Reminders from “Selma”

It has been a long time since I was at seminary and a long time since I had a congregation to lead, which required spiritual time and Bible study, so sometimes these things fade into the distant haze of my brain and heart, and every once in awhile something reminds me of the things I believe — a movie, a song, a friend, a hug, a picture — and I feel more like the person I want to be.  The family and I saw “Selma” tonight and it brought back some basics for me — as well as some new lessons.

The new, first: 1) People put their lives on the line when they want their rights non-violently. They must be scared out of their mind doing it.

The fact that they do it anyway ,means they are a) brave, b) honorable and c) full of dignity. They should be recognized as such. I have been to protests, but have never faced clubs. I have seen friends hit with a club by police, but — ironically — not at a protest, but at bar in L.A. Because I have seen Andrew Young, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, I have seen people I am in awe of as an adult, Yes, I have seen Dr. King on TV as a child, and have been in awe. That awe was always from the outside, seeing them do their thing or talk about it. The movie “Selma” shows it from their perspective and so the fear they must have experienced became evident.

2) The Voting Rights Act’s recent gutting needs to be fixed. I knew vaguely about poll taxes and increased requirements for registering. The ripple effects they talked about in the movie were new to me. Then again, I don’t spend my days thinking up ways to oppress people.

Now, the old:

1) It is important that human beings are brave and stand up for themselves and others. — it brings out the best in them. It is the job of parents and clergy and helping professionals to teach children to believe in themselves and be brave living everyday life. The quote by Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” is both true and horrible.

2) Religion is not meant to oppress. Religion is meant to worship God. God is good. Religion that worships God does good for the world. Any religion that doesn’t make the world a better place, as is God’s intention, is not a religion worth having or practicing, and is certainly not a true religion.

3) God likes justice. Faith and love and justice are not mutually exclusive. God calls us to be our best selves — and even better. God knows what our best selves are and we don’t. We just guess at it and aim in that direction.

4) Black lives matter because all life matters. Black lives are a part of humanity — a humanity that the Spirit endows with life. They are not better or worse. They are simply lives. But “simple” in this case is also “holy”. They ought not to be taken lightly.

5) Good is good. We know it when we see it. Bad is bad. We know it when we see it, Being a faithful Christian is often like standing in the middle of the road — you get hit by cars going both ways. Still, it is the best way to be.

6) Contrary to what many of my liberal friends and my conservative enemies believe, violence never solved anything. Conservatives are not enemies because they are conservative, but people who are way off the conservative deep end  tend to believe in violence — and ignorance. Off-the-deep-end liberals tend to be educated and violent. They are still wrong, but they are smart and I like that better. Of course, I could be wrong about that.

Peace,

John

What I Learned in 2014

Overall, 2014 was the best year of my life so far. I love my work life, my home life, my friends, my religious life. Besides that, I’m bowling again.

Work — I was right. I can have a maintainable private practice, though it will be scary sometimes.
Blogging — Racism is worse than I could have imagined — specifically in California. As far back as 1989, reporter Gary Webb found that the California Highway Patrol used racial profiling as a method, and some officers went so far as to teach seminars on how to do it, but to make the paperwork seem like you weren’t. Also, Ferguson, MO will not be getting any of my tourism money. (From the book, “Kill the Messenger”, a biography of reporter Gary Webb)

I continue to like writing. As usual, I’d like to thank Cathi Chapin-Bishop and Liz Solomon Wright for helping me get started. Thanks to Larry Baker for all the books! Now that’s a good writer. Topics I’ve been considering: “Beware the Quiet Ones” — ministry and faith of three friends and “In Praise of Old Ladies” — about past-generation church women. I’d like to do an actual interview this year, just to see if I can.
Regular Life — As the father of two teenage daughters, I can assure you that there’s a LOT of lousy music out there When we listen to my oldest daughter’s favorite radio station (usually on the way to church), I am repulsed by the music and lyrical content of popular music. My daughters need to know even more about sex like they need holes in their heads. Lately, though, there’s been some really good music out there . Taylor Swift’s new album is great. I also like “Safe and Sound”, “The Best Day of My Life”, and “Pompeii” by Bastille. I have some hope that we haven’t ruined music forever.

Depression is not reality. It only seems that way.

Marriage is a good thing, once you get used to it. My marriage brings so much to my life. It’s as comfortable and normal as breathing now. I have amazing children. Thanks to the many adults who have helped them become that. Most notably, thank you to the Chancel Choir at South Church, in New Britain and their director, Richard Coffey, for helping my older daughter find her potential as a confident singer. Her self-esteem is growing because of your support. Patti, Laura, Anthony, and everyone who has said good things about her to me or my wife: it has made a difference. My younger daughter is enthralled by Camp Wightman and the people there, including Lisa . She finds great fulfillment through it. The staff of the West Hartford Library also bring out the best in her. I must have chosen wisely. All my Boston peeps: My daughters can identify Aretha Franklin’s voice on a CD. “Of course that’s Aretha”, they say. Again, I must be doing something right.
As much as Facebook makes me feel connected to my friends, I am reminded how much I miss seeing them in person, no matter where they are: California, New York State, Boston, Bridgeport. Cathi: ditto.
I was thrilled to be invited and, and to attend, Bennyta’s wedding to Mr. Thompson. It was everything she deserved in a service. I know Gerri was proud.

I’m getting to be middle aged, My former Youth Group friends have children graduating from High School. I don’t feel old, though (except in my bones). Therefore, I must be middle aged. I like being middle aged. Shout out to Julie Barr for her good thoughts. Amy and Becky: nurses are great. Derek, you’re a good father.

The Train Trip — The Grand Canyon is beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Glacier National Park is about out of glaciers. This is not good, for so many reasons. The Northwest of our country is incredible — not just on the coast. Colorado, the Dakotas, Washington State and Oregon are also majestic.

My friends see the best in my daughters and my daughters see the best in my friends. Craig and Frances Hames, Ron Bottitta, Liz Solomon Wright, (people they have never met before) and my father, David Bibeau have all had my children in hysterics or awe or both this year — and they did so immediately.

Ministry —
I am not multi-faith, at least in practice. I can stretch a lot, but there’s a lot I don’t know.

I actually did a LOT of ministry this year. Thanks to Tamara Moreland and CT UCC staff.
Todd, Martha, and Karen: Your hugs feel good. Thanks. Peter: It was one of the thrills of my life to have lunch as adults and equals.

To the entire staff of CYC: it was an incredible blessing to be there. It reminded me just how active God is in my life. I still haven’t figured out the “start a new camp thing” yet. Maybe someday.
Though a copy is never as good as the original, I like being the “Gordon” person for others. Deering friends continue to bless me. Bob, Derek, Rob and Val — Thanks for coming to the Ordination party!
Char, Carol, and Emily — I continue to be proud. George — nice book group! Michelle continues to do impressive ministry in Haddam Neck.

Happy Returns —

People I didn’t expect to have in my (at least Facebook) life have returned — Joyce Morin and Jeff Brown from seminary, Margo Walker from L.A., and a whole truckload of family from all over the place — Paul, Jessica, Anna, various Rheaumes, and Bibeaus. Thanks to all of them.
Face-to-face, all of my friends in L.A. In Texas, Liz. Especially excellent: Alan Bercovici and St. Cecilia’s bowling league.

What does 2015 hold? As usual, I don’t have a clue. I somehow missed the “omniscience” classes at seminary. At this point, I look forward to it, and give thanks for 2014.

Peace,

John

Sin Is The Problem — That’s the Cure? (for Julie)

My friend Julie LaBarr asked me to write something Christmas-y and I had been hoping to write an upbeat piece for awhile, without leaving the world of troubling race issues permanently, but as I explained to her, “stuff keeps happening”. It’s been a difficult second half of 2014, with all of the death and mayhem in the streets this summer, followed by the quiet “death and mayhem” of the courts, and the resulting “death and mayhem” which followed. All of these things keep happening, and they are big things.
It’s easy to lose perspective, but the little things keep happening, too. The sun comes up, the sun goes down — every day. Kids go to football games and later proms, and graduate. People move and meet new friends. People adopt dogs or cats. People fall in love and get married. In nature, the food supply still supplies. In New England, we have Autumn and the colors of the seasons. All of these give us hope, or comfort in the midst of a mad world — both mad as in “angry” and mad as in “insane”. For the brief minutes or hours that we do these things, we lose perspective on the big things and regain our perspective on the small things — the things which really matter…
And then, there’s babies. Babies seem to rebuke the death and mayhem of the Big World simply by their existence. A child is born into the world and the world of its parents stops. Facebook now lights up with pictures of Billy or Sue while the mother is pregnant, just after birth, when the child says their first word or walks or even potty trains. Nuclear war? Yeah, but my kid just said “Da-Da” or “Ma-Ma”!
In the old days, though, it was the same way. We took pictures or passed out cigars or had baby showers or had the relatives fly out all, all because a child was born. My children witnessed the birth of a calf this year and were in awe. There is something about the promise of new life — any new life — that makes us feel good. When it is our own children, it is incredible. Even my female clients, with their drug-addled lives and trauma histories are changed by the birth of a child. Maybe for an hour or maybe for a day, they are hopeful and strong for the baby. Sometimes, that hope and protectiveness — love in two of its forms — lasts forever and they get their lives together, for the sake of that child. Marriages often stay together “for the sake of the children” and — while this isn’t always a good thing — people also work on their troubled marriages and things get better for the sake of their children. Besides, it’s really hard to see your child and not believe that you were at least once in love with your partner.

Deny it all you want, this is — for a period of time — our reality. It’s a lot to put on a kid, but it is where we find hope, and innocence, and warmth– at first, within the placenta, then amidst the poop and pee and snot. A woman in my wife’s parish gave birth recently and my girls (who hadn’t even seen the baby yet) were screaming with joy, alternating with “awwwwww” and “what’s it’s name and how big is it?!”. The kid hasn’t even done anything yet, and they have changed our lives.
Christians take this reality seriously — really seriously — at Christmas. This child, in a stable, surrounded by animals and the stinky shepherds who watched them is an archetype of all that is good and possible in the world. In our mind, the baby doesn’t cry or poop, it just radiates goodness. It is, in a word, innocent. And if we say this about our own kids whom we know, then we really say it about Jesus whom we dream about, put our hopes on, and worship on Christmas.
When we are at our own children’s birth, if there’s sin (and that’s a big “if”) in the child, nobody sees it. There is only joy, and love, and excitement. Multiply that exponentially and you have Jesus’ innocence. People also respond with joy, and love, and excitement, because they remember, in the core of their being, innocence and they respond. The archetype of “innocence” is hard-wired into our brain and we know its reality deep in our souls. But, we as adults know all too well the reality of our world. Who in the world would want to bring a child into this?
With all the options out there to prevent pregnancy, why would anyone choose to raise a child in this going-to-heck-in-a-handbasket world? And yet we do.
The general consensus around here is that the world is getting worse in its depravity, indifference, and cruelty to each other. Childbirth and the possible re-birth of innocence in our lives is the greatest rebellion against the world that is imaginable. Hope, love, and innocence are genuine defiance to our depression, our fear, our violence.
The baby Jesus was born in the politically oppressed community of Israel, occupied by the Romans, and yet he didn’t hate any of the people around him. Our own children may grow up in poverty, surrounded by hatred, racism, and all sorts of political oppression. But at the moment of birth, they don’t hate anyone either. In Jesus’ case, he didn’t learn hate either and he didn’t teach hate either. The rest of us human beings somehow do.
Still, at the moment of birth, no one I know imagines that they’re raising another soldier for hate. The future is not written yet, and the promise that this child — despite all odds — will be the one to fix the world, will at least make it a better place — opens up all sorts of possibilities in the child, but also in us. The child’s innocence draws out the innocence, the hope, the possibilities in us.
We are reminded that that innocence, that hope, that possibility lives in us in the present tense. We could be cynical, but at that moment, we forget all of that. We remember that there are other choices of how to live, because we experience other choices. In that moment, we embody the hope of the world as much as the baby does. Our perspective changes for the better. That is what Christmas is about.
Amidst the family dysfunction, the political dysfunction, the chaos and so on of the holidays — including loss of loved ones for some of us — we become more than functional inside ourselves and it shows outside of us. That’s why the day of Christmas is generally so peaceful.
We Christians like to speak of Jesus’ saving us on the cross of Good Friday and Easter, but here on Christmas we are changed in a real, palpable way. Besides that, any day a child is born to anyone, they are changed in a palpable way. This is why non-Christians, on-again-off-again Christians, even people with no faith at all, can celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday.
May we each find, remember, treasure and nurture the innocence, hope, possibilities remembered at the birth of this particular baby, and may we practice it all with the birth of our children.

Peace,

John

An Open Letter of Apology to My African-American Friends

My God, this is horrible. After recent events, and as a follower of Jesus, I feel like a disciple at the cross today, watching a friend die, or living with the possibility that they might. The last time I felt like this was when I thought of my daughters on the day of the Newtown shooting. They weren’t shot that day, but what if they were? My life would never be the same and I would be upset until the day I died.

My White brothers and sisters don’t hear of your plight because they don’t know you and our media never tells your stories in any sort of way that seems moral or spiritual or decent people.

I, however, am different. People may not know it now, but nearly 20 years ago I was the only White clergy person in the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance — the ostensibly Black Clergy group. I helped bring an African-American church into our church’s building, and met my wonderful friends, the Claytors — Benny and Gerri and their daughters. I was the chair of my local denomination Committee on Racism. I led a suburban/urban camp for the CT Conference UCC, and — in one of the proudest moments of my life, at the behest of some congregants, was acknowledged for my work with diverse communities in Bridgeport by the CT State Senate.

I should be proud of all of this, and I am. But today it is also the cause of my shame. All of this is speaks to how much I knew about your situation….Yet, here we are nearly 20 years later, and you are dying. I can’t imagine a worse fate for either of us, but mostly for you.

Ferguson is just the start. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, we have heard more and more and more and more stories of policemen and African-American men getting killed which give testimony to the African-American condition in this country. In the wake of Trayvon Martin, I have heard about an African-American woman who was standing her ground against her violent man and the law that got George Zimmerman off didn’t apply to her. The list goes on.

This last thing, though, kills me emotionally. In Ferguson, the Grand Jury was given the WRONG burden of proof to determine Darren Wilson’ s guilt. The Grand Jury heard from the defendant, which is not supposed to happen. The officer involved went home with the evidence. His superiors talked to him for hours privately. His gun was washed off! The police militarized and attacked non-violent demonstrators — all to protect the man they feel killed Michael Brown. Darren Wilson is a problem, no doubt, but he is by no means the only one. The ADA, the clerks, the lawyers, the police, the National Guard ALL conspired to prevent justice from happening.

As the stories come of 12 year old being shot by police and a man who — after being beaten by police was charged with destruction of property because he BLED ON the uniforms of those who beat him, after those stories become more and more frequent, somehow I — who knew how bad things had been — had forgotten to watch after you. I had been led into a false sense of security while places like Ferguson, MO existed.

I was aware of concepts like systemic racism which are vague and require proof to the White community. But I was also aware of the harsh realities of my African-American friends, brothers and sisters. But, somehow, if someone had told me that whole communities like Ferguson still exist in America in 2014, I would not have believed it.

But here we are and I am shocked. You are dying because of our sins. You are dying because slowly we stripped away your rights and your growth and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything when the clerk in the grocery store or the bus driver gave you a dirty look. I didn’t say anything when someone told a racist joke, or portrayed President Obama as a monkey or… or … The list went on.

Now, if anything happened to my friend Greg or Margo or Gerri or Bennyta or any of the Black clergy in Bridgeport or anywhere else, it would be as if someone shot my daughter or my wife in a senseless tragedy that I should have seen coming.

But, while racism has put you on the cross because of our sin, I am aware that God will not let this stand. God and the Christian community can and should redeem the whole country, perhaps world, in the face of such tragedy. It has happened before and it can happen again. We can learn from the unnecessary death of Innocents who are confused with the guilty. We can learn from what seems like a summer of slaughter and we can say something about the stray look or the angry man with a gun or the police academy cadets who think it’s good to be aggressive. We can protest the mayor or council person who makes what they think is a cute racist remark . In short, we can repent.

A lot of us out there think that “repentance” means saying you’re sorry. It means more than that, though it’s a good start. The Hebrew word for “repent” is “shoov”, which means “turn around, go back” and it means return to the way it’s supposed to be with God and each other. THAT is what I want us to do today. But as one of my 12-step friends says, “if you walked 10 miles into the woods, you now have to walk 10 miles OUT of the woods.

It has been far too long that we as a nation have been walking into the woods. It is time to turn around, it is time to “shoov”, it is time to repent. It is time for us to travel TOWARD the dream of one of AMERICA’S greatest men ever, Martin Luther King, Jr, rather than away from it .

I, for one, pledge to try to keep my eye on the sparrow and keep walking out of this weird place we’re at in this country when we know better. I knew better. I should have paid attention. We all should have. But never again, brothers and sisters. Never again.

If any of my Black friends around the country were to die because of the way are in this country — for driving while Black or walking while Black or shopping while Black — I would grieve for the rest of my life because they were my FRIENDS. But at least I’d know I was walking in the right direction. For now, all I’ve got is “I’m sorry” . It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Peace,

John

Trouble in Ferguson City? I’m Shocked. Shocked I Am.

I’m not sure there could be more bizarre news in America than the news that Lawrence O’Donnell reported the other night — that the Assistant District Attorney read the wrong law to the Grand Jury as the standard by which they were supposed to measure things. The law that she showed them said that “legitimate force” includes shooting a suspect from behind if they are fleeing. That particular version of the law was written years before and found unconstitutional. Would they have found him guilty on the other standard? We will never know.
That right — and the right to justice for the family — was removed right then. I don’t know much about law, but isn’t it unethical or unprofessional to give the Grand Jury the wrong instructions? That woman should be fired. Whether she is or not doesn’t matter. Michael Brown’s family will never get justice.

OK, as if that’s not bizarre enough, there are reports that Darren Wilson left the scene with evidence, washed off his gun, and came back? Then the fact that no less than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weighted in on the case and said the Grand Jury did what Grand Juries are supposed to not do — try the case. Then, Officer Wilson got to testify before the Grand Jury? That his superiors spent time with evidence? That another policeman didn’t take notes of an interview? Does anyone else hear “systemic coverup”?

I want to believe in the system. I want to believe that the right people did the right things and the right verdict came out — whatever that is. But that is not what happened. What happened is that the wrong people asked the wrong people to do the wrong thing and come up with a correct answer. They did what they were told to do, and not surprisingly, they came up with an answer that had nothing to do with justice. There are two choices here: 1) The authorities didn’t know it was wrong, and are thus incompetent or 2) the authorities knew what they were doing, and did it intentionally, in which case they are corrupt.

Because there are so many parts to this, actual justice — or at least the justice that White people normally get — won’t happen. Once again, African-Americans live in a parallel universe, segregated from the rights promised them by the Constitution.

Make no mistake, there is method to the madness. In my work as a therapist, I have come to realize that when people are stuck fighting about reality nothing can change, and nothingwill.

Whether a bi-product of, or an actual intended consequence, this is what happens. Michael Brown’s death is a loss in the war that is the quest for racial justice/equality. We will continue to remain stuck if we continue to argue about the reality of his case. Ferguson must become a lost skirmish for now. It may need to become a sidetrack that we can return to at a later date.

In the meantime, we need to get back to learning how these things happen. Then we need to do something different. We must look in the nooks and crannies of hiring and election and diversity and how we treat each other and how and why we give respect and authority. Mostly we need to look in our hearts, and teach others to do the same.

THIS just isn’t working.

Peace,

John

Conflict Resolution and Ferguson — The Good News

As a therapist, I can tell when a couple is doing well and when they are not. When both people act like jerks to each other and say, “We’re great”, I can see that they are not. When both people act lovingly and say “we’re great”, I can agree that they are.

When both parties get angry and let it all out, I see that change is in the air, because all of the real issues are out on the table, all of the false impressions and the true ones are on the table. Misunderstandings come to light and people can find a common language to describe what’s real. Does this always work? Well, to be honest, divorces still happen because once the work becomes clear, some people think it’s too much work to do.

But, more often than not, going from cold rage to warm passion is a good thing and it can lead to good make-up relations in the short-term and — if the work is done, a healthy relationship in the future.

This is what Ferguson has done. We have gone from a cold disrespect and rage to a hot expression of serious anger. “The truth shall set you free, but first it’ll make you miserable”. By the time this is over, we will have been through plenty of misery. But the anger will subside because there’s only so much of Ferguson to burn down and so much anger to go around. NOTE: I am not saying that violence is ever the answer. There are better ways to express anger and it’s easier if it’s done sooner rather than later. But here we are, and violence has already happened and will continue until it doesn’t anymore.

But, after this, White America can never say that they don’t know what Black America thinks or how upset they are. As my friends and I pour through all of this, we define and redefine our words. On this blog alone, we have differentiated between “race hatred“, “racism”, and “systemic racism”. We’re not throwing names at each other, we’re clarifying our version of reality. Black America probably already knows what White America thinks of it, but as both Sean and Bob point out, it’s not as cut-and-dry as that. I hopefully shed light on that thought as well.

Sean wants rationality and I don’t blame him for wanting that. I do, too. I think Bob does, as well. The difference is that I don’t expect rationality from people when there’s this much rage, and I’m aware that there is. So, let this thing burn itself out. It will. At some point, when there’s only cooler heads left, we can understand each other and correct our behavior according to what the other needs, even if we don’t “get it” on a gut level.

Police and administration in Ferguson can see what they did wrong, and what they did right. Protesters can see what they did wrong and what they did right. People will learn what “buttons” not to push, and what kinds of things just appear stupidly horrendous to the other, so as to avoid them. There are good people on the ground in Ferguson — among others, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, I am told. Nobody likes their city being burned to the ground because it is, after all, their city. A client recently told me that “anger is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will get sick”. Once people realize they are getting sick due to their anger, the chance for real healing exists.

I, for one, am willing to do the work, and I believe my friends are, as well.

Peace,

John