The Other Beautiful America

I have always loved what America has the ideals to be.  As my friend Jen apparently knows as a history teacher, those ideals can be found somewhere between the Magna Carta, The Plymouth Covenant, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Constitution — each laid claim to in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech and his understanding of “the Beloved Community”. Since King, there have been moves toward equality of the sexes, and President Obama’s decision to support gay marriage, as a new generation stakes its claim to America. So much of this is under threat with the current administration, but the ideals of the country still hold in many places among people who care for each other, who still believe that human beings have dignity and worth, that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

“Seek first the community where God reigns” — my paraphrase of Matthew 6:33

As of this week, my blogs  “Like It Matters”  and “Because It Matters” have reached a combined 20,000 hits so I want to celebrate those people who make up the America I believe in . 

This should in no way diminish the incredible natural beauty of America — the one of song and story. Having toured America and  written about it in the blogs, I can tell you that the Grand Canyon is a miracle of nature and there is so much more which reminds you that no human being could keep up with God’s creativity. Yes, the natural beauty is also threatened by the current administration, but everybody talks about that. This blog began out of frustration that I wasn’t hearing opinions or stories I could relate to. I was astounded after writing the very first blog that other people shared my opinion. I had begun to believe that good religious people and liberals no longer existed. They do. This blog has become about them and their stories, their thoughts, for all 20,000 hits. 

So, enough about me. Let’s talk about the other beautiful America.

Every church in America — if it talks about Jesus — has the right intent. Nobody starts a church with the intention of hurting people. If it takes Jesus seriously, however, it is part of the beloved community that makes the world –via the people around it– better off. Most every church in the UCC and liberal Protestant denominations believes in kindness and taking care of each other — until recently the norm, now radical concepts.

When I want to listen instead of talk, the Society of Friends (Quakers) is where I go to be filled.

Certainly, without a doubt, all of the clergy or ministerial types mentioned in these pages do that. People with specific stories here (or mentioned) include:

Gordon Sherman and Cy Sherman, Rick Fowler, John Hudson, Jeff Brown, Pat Speer, Lynn Carman Bodden and her husband Peter, Char Corbett and her sister Sioux Wilusz, Greg Coles, David Ratz, George Harris, the late Prophetess Gerry Claytor and her late husband, Rev. Benny Claytor, their daughters, Kim and Bennyta (now called “Bee”), Caroll Cyr  and the staff of Silver Lake, Cat Chapin-Bishop and her husband Peter, Peter Wells, my wife Michelle Madsen-Bibeau, Todd Farnsworth, Linda Lea Snyder, Lisabeth Gustafsen, Ken Ferguson, the entire staff of CYC Senior High camp, and Camp Wightman, staff and campers from the now defunct Deering Camp and Conference Center, the late Newt Perrins and his still very  alive wife, Val and the staff of Skye Farm. The late Charlie Crook .

While I like them doing “charity” work, my friend Pat Speer (covered in a blog) and his organization Christian Activity Council believes the church is called to push for justice, so that churches don’t need to do charity. Until Jesus returns, I’m ok with both.

********************************

“People are people, so why should it be, that you and I should get along so awfully?” — Depeche Mode

(thoughts on beautifully American groups…)

There’s a group of people I grow to respect more and more in this country, precisely because they have no reason to be kind, but do it anyway: the LGBTQ community. A few weeks ago, a lesbian saved the life of a Senator in Washington. She’s married. He doesn’t believe in gay marriage. If it were up to him, she’d have a much harder life. When it was up to her, he got to keep his life. She could have forgotten how to use her gun, or lost her way to the Senator’s location, but she didn’t because it would be a dereliction of duty and apparently out of character for her. After this event, she could go home and look at herself in the mirror. Could he?  Of course, not all gay people are like her  and not all Senators are like him, of course. It’s just that there’s no reason for either of their behaviors and she did the Jesus-type thing.

I make the case also, because I know my friend Leigh McCaffrey — an ordained minister in the UCC and a lesbian herself. She lives near Orlando, Florida and when a hateful man from another religion killed a room full of gay folks, that community came together. They didn’t go Muslim-blaming. They didn’t flip out about terrorism, they didn’t attack back. They came together, became tighter, supported each other, celebrated life and grieved the loss. Given that there still many place where Leigh and her partner Sue can’t go, for fear of death, that seems incredible to me. Still, Leigh knows Jesus personally, so I shouldn’t be surprised. I just am.

In these pages, I have talked about Patty Bucchieri, whom I called “the nice lesbian” because she was, and is, good to our children. In our church, there are lots of nice gay folk. Patty is just so kind and a good Christian, I wanted to highlight her . In these pages, there are also in-the-closet gay folks covered — but of course, I can’t say who they are, just that they changed my life.

NAACP, Bridgeport’s IMA, Black Lives Matter, Jeff Brown’s ministry of peacemaking in Boston, Bridgeport Food Pantry, The Geraldine Claytor Magnet School in Bridgeport, CT, Boys and Girls Clubs of Rochester, NY, Beyond The Moment

I’m old. I like old causes, obvious causes, things that make sense to me. Race relations makes sense to me. Promoting harmony and rights for some of the coolest people I know makes sense to me. It seems like many of my friends have moved on to new causes, but this one still remains  unfinished. We ended the war. We’ve had the sexual revolution. We have had the equal rights movement, but pretty much racism has gone unchanged in this country. Yes, the women’s movement has lost ground for years. Yes, it seems that every single good thing is being threatened by this administration. But somehow, after the Civil Rights movement and MLK’s death, everybody else realized they could get their rights, and the fight against racism went untouched by the White community. Like the last case of smallpox, it came roaring back stronger than ever over the last few years , as some pockets of America want to go back to straight-out oppressing Black folks. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to finish one project before I move on to the next one so I have tried to write blogs about racism and racist violence whenever it happens. I now write prayers at night because it took too much out of me to write and grieve that much — sometimes 3 times in a day. There is so much to treasure about Black culture (No, I still don’t like most rap, or dance songs that are only about sex, but my kids do) that I hate to lose it. The groups above or individuals, like the rest of beautiful America, cares when it’s hard and still talks to White culture even though the abuses of that culture should have had us written off years ago.

That said, there are other organizations that make the world better and deal with some of the issues: The Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, N.O.W., People For The American Way and National Coalition Builders Institute in Washington, D.C.

Some organizations making the world better every day aren’t run by anybody, or anybody you’d know: Alcoholics Anonymous and every other 12-Step group in the world is an incredible gift to humanity.  You can change your life, find meaning, and be a part of change for free at these places.

In the same vein, there is Celebrate Recovery that my friend Dave Ratz (mentioned in blog years ago) ran a local chapter of in New Britain, CT. Also a fine group, the religion piece of it might be off-putting to some and life-saving to others. In New Britain, at 500 Main St., there is an offshoot  of CR called Recapture Healing and run by Marie Bachand.

Jean Milo is now a big mucky-muck with Save The Children.

Organizations don’t have to be big to do good things. Cunningham Tire in N. Reading, Massachusetts, will balance and install tires for free. Bob and Derek are brothers who want to help motorists for free. They consider it a ministry, and it is. They are great guys.

I know I have already discussed churches, but under groups, I want to acknowledge the no-longer kids of Center Church Lynnfield, MA, Union Congregational in Hall, NY, and Mountain Rise UCC who have grown up to make the world better in so many ways. I remain in awe of them for the kindness and intelligence they share in the world.

Also covered in a blog: Ability+ Sports who get people with any number of disabilities to the slopes in Vermont and do incredible work creating spiritually/emotionally whole people who are better skiers than I am.

Finally, I have decided recently to get involved with “food justice” issues. Who could be against people eating? Let’s not go there…. Who is for people eating? WhyHunger, started by the late musician Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres, its mission is to end hunger, by connecting up with grassroots folks all over America. They do incredible work and their monthly newsletter is full of agencies and organization that connect to the cause. Literate and intelligent and caring all in one organization.

***** healers and helpers *****

“There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul” — hymn

America is full of teachers,therapists, social workers, nurses, doctors who help people every single day. This became apparent especially after a Deering Reunion where people talked about what they had done with their lives since camp. Shout outs to:

Dawn Cunningham in Massachusetts is a great school teacher. Liz Solomon Wright is a college professor in Texas. My friend Cat Chapin-Bishop won the non-existent  “Mary Lou Brewer Award” for teaching in these pages, honoring both Cat and Mary Lou, ML is my favorite teacher of all time.  Barbara “Bobbie” Fox at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT is a teacher of healers. All of the staff at Charter Oak Elementary, Sedgwick Middle School, and Conard High School have taught my daughters to be fine citizens. Pam Shuman is a psychiatrist and teacher at Brown University (or was).

My former sister-in-law Marlene Sanford has worked with the developmental delayed for 20+ years.

My mother, Donna Rae Zoller Bibeau, was –and wanted to be — a nurse for most of her life. Deb Bercovici is a nurse. Maryanne Maccullagh is a chaplain to nurses … and patients. Karen Ross Gardener Gatchell has been a nurse for years.

The staffs of River Valley Counseling in Chicopee, MA, Petaluma People’s Service Center in Petaluma, CA, South Bay Mental Health in Attleboro MA, BHN in Springfield, MA and the staff of the Institute for Living in Hartford, CT ( at this age, I’m old enough to have worked at most of them) help clean up the messes life inflicts.

The Virginia Satir Global Network is, for me, the mother lode of all good things in family therapy and systems theory.

****** Arts and Artists**********

“Paint a pretty smile each day./loving is a blessing/never let it fade away/it’s all about love” — from “All About Love” by Earth, Wind, and Fire

“If I had a hammer/I’d hammer in the morning” — Pete Seeger

In the blog, I have featured/reviewed many an artist’s work.

MIchelle Beebs is one of the kindest people I know. She has an incredible ear for music. Both solo and with her band, the Money Makers, they are enlightened indiduals who kick butt as a tight-knit group with a groove.

Joan Osborne has a musical dexterity and a love of the world of roots music I admire. I have yet to pick up her new CD tribute to Bob Dylan, but I will.

Chapin, Chapin, Chapin…. The late Harry Chapin is one of my heroes. I have had the absolute pleasure to interview Jen Chapin, whom I admire in so many ways. The Chapin Family, The Chapin Sisters, Tom and Steve Chapin, the Jen Chapin Trio, Howie Fields, and Big John Wallace have all been positively reviewed here.

The Blues Brothers changed my life.

Larry Baker is a great author.

Ron Bottitta is involved with 99-seat theaters in L.A. And does good, provocative work with Rant and Rave out there.

Comic book and comic book movies show us the best in ourselves. The most recent one, Wonder Woman, is incredible.

TV show “Chuck” is a great show about kind people thrown into a very unkind world of danger.

This is the America I know, the beautiful human America. There isn’t a militarist or a corporation or Russian spies among them. They are just people with a belief in a just and kind world. And these are just the people I know or know of. No doubt, reader, you know people just like these. On this 4th of July, 2017 acknowledge and celebrate this beautiful America. Feel free to add organizations or people who also in the comments section. If any of it has typos or you’d rather not have it included, let me know that as well. 

Resisting with Peace,
John



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The Foundation of Justice: Fairness and “Equal Justice Under The Law”

This one has bothered me for awhile and it gets back to the very foundation of democracy. We have at least two systems of justice in this country. Until about two years ago, I believed that Justice was blind, because that’s the only way the world made sense. It’s still the only way that makes sense morally, but it is not the way the system operates, and thus the world makes no sense. When the justice system doesn’t operate ethically, we give up hope. When there is no hope, people get desperate, lash out, try anything — what we in Psychology call “acting out” — and then, oddly enough, get either punished for, or exonerated for, doing so.

Let me explain. Man walks down the street. He hasn’t done anything wrong. If he’s White and not too unseemly, that’s the end of the story. No one thinks twice. There is no story. 

If he’s Hispanic and he lived in Joe Arpaio’s county, even if he’s wearing a suit, he could be an illegal alien. Because he could be, he can be arrested and held without charges. Try explaining to your boss that you didn’t show up for work, because you were arrested. Then try to convince the boss that you didn’t do anything wrong

As if that weren’t enough, the President of the entire country you live in calls the man who did this to you “a hero”! Furthermore, he pardons the man, so you know you will never get justice. Turn on the TV and there are 50,000 people cheering for the sheriff believing that “he was only doing his job”! How does anyone live here under these conditions and believe in the American Dream? 

Why did this issue come up for me today? Today, six policemen in Baltimore were told that they would not receive jail time for killing a man. The man, Freddie Gray, already had physical problems you could see when he was unceremoniously dumped into a “Paddy Wagon”. The police in question drove over bumps in order to show him who was “in charge” and, if I remember, broke his spine. Forget the circumstances of whatever crime he committed, forget whether race played a part in this, forget whether or not this was an accident. The police (a group of men) killed a handicapped man and nothing happened to them. They are free to roam about the earth. 

The idea that there might be two justice systems started become clearer to me when the riots in Ferguson, Missouri happened. The sheriff who killed Michael Brown was seemingly exonerated by the police after a Grand Jury. I wasn’t happy about that decision, but the law had a process and I believed in it. Then I discovered that the Grand Jury in question was a “highly irregular” Grand Jury! What does that mean? In this case, the defendant got to make his case (usually done at trial) to a nearly all-White Grand Jury! He also is free to walk the streets. 

As I drive home through Hartford from my office in Springfield, I often see a sign that says “Blue Lives Matter!”, to which I say “All Lives Matter!”, knowing full well that they don’t. 

There are those who really believe that I don’t like police. There are a whole lot of cops that I do know and like — clients, family members, friends of family members. I believe in the idea of police who are just doing their job, and I believe in the idea that they should be fair. I also acknowledge that it’s an extraordinarily difficult job to do. They see the dregs of society. You know what, though? So do I. No one comes into my office because they are fine, or because their family is totally functional, or because there’s not drugs and violence involved. They come in because they have problems and some of those problems are so disgusting that they weigh my spirit down. Still, I don’t beat them. I’ve had to restrain clients in my job, but I’ve never used a billy club on them. Neither do many police get overly hostile. I really believe that most cops are good people with a very hard job to do, but in a world where everyone else is supposed to be responsible for their own behavior, police should be, too. But they are not.

Finally, of course, there’s the whole Donald Trump /Russia affair. Every day that goes by brings new news of the scandal. Forgetting all the rumors, the innuendo, the press reports, and without knowing what the Special Prosecutor will find, the President himself said he fired James Comey over “the Russia thing”. Donald Trump Jr acknowledged in public that he and members of the campaign had a meeting with the Russians. Cabinet members lied on forms for security clearance.

Did Trump obstruct justice? If I said derogatory things to a judge over parking tickets, would I be in jail? You’re darn right I would! If I was involved in a meeting with an enemy of my country, would I be in jail for treason? Of course, I would! And I would deserve to be there! If I, or one of my clients, lied on a government form, would I avoid jail? If the form was my taxes, or some client’s disability form, I would be in jail or needing to pay thousands of dollars in fines, but I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to keep a job with the government! And yet, without even a trial or a process, we know that these people committed crime. They said so. And yet, they still have jobs, they still aren’t in jail, they have faced no consequences for committing crimes!

How can we possibly believe that “justice is blind”, that the law is fair, that American law means anything at all if people who have done nothing wrong go to jail, if some people who commit a crime get one system and others get something different, and people who admit they have committed a crime face no punishment? And yet, most of us believe that right is right and wrong is wrong. We have to fix this. I don’t know how, but we have to fix this.

Resisting with Peace,

John

Be Gordon For Someone Else

[Deering friends, this is tomorrow’s sermon. I wrote it two days before the funeral. I think Read and I are on the same page. Rest of the world: I assume you won’t be in Goshen tomorrow, so you can see it now]

Sermon given at Goshen UCC, 9/10/2017 “Gordon, Community, and Christianity”

On August 2nd of this year, Gordon Sherman, my mentor for life, died at the age of 80 of complications from a stroke, which was a complication of years of smoking. Normally, for people, the cause of their death tells us something about how we should respond. I will impart to you that lesson: Don’t smoke, but that tells you nothing about Gordon. Gordon’s life, and passing, are inescapable for me this week, so I decided not to fight it, and try to preach on something else.

Yesterday, September 9, and this entire weekend, are huge events in my life. Yesterday, Saturday, Gordon’s funeral was held and the expectations were that there would be at least 450 people in attendance. After that, his wife Cy, is scheduled to have a reception at their retirement community. Today, immediately after church, I will be driving up to Deering, NH, for a final reunion and goodbye for Gordon at the place we met him – the Deering Camp and Conference Center, a UCC camp that changed my life.  I think hundreds of people are expected at that event as well. In any event, I know that I need to be there.  For all of those people that will know, care, remember, weep, and love, I suspect that you – here in Connecticut – have never heard of Gordon Sherman, because you, in Connecticut, have your own version of Gordon, in the form of Alden Tyrell, who, for years, was responsible for Silver Lake. Undoubtedly, some of you know the couple that replaced him, when you think of Silver Lake, and some of you will now know the new guy, as “the face of Silver Lake”. All of that is good.

Silver Lake, like the Deering of my youth, allows people like Gordon, or Alden, or who ever, to do what they do, and this church, like every other church out there, it seems to me, needs to do the same thing. That “thing” is to be Christianity, without even thinking about the world out there which needs Christianity so badly, so that when you go out in the world, your light shines so bright that the world takes notice and is changed.  Remember the burning bush that we’ve been talking about this summer? The one that caused Moses to go look at it? That is what Gordon and Deering taught me I could be, and what I now tell you that you can be.  There is an old saying that, a light is “harder to see without a dark to stick it in”. There is a lot of darkness out there in the world. The light that you bring to it will be noticed, I assure you, because I know a lot of lights. Those lights are powered by the Spirit of God that can only be experienced. There are those who think it’s important to use the words of Christianity to proclaim their faith. There are those, on the other hand, who think you should do the work of Christianity to show your faith. This morning, I want to offer you a third option for life-long change: be Christianity for someone. Be someone’s “Gordon”. Be to people in your world what Gordon and Deering were to me.

What does that mean? Gordon Sherman was a Christian from the moment he got up til the moment he went to bed, and then more of the same from sleeping to waking. Gordon had a job where he could do that.  Deering hosted retreats year-round and summer camps for youth during the summer. Gordon had to prepare for that, he had to say something to those who would come in, and so he did. In addition to preparing the linens and the heat and the food for people who came there, Gordon prepared himself.

Gordon was always reading, or praying, or listening to music in awe of its beauty, regardless of what else he was doing. Even that takes some getting used to, but Gordon managed it. Gordon shared his wisdom often, as he read this book or that. One of the first books Gordon shared with me was “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Brother Lawrence’s point was that Life is prayer. Everything should be done as prayer – with God in mind. Staff at Deering – “Camp Family” were taught to set tables by praying when you set down a knife, then set down a fork, then set down a spoon, as though God were watching. If it took you an hour to set the tables, you were praying for an hour and you felt energized and connected to God through your work.

Later, it was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” which taught us – years before “Rick —–“The Purpose Driven Life” – that our individual lives had some purpose to God. After that, it was Richard Bach’s book, Illusions, which taught balance between growing yourself and helping – not forcing – others to grow, as well. Between those three books, there might have been a total of 250 pages all told, so they were not beyond anyone’s comprehension or anybody’s schedule. They were easy, but they changed your life, just as they had changed his.  Last week in church, we read the passage where Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. Living a Christian life, being Christian – always in contact with God, knowing you having a purpose and that you are important, and not burning out but burning steady – are actually easy or actually make life easier.

Gordon always grew, always read, always stayed a step ahead of the rest of us, and held out that carrot for others to see. If you liked where he was going, you could follow his path. If you liked your own, that was fine with him, because you were still far ahead of the majority of the populous, just for reading those books.

By living that life, you come to believe that miracles can happen, and you see them more and more. It’s a miracle that you get up in the morning. It’s a miracle when you look at the trees. It’s a miracle that someone can compose a piece of music like Beethoven or Bach or Handel. And if those things are miracles, what about making things happen through prayer? Is that possible? Maybe. And if that’s possible, what else is possible?! World peace?! Maybe. And when you go into a room with that attitude, the people around you change. A bunch of people who believe in God, who experience God’s spirit, and that God knows them, who believe that they have a purpose and a meaning in life are unstoppable, even by the most horrific acts that human beings are capable of, because they know, know deep in their heart, that God exists, and God is with them, and that God is in everyone else as well.

Years ago, there was a Deering reunion, at Gordon and Cy’s retirement community. In that room were tons of teachers, tons of nurses, quite a few ministers some professors, and some musicians. None of them were hurting people for a living. Nearly all were specifically in the helping professions. The others were simply joyous for a living (musicians or artists or whatever). All of them gave hugs, if you wanted one. All of them made the world, and your experience of it, better. I believe that there are at least 1,000 people like this out there, simply because there was a Gordon, and then because there was the community of Deering people like Gordon. And every day is a chance to live like that, to be like that, to ….be… alive! First, there was Gordon and Cy. Then there were the Cadieuxs and the Hudsons and the Kennedys, and the Bordeuxs, and so many others to list, that were mentored by Gordon. Soooo many wonderful people in Camp Family over the years! And when they left the hill of Deering, they married – sometimes other staff, sometimes someone who didn’t know of Deering, and they introduced them to Deering people and the actual Deering itself. And those people had kids, or adopted kids, or taught kids, or helped kids, and a third generation was born and raised with Gordon’s influence… and the world became better because of it.

So, this morning, I want to encourage you to be Christianity for someone else. Experience Christianity every day, grow in your Christianity a little bit every day.  In short, be someone else’s Gordon, and this church, and this world, will not only survive, but thrive every day you’re alive. Amen.

No Better Place To Be …Ministers March on D.C. 

There was a time when Protestant Christianity was considered to be a popular force for good, rather than a popular force for oppression. There was a time when the American Dream, the American government, and America’s commitment to “liberty and justice for all” were all aligned. There was a time when we all wanted to be brothers and sisters. Some of those times were a long time ago, some just seem to be a long time ago. 

I had started to give up on that world view under Ronald Reagan, more under George Bush I, more under Bill Clinton, I gave up the hope for “truth” to win out when Bush II, Cheney, etc., took us to a war we knew was a lie. The Lie led to predictable consequences when the market crashed. I had hope for two years under Obama when the Tea Party and Republicans made their presence felt and “took back America” for themselves, instead of for the country’s people who had elected that President. I hoped against hope when Trump got elected that America wanted to do the right thing. Most of America, I remain convinced, does want to do the right thing. Still, a larger and larger portion of America, plus a leadership that wants to be hateful, added to by “evangelicals” who are interested in keeping things like they were in the 1950’s (read “white”) led to where we are. 

In short, decent, actual regular people live in a world where they have have come to believe that their leaders want the outcast to suffer. Some of those regular people bought into that and also want the outcast to suffer. What they don’t realize is that, after society removes the outcast, they’re next. The government wants some people to not be American, right-wing religious leaders want some people not to be considered human, or worthy of love, and the rest of the world doesn’t matter, either, because our psyche and souls are sick, and they have been for some time. The will to divide us into “real people” and “outcast” is blasphemy — the sin of hatred for the brothers and sisters that the same “Father ” that created us. 

So, in the middle of speaking into a void religiously, emotionally, and politically, a voice of hope came from my wife, sitting in the living room. “Hey, did you hear about the minister’s march on Washington? Something about judicial reform, Al Sharpton…. are you going?” I knew immediately that that was the only place on earth the God I believe in would want me to be.  

I’ve been getting old lately. I have diabetes and the day of the march, I had a blister on my toe (I know, boo hoo…) My breathing has been bad, my hip hurts if I do any walking or climbing, and just generally I’ve felt worn out. In the words of an old song, I’m “sin sick and sorrow worn”. Yet, on the morning of the walk, because that was where I needed to be, my feet did not hurt, my lungs never required a “puffer”, and my hip didn’t hurt most of the journey to the Department of Justice. My mind, body, and Spirit were in synch.  My psychology heroine, Virginia Satir, calls that “congruence” and says it is a state of flow with the Universe.

I long for the day, and felt it myself at the March, when the world feels in synch again — when people begin to believe that God calls us to love each other rather than divide ourselves, when justice makes sense to our national soul so that we actively chase it, when God’s name is used for the right things, when my wife, my daughter and I can all laugh at things that are now just irony.

Before the 3,000 ministers and 2,000 laity marched, those things were like a penny dropped down a deep well: they made no noise. Now, at least, I hear an echo coming back. At the rally, people of three or four faiths, many colors, different genders and gender identities, and different ages — in the middle of their own pain — prayed for the people of Houston. I suspect that many of those Texans wouldn’t let some of us share a toilet with them, or others expect justice from them, or expect control of our own bodies in that state. Yet the prayers came, and they came easily. This, in real time, is what “we shall overcome” means. This is what Jesus meant when he said “pray for those who persecute you”, and our community on a field in DC had managed it. 

Yes, Martin and Jesus were there in Spirit, so yes, it felt good to be in community. The speakers and preachers were of one mind and one accord — that we should take care of each other simply because God created all of us. There were no arrests that I know of, there was no violence, no weapons — nothing but a peaceful line of 5,000 people. Was there anger? Maybe. Was there a lot of hurt evident? Definitely. Grace, though, was stronger than all of those things. 

In the book “Little Big Man”, the native Americans say, when asked about White man’s time schedules, say things like “It was a good day to go fishing”. Yes, there is trouble in the world. Yes, North Korea still threatens war. Yes, some member of the administration undoubtedly lied that day. Yes, Taylor Swift had out a new (horrible) song. Robert Mueller’s team continued doing what it is doing. None of that mattered. We couldn’t remain frightened that day, or hang on every syllable of the news cast. It was a good day to care, and a good day to march. It was a good day to be with God. As I’ve said, there was no place on earth I’d rather have been that day. 

Resisting with Peace,


John

It’s Not Really About Trump … It’s About Us … and Jesus

In listening to the President last night, and praying later about it, I keep struggling to see anything good, then I feel bad for even trying to. Then I feel weird for not trying to. My head spins every single day about something he has done, said, not done, not said and so on. I cannot keep up with him.

I’m capable of complaining about any administration, and to that extent, Trump is no different. I am a liberal, or a progressive or whatever, and I will say that proudly. Still, Trump’s presidency is like the people who come to me for marriage counseling who never should have gotten married in the first place. That is not the case with most of my couples, and I give couples a “wide berth” of normal. There are things I can’t imagine, but it’s not my life, and they are ok with so-and-such behavior. That said, there are people so far “outside the ballpark” that the relationship is doomed to fail without actual confrontation from me or another therapist.  That is where the Trump presidency is, in comparison to others. Anything decent, loving, kind, caring, or affirmative, he is against. Anything mean-spirited, divisive, angry, impulsive, our worst selves, he is for.

And so, I keep complaining. In my soul, though, I’m grieving. I’m grieving for a country that can elect such a man. I’m saddened that a large percent of the population is so sick of their lives that they thought his ideas were the solution. I grieve for a country that thinks hating one group or another is the solution to anything. They could have a job, if it weren’t for the Mexicans. They could go to the bathroom in peace if it weren’t for a trans kid. Their communities could be safe if it weren’t for the Black people who are picking fights with the gun-toting police officer. They could practice their religion if they didn’t have to do their job. They could be safe if ISIS would stop attacking.  Their solution is simple: get rid of the Mexicans, trans kids, Black people and Muslims… today. When their problems still don’t go away, they move on to the next group of people causing their problems, never once looking in the mirror.

I’m grieving for a country of actually decent people who are victims of the way things are: Parents with kids who aren’t criminals and have been here for 20 years, trans kids who can’t even understand their own feelings, let alone why someone would hate them, or gay adults who just want to go home to each other at night, murdered-by-police 10 year old Black kids, and Muslims who believe in the a God of love. Mixed in with this is the old White guy, or the Christian teen or the Americorp worker who teaches kids English, and the farmer who feeds them. Those people are “too sympathetic” or “bleeding hearts” or just not-ready-for-nor-interested-in-being-a Reality TV Star! (what we used to call “normal people”).

I’m grieving for a country that lets, people fight because they don’t have enough money to pay their bills and blames it on others can’t pay theirs — all the while promoting endless wealth as the ideal. I’m grieving, I guess, for an America that never was, according to some, but was a heck of a lot closer than this. I’m grieving for a country that believes that lies are hyper-truth. I’m grieving for a country that used to believe that peace, love, and equality were the way to be. I’m grieving for a country that has less and less usable nature because money is to be made. I’m grieving for a country that really seems to be that force is the answer.  In short, I’m grieving for us — the country that elected Trump. Now, with him in, I grieve every day. That part is about him.

“Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who sent you! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused! So be it. Your house will be left to you desolate.” Matthew 23: 37-38

With those words, Jesus grieved for Jerusalem, the big important city of his time. If the words “Jerusalem” are replaced with “America”, I believe the same is true for Jesus today. So I soldier on in peace, not because I fear Trump, but because every day, I still believe in Jesus. God wakes me and calls me to another day of hope and love. Jesus shows me the way, and encourages me to live a life in harmony with his vision.  Because of this, Jesus  is the standard I hold my politicians to. All politicians.  I keep my eyes on the goal-line of the Kingdom or “Realm” of God, and I watch as my country gets farther and farther away from it. As a Christian, I have to set my standards in a different way than the powers and principalities do. I have to hold myself accountable to those standards, as well. It is my job, and the job of every other Christian to make the world better, even as it wants to be worse.

I suppose I don’t really believe in countries, per se, but the place on earth where I live is my place to work, thus America is what I care most about. The dream that America, perhaps uniquely, holds to be sacred — with liberty and justice for all — is the best expression of that, as well. The American Dream, as described in documents and Constitutions and ideas, not the one sold to us by Madison Avenue, is close to the way Jesus would like us to be and it’s a good starting point toward the Kingdom. We can’t even find that anymore.

Yes, Donald Trump seems to be evil incarnate, but he cannot be the final word, so as long as God wakes me up every morning, that is the direction that I  must go. I am not running away from hate, but to love. Lately, though, that’s getting harder to do. That’s all.

Resisting in Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

Opening Remarks After Charlottesville To Be Given Tomorrow at a Connecticut Church

Editor’s note: this is the real opening of my sermon tomorrow, August 13, 2017 at the church where I work. I hope it brings a little hope to your part of the world.

I am not at all sure what you’re expecting to hear today. I have planned to speak on the journey of faith from freedom and I’m still going to because the message of the gospel needs to be heard, so that you know that God’s love hasn’t changed – and because I have a funny sermon, and I hate to waste the jokes.

That said, while the gospel hasn’t changed, the world outside these walls has. The sermon will address North Korea from a Biblical perspective, oddly enough. Charlottesville, wasn’t even on my radar earlier in the week when I started this sermon. As a preacher, and a pastor, it is my job to respond to the events there.

Quoting from their own writing: “Join Azzmador and The Daily Stormer to end Jewish influence in America. “You may have heard that the City of Charlottesville cancelled the permit, This is true. It is being challenged in court, but we’re showing up, permit or not, and now we need you more than ever! It is not illegal to protest without a permit anyway, and rumor has it, the copas are siding with us over the evil Jew Mayor Michael Singer and his Negroid Deputy Wes Bellamy. We have it on good authority that the chief of police is going to ensure that the protest goes on as planned, regardless of what the ruling Kike/Negroid powers are attempting”.

They are disgusting words to be used in a church. I know that. I use them here because I want you to be under no illusions about how disgusting their hatred is. I’ll bet none of you thought Charlottesville was about hatred of Jews. I certainly didn’t. But it is about Jews, and Muslims, and Buddhists, and atheists, and anyone who is not them.

This church struggles, as much of this country does, with what it means to be diverse and Christian. America is not the only country that does, and we are not the only church that does. The neo-Nazis that put on this march yesterday hate every one of you in this room because you’re not them. Some of you are women. Some of you are Black. Some of you, I assume, but have no way of knowing, are gay or lesbian. Some of you are Hispanic or Asian. We’ve actually had a Jewish woman in worship here. All of those people are under siege by the neo-Nazi cause, because all of them obviously aren’t them. But all of you are Yankees, from one of those elitist New England States. And if you’re a member here, you belong to “that liberal denomination” the UCC. It doesn’t matter what you actually believe, because they don’t care. Facts and reason are not their strong suit. They have prejudice, and that’s all they need.  It’s them versus you. All of you. All of us.

I know that this church voted recently to be Open and Affirming in whatever ways you understand that. I know that some of you are still not convinced in your hearts that it was a great idea, but I want to bring you a gift from the gay community, whether you’re gay or not and I want to tie it into Christianity… where it came from. One of the things that has come about during all of the controversy is that teachers, guidance counselors, therapists, some clergy, have put a little triangle on their door, and it simply says “safe space” inside the rainbow triangle.

Years ago, when some event like this happened, and I was leading a prayer group at seminary, I had a book called “Stories of God”. The book said, in part, “in times like this, we do what we have always done. We gather together for comfort. We gather together and tell stories of God”.

I want every single one of you in this room to know that this building is “safe space”. No matter who you are, or what you have going on in your life, or what people think you have going on, you are safe here. No one here will ever do to you what those people want to do. This is a place where we practice love. No one will ever hurt you physically or with hate here, under my watch. Ever.

We hear a lot these days about sanctuary cities. And they are controversial. I get it. But Christian churches have always been sanctuaries, since the day Paul was blinded and the Christian church took him in. The idea of “safe space” that’s been used by allies of the gay community comes from Christianity. They got it from us. And now they give it back to us, in our time of need. We need their ideas as much as they need our safe space.

In order for this space to stay that way, though, we – all of us – must practice love–  and loving each other. Today, we have baptized a baby – the symbol of all that is innocent. Every baby starts that way. No one is born hating. They must be taught to hate. Hate is a choice. A lousy choice to be sure, but a choice, nonetheless.  Here, though, we teach love to protect the innocent from becoming hateful, and in doing so, we create safe space. We expand the sanctuary of God’s love every time we raise a child in this environment. You are safe here because love is what we do hereEveryone is safe here if love is what we do here. So, in times like these, let’s gather together and tell stories of God.

 

Resisting with peace,

 

John

When Did Life Become So Cheap?

“Superman: Is that how a warped brain like yours gets its kicks? By planning the death of millions of innocent people?Lex Luthor: No. By causing the death of millions of innocent people.” — Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, from Superman: The Movie

The quote above is one of my favorite movie quotes of all-time because it shows the silliness of evil. Said with a straight face, by the embodiment of comic’s evil genius, it is what badness would say in its purest form. Because nobody in real life would actually do it without being called evil, the line gained its comedic value in about 1980. 

Twice now, in the last 6 months or so, politicians have planned or contemplated doing the very thing that comics’ evil genius could never manage to do: cause the death of millions of innocent people. 

For months and months, Congress has tried to make millions of people lose their insurance, and therefore their healthcare and then their death. Yesterday, President Trump — perhaps off the cuff, perhaps not — talked about “fire and fury the likes of which the world has ever known” when confronting the North Koreans. 

Though the reality seems otherwise, these leaders are supposed to be the good guys — the people we respect and follow because they represent the best in us. To be fair, Kim Jong Il is saying the same thing, as did Boko Haram, as did Isis. Yes, there are crazy or evil people in the world. When did our leaders get to be them and why? It’s an intellectual thing. People believe in an ideology, and believe that it justifies violence, murder, and mayhem. But here’s the thing: unless you’re a comic book character, if your ideology makes you think it’s okay to kill people on a large scale, it’s a bad ideology.  Let’s try to find another one. This one’s not working.

Resisting with Peace,
John

Gordon Sherman, RIP

There’s a reason that news outlets archive footage of famous people — because when they pass on, no one will have the right words or any sort of a brain to say what that person meant. I’m writing this on February 9, 2016 because, should Gordon pass to the next life, I don’t expect I will have anything creative or decent to say at all. Words will not come.  And yet, if there’s was anyone who deserves accolades in the course of my life, Gordon is that person.

Gordon Sherman is, without a doubt in my mind or my heart or my experience, the best human being I have ever known. There will be none to replace him. My friend Todd has as much of a connection to God as Gordon. Peter Wells will be as compassionate, warm and caring as Gordon. Bob Kyte, my Youth Minister and mentor as I was growing up, is as stable as Gordon. Rev. Charlie Hartman, the last member of that great trilogy, is probably as funny and caring as Gordon at times, but … no, not Gordon either. Harry Chapin probably did more with his life than Gordon, but in the old self-help terms, there were “human beings” and “human doings“.  Harry was probably the greatest human doing I’ve ever actually met, which made his “being” extraordinary, but Harry and I weren’t friends like Gordon and I were.

Gordon on the other hand, was the greatest human “being” I have ever known and he was my friend, which made all of the things he did incredible. For my part, I’d like to be as human as Gordon was. Anything beyond that, if I leave a legacy, will be all God.

Gordon is (or was) in one person Todd and Peter and Charlie and Bob and Dave and Harry. All he had to was  just stand there and be him. The closest words I can get to describe the Gordon I knew are “warm wisdom”.  Gordon was as human and yet as spiritual as anyone I have ever met.  One can catch a glimpse of how Jesus might have been thought of as both human and divine in one person, without any contradiction at all, if you have experienced Gordon. I don’t mean that in some heretical way. I just mean that’s my experience.

I first met Gordon in 1975, at the Deering Conference Center, at the end of my freshman year of high school. In all the incredible comings and goings of the week, I don’t know that I would have seen his individual worth, but it was definitely part of the experience and everyone there would have loved working with Gordon. By the next year, my heart would have melted enough that I would be able to see Gordon as Gordon, aka “Pa” or “Pa Kettle” as camp staff called him — a father figure to hundreds who gave out hugs without needing to be asked, shared advice and stories if you had time or need, a man with a flannel shirt and jeans who carried a plastic orange-juice can for his coffee and coughed when he laughed.

When I graduated from college and moved back East to attend seminary, Gordon was one of those who kept me in seminary — not with money, but with advice and a clear head, and an appearance out of nowhere, when I was overwhelmed with working three jobs and trying to keep my head above water.  This happened two or three times in seminary and Gordon would just “appear” because he had a conference or something at the seminary. I was always clear that he was there because God sent him. To this day, in planning and when overwhelmed, I do what Gordon taught me — do one thing at a time, finish it, then move on to the next part and do that, then the next part, and so on. It still works to this day.

When any of my Youth Groups in seminary met him, they “got” him immediately, after getting over the initial shock that he put his cigarette ashes in his palms when he talked. He left the room and my Lynnfield kids went, “Did you see that guy? He put his ashes in his hand and it didn’t seem to hurt him!” I had long since stopped noticing the little magical things that made him who he was, having seen all the large magical ones, but it was great to re-notice as a new generation came to see him and the place.

After graduation, and before my ordination, I took my worldly belongings and took Gordon up on an old offer: “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”, he said. I needed a place to live and so I asked him (and Cy, his wife). Without begrudging me anything, they gave me a place to sleep and to stay. To this day, I can find myself in similar situations — with clients, parishioners, colleagues, and friends and (hopefully without too much grumbling) following through with that same promise. It makes me a better person.

Gordon had two great passions that the world will know about — PFlag and Spiritual groups that he belonged to or welcomed. Gordon has a son that is gay, now happily married and a minister in Canada. Instead of reviling in horror, or giggling about the whole thing, as most people would have done at the time, Gordon and Cy prayed and thought and loved their son. Because they did, they also spent years loving anyone who was like him. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays gave support even when it was controversial, because they thought it was the Christian thing to do. Gordon and Cy knew and cared for “trans” people before the rest of the world believed they had a right to be themselves. That’s the measuring stick of Christ and Christianity that I use today, even if I don’t always get there as quickly as the Shermans do. Gordon and Cy were prophetic without even trying — something my seminary peers were working up to as an intellectual pursuit they had read about. Gordon and Cy just did it was because they thought it was right. Years later, I think my children first met them at a UCC Synod when Gordon and Cy were working on something regarding gay and/or trans rights. Their name had come up in California when members of a church I was attending, John and Janet Sage, asked if I knew them. Again, no matter how far I traveled, Gordon came into my life.

Gordon, Cy, Patty Kennedy (“PK”) and others who lived at Deering before it closed were into all sorts of spiritual things brought on by books Gordon had read and recommended, including “astral projection” after Gordon read a third or fourth book by Richard Bach. Gordon read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, then Illusions, then an0ther book about Bach and his wife’s experience of spiritual projection. Gordon also recommended a little known book of very few pages written by a fairly unknown mystic — Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection’s Practice of the Presence of God and it changed the way Camp Family set tables for years. The idea that all life is prayer (or could be) including the way you set forks on the table was another example of the wisdom Gordon passed on to the people under him.

I never got the astral projection thing, but I know others who do and it seems to make spiritual sense of quantum mechanics. Gordon has, it seems to me, always been light-years away from anyone else I know, (except maybe Todd, who also “gets” the astral projection thing). Recently (a few years ago), Gordon and I got talking about something that was bothering parishioners, but I didn’t have an answer to — salvation, heaven, hell, and why God does anything along those lines. Gordon didn’t answer until I realized that he thought I was asking the wrong questions — he had long ago realized that these questions ran into a dead end, and the only answer is “love”. God loves. God is love. We should love. We should try to become loving through practice and prayer. Once we realize that, the rest of things seem to fall into place. There’s some sort of Eastern mindfulness that psychology and religion is starting to “get” that Gordon’s already “got”.  I can’t quite conceive of it yet, but I can see signs of it here and there. I just stand in awe of it.

Years ago, there was a Deering reunion at his place (the complex, not his apartment) in New Hampshire and it was a treasure to see all the incredible things we had become (see my blog post “Five and Ten and a Hundred Fold” to get a sense of it). Two years ago, at another reunion, I got to work with Gordon in worship and it was a real “bucket list” moment — so many of which have had Gordon there. I still dream of/feel called to create a camp like Deering which celebrates all of who Gordon was, with Cy) I have been blessed and I want the rest of the world to be so blessed.

Two final points about Gordon: Don’t be thinking he was “all spiritual”. He was more human than most, because he was more alive than nearly anyone I have ever met. When I told him I’d be on camp family in 1988, he was joyous and said things that cannot be repeated here in his joy. I still remember pictures of him roofing cabins with nothing on but an apron to hold nails with — showing his little butt and the twinkling smile that only he could pull off. More fun, alive, and wise all at the same time! That was Gordon.

The other: You know that scene in the original Star Wars, where Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “It’s like a million screaming people” when the Death Star blows up Datooine? I finally got a sense of that today, when I thought about Gordon’s heart attack and potential death and funeral. First off, I can’t imagine a church in New Hampshire big enough to hold all the people who will come to celebrate his life and his meaning to them. Secondly, New Hampshire will be thirsty before the service and flood after it, with all the tears that will be shed. There will be a big hole left behind in the Universe when Gordon leaves.

It will take all of us who knew him to fill it. He would tell us we’re up to the challenge. We know it’ll be hard.

Peace,

John