly and arbitrarily.  However there is comfort in knowing or believing that those we love continue on after they no longer walk the earth.  This too I find troubling but there are ways of knowing that what was important about the person does live on.  Those we loved live on in our memory and the stories we tell give them a sense of continued life.  All they taught us and gave us when alive is still there and is manifest when we use their knowledge and wisdom in our own lives. Just the other day I made my mother's Red Cabbage dish and for me I felt her presence in the meal.   That, of course, is what is important.  How those who are gone do continue to live with us, in the actions we take they have influenced, through the lessons they taught us that we pass on and by the vision they had for the world that we continue to help make happen.  

Ultimately we will all grieve in our own way and we will all deal with loss in our own time.  But while we may struggle with the what if of the world beyond there is one thing I know for sure.  Everyone who touched me in life who have left this world continues to live on in memory and how they have influenced my life choices.  They live on in me.  I also believe  the greatest tribute we can give those who have gone is to live life fully and carry their memory and essence with us.  I am sure I will continue to struggle with these tough questions.  I am not sure if I ever will come to grips with it.  

To those reading this in mourning, may you be fully comforted and I hope one day these words will have meaning for you.    




Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Saying Goodbye to 2014

So tonight we say good-bye to 2014 and as we look back while the details are different the landscape is the same as usual.  There were some big highs and several lows.  Personally I clicked off a few more of my bucket list items.  Dianne and I found ways to find ways to create new experiences together as a couple.  I saw both coasts this year and spent time with old friends I don't see often enough.

This year saw some great moments.  Not a few friends were able to legally marry, a right that was blocked by law for them until this year.  I saw the world come together to turn a stupid challenge into a windfall for those combating the horrible syndrome of ALS.  Despite the horrible catalyst of a brutal video of an NFL player punching his fiance out the country is having a serious conversation about domestic violence.  Oh and the NFL moved into new territory by drafting an openly gay player.

We also saw low points.  The rise of ISIS, a terrible summer for Israel kicked off by the murder of a three teen-agers, riots in towns after the death of young black men at the hands of police and of course both the tragedy of Ebola and the irrational fear around it.

As all years we had a little of everything. What is important is that we try to make the next better by fixing what we can, moving on from what we can't, and acknowledging what we have.  As we say good-bye I will take note of the fact that I have a wonderful family, a smart and growing young man for a son and wonderful wife who not only loves me but gets me.  I have friends who span the globe both in location and ideology.  I have a great job, wonderful if changing colleagues, and a stronger support of fellow educators than ever before.  In the new year I turn 50 as does Dianne and Noah heads off to  college.  It will be a year of transitions.  So raising a glass to 2015.  May it bring all the joys you want and none of the travails you don't need.  May you go from strength to strength.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays

So I have Christmas off and even though I don't celebrate it I enjoy the way the world slows down.  So I spent a lot of time today doing little and thinking a lot about the holiday season. This can be a frustrating time of year.  It is not the overwhelming tinsel bombing of the country, but that is a symptom of the situation I struggle with in this context.    You see most of my Christian friends are honoring and respectful of people who don't celebrate Christmas and are knowledgeable or inquisitive about that and other Jewish holidays.  So when I see something like this I shake my head and wonder:

Bud Williams, a city councilor in Springfield, Massachusetts, attended a menorah lighting ceremony with prominent Jewish community leaders. When it was his turn to speak, he lectured the group about how important Jesus was to the holiday season. According to Williams’ shaky logic, Jesus is the reason for the season – even the Hanukkah season.


Seriously, WTF?  Why would anyone say this?  Hanukkah has nothing to do with Jesus and in fact the story of Hanukkah takes place almost 200 years before Jesus is born.  Now I know that for some it is hard to understand a holiday that last year started on Thanksgiving eve and this year ended on Christmas eve.  But this is just nonsense.  Why are there some people who feel the need to impose their own religious ideology on everyone.  

Each year Fox News brings up the War on Christmas.  One of the main themes of this is that some stores do not say "Merry Christmas" but do in fact say "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holiday" are somehow destroying the holiday.  What is actually happening and what Mr. Williams didn't understand is that our culture is changing.  More and more people who were invisible by design are getting a chance to be noticed.  This seems to disturb so many and I think that part is that they feel their superior position is slipping.  When others are get a place at the table, those who have been there forever can't spread out as much.  That is not a bad thing.  But people do feel hurt.  What I wonder about is how weak their faith in their faith, themselves and their tradition must be to not allow others to express themselves in public.  Especially when we think of a holiday like Hanukkah, a holiday that some see as a holiday about religious freedom. 

I have friends from many different faith traditions and they hold their faith deeply.  I can't imagine any of them denying someone an expression of their faith or trying to step on it with a trite cliche as this guy did.  

So as Christmas day winds down and the season will soon be in the rearview mirror I hope everyone continues to grow in their faith and in that growth find room to allow others to do the same in the New Year.  I hope that people will embrace the growing expressions of the diversity that has always been part of our country and not feel threatened by it.  I hope that when next year at this time when someone says "Season's Greetings" it doesn't become an opportunity for a boycott but the kind thought that it is.  Oh and I also hope that when we all share who we really are with others we can get the best out of us all.  

Happy holidays to all now and throughout the year.  Whatever holiday feeds your soul.