Saturday, August 30, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Another Senseless Death


By now, it is no secret — I loathe guns. I have shot rifles and pistols at ranges and tried skeet shooting once. But I have never owned a gun and never will. If I feel a strong enough need, I will take a self-defense course, or buy a taser. And when I sense that our government is going astray, I engage our Constitutional right to free assembly and protest — which I have done on many occasions.
I have no grudge against hunters, especially those who handle their weapons properly. If you find it sporting or necessary to kill wildlife for food, feel free. I will argue that you don’t need an automatic rifle with a high capacity magazine, however, to take down your prey.
But, hardly a day goes by that a child doesn’t mishandle a gun in their home, often with fatal results. The accidental death at the hands of a 9-year old girl in Arizona this week should make this nation weep. We should mourn the loss of this child’s innocence, torn away from her forever. This could have been your daughter. We should grieve with the family of the dead instructor, whose loss can never be replaced. This could have been your husband, father or brother. And we should be furious that another careless and preventable action involving our insane gun culture should have been prevented.
And then, less than TWO DAYS after this tragic accident, the NRA promoted information on how “Children Can Have Fun at the Shooting Range.” This callous act is just one of a long list of such affronts to the welfare of our children and our nation. Every American should be outraged by the NRA, which is literally looking you straight in the eyes and telling you, “You don’t matter — only guns matter.” The NRA is spitting in your face while it uses your membership fees to curry favor with politicians that will result in the death and loss of innocence of more children.
I say ENOUGH! I understand defending the right to bear arms. We may differ on how the Second Amendment is interpreted, but that is not the point. The NRA has overwhelmingly proven that it is not the body that should be influencing that discussion supposedly on the behalf of gun owners. Yes, training in the use of guns is absolutely essential. But that training need not be done by a ruthless, uncaring lobbying group only concerned with keeping every American in harm’s way. Do you honestly believe that the Founders imagined, or would have ever considered, supporting people strapped with loaded automatic rifles walking the aisles of your local grocery store?
If you support responsible gun ownership, then quit the NRA. Start a new group that really promotes that laudable goal. Demand mandatory background checks on all gun purchases, including those at gun shows and online. And at least be willing to discuss the possibility that certain weapons should never, ever be put into the hands of a 9-year old.
 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Who's Next?

When my daughter was in her early teens, she went trick or treating with a couple of friends. Our town had a strict 6 to 8 p.m. curfew on Halloween, which was signaled by a siren from the Borough’s Fire Department. At 8:20, a police car pulled into my driveway and two police officers escorted my daughter to the door. They respectfully told me that my daughter was on the street after the curfew and had broken the rule.
I thanked them and, after they left, listened to my daughter’s indignant rant about her treatment. She said that she and her friends were just walking back home and that the police had no right to treat them like criminals. I told her that she knew the rule, had broken it, and been caught. End of discussion.
Today, however, I cannot help but think about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and countless other young black men being murdered on our streets by the police and their agents. What if my white daughter had been a black boy wearing a mask, maybe carrying a plastic sword? Would she have been treated with the same respect? Would she have been handcuffed, arrested, even shot? Would the police have arrived to drive me down to the morgue? Maybe not, but I am no longer as certain as I used to be.
Racism is alive, well and thriving in America today. Anyone who refutes that statement is ignoring the facts and rationalizing our history of racial violence and oppression, and the ongoing impact of poverty and privilege in this country. Racism must not be ignored. And racism cannot be conquered by the feeble efforts of politicians and officials looking to find excuses to justify these preventable and horrific tragedies.
Racism must be looked at straight in the eye. We must confront racism at every corner and label it for what it is — ignorant, unjust and unacceptable. As Americans, we have a duty as citizens to seek equal justice for all. And White Americans have a special duty to imagine their world if their skin was brown. Why should any American be treated differently by anyone, especially the police, simply because of their skin color?
Would Michael Brown have been killed if he was White? Would George Zimmerman have been acquitted if Trayvon Martin had been white? We will never know. But how many more times must this happen before we know the answer to those questions? Who has to die next until we are all convinced that racism must be exterminated if America has any hope of being the paragon of freedom and justice it purports to be?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

More on Our Immigration Hypocrisy


The current crisis of children refugees flooding into America raises several interesting moral questions for this nation. Unless you are a descendant of our Native Peoples, you were once an immigrant to this land yourself. Where would you be now if your ancestors faced the hate now associated with those trying to immigrate into the United States and the incredible cost and bureaucracy of becoming a citizen?

But let’s put together a couple of interesting facts. The Center for Reproductive Rights regularly updates the list of countries and their laws regarding abortion. As of 2013, 61 countries (39 percent of the world’s population) live in countries where abortion is allowed without restriction regarding the reason. However, while the United States is included in this group, we know that reproductive justice is under assault in every state, while funding for poor families, health insurance and education is being cut.

In another 13 countries (23 percent of the population) abortion is legal on socioeconomic grounds and to preserve the life of the mother. Another 59 countries (14 percent of the population) only allow abortion to preserve the mother’s life, sometimes including not just her physical but also her mental health.

That means in 66 countries (just over one-quarter of people in the world) abortion is prohibited completely, or only allowed in cases where the woman’s physical life is threatened.

The children fleeing into our nation for refuge come largely from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Do you care to guess which of the above groups all three of these countries fall into? In Guatemala, abortion is only permitted to preserve the life of the woman. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, there are no exceptions granted to permit a woman to choose an abortion. Not to save her life. Not because of rape or incest. None.

So, if you consider yourself “pro-life,” where do you stand regarding these children pleading for your help? You believe that their mothers had no right to prevent their birth. And now these children are running away from almost certain torture and murder, begging for sanctuary from a country that promotes its morality across the globe. If you call yourself “pro-life” and are protesting protecting these children, then you should seriously re-evaluate your principles.

And let’s not forget who put these children in danger in the first place. Since 1946, the School of the Americas (ironically renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001) located at Fort Benning, Ga., has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics.

These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into becoming refugees by those trained by the SOA. In all, the School of the Americas has produced a combined 329 graduates from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

So, the America we live in is the world’s paragon of freedom, liberty and justice. Our America also sells arms throughout the world — sometimes to both sides in a conflict. Our America also invades countries illegally when we have an interest in the region’s resources, but leave “unimportant” people to fend for themselves. And even when we were directly complicit in creating the instability, our America balks at helping the victims of our long history of covert interference.

I love my country. But I do not love everything our country does. I do not support our blithe ignorance of the needs of brave veterans, many of whom suffer physical and mental damage from their combat experiences. I do not support our protracted, unfounded and irrational efforts to withhold rights and benefits from people based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. I do not support the increasing militarization of our police resulting in tragedies like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And I especially do not support our worship of war, our arrogant and righteous attitude that our culture is inherently superior and our misguided priorities that treat corporations like people, and our people like expendable commodities.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Truth and Meaning: What Can We Do About Depression?


We are all struggling to understand the apparent suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams. How could someone with his talents and resources fail to cope with depression so much that he would take his own life? What can we do to fight this terrible illness before it takes the life of someone we know? The fact is that people who suffer from depression kill themselves every day. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Statistics estimate that around 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year, or roughly one person every 15 minutes.
How is this possible? It is possible because those of us lucky enough to not suffer from this terrible disease do not understand it. According to Mental Health America, clinical depression is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting more than 19 million Americans each year. Depression can complicate other medical conditions, and can even be serious enough to lead to suicide. Depression can occur to anyone, at any age, and to people of any race or ethnic group. Depression is never a "normal" part of life, no matter what your age, gender or health situation.
Unfortunately, although about 70 percent of individuals with depression have a full remission of the disorder with effective treatment, fewer than half of those suffering from this illness seek treatment. Too many people resist treatment because they believe depression isn't serious, that they can treat it themselves or that it is a personal weakness rather than a serious medical illness.
Symptoms of Clinical Depression:
  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood
  • Sleeping too much or too little, middle of the night or early morning waking
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment (such as chronic pain or digestive disorders)
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts of suicide or death
If you have five or more of these symptoms for two weeks or more, you could have clinical depression and should see your doctor or a qualified mental health professional for help.
 
Many things can contribute to clinical depression.
 
Biological: People with depression typically have too little or too much of certain brain chemicals, called "neurotransmitters." Changes in these brain chemicals may cause or contribute to clinical depression.
 
Cognitive: People with negative thinking patterns and low self-esteem are more likely to develop clinical depression.
 
Gender: Women experience clinical depression at a rate that is nearly twice that of men. While the reasons for this are still unclear, they may include the hormonal changes women go through during menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Other reasons may include the stress caused by the multiple responsibilities that women have.
 
Co-occurrence: Clinical depression is more likely to occur along with certain illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and hormonal disorders.
 
Medications: Side effects of some medications can bring about depression.
 
Genetic: A family history of clinical depression increases the risk for developing the illness.
 
Situational: Difficult life events, including divorce, financial problems or the death of a loved one can contribute to clinical depression.
 
If you or someone you know is hurting, there is help. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7. Anyone can also reach them online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Talk to someone — it can save a life. We MUST conquer the stigma that society places on all those who suffer from mental illness. So don't wait — do it now.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Our Immigration Hypocrisy


Use your imagination for a second. Let’s say that a radical conservative movement swept through Eastern Canada and took over control of the government. This movement does not just want French separatism, but to convert all of Canada to a French-speaking nation. In time, English-speaking Canadians start losing rights and are subjected to oppressive laws. Eventually, this regime starts imprisoning and physically attacking the pro-English advocates.

Suddenly thousands of white, English-speaking children start crossing the borders of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Montana. Fearful parents are sending their children away from possible harm by a violent government to a land that promotes freedom, equality and liberty.

Here is the question. If you support the protesters now yelling and screaming at Central American children fleeing murderous regimes, would you show up at the Canadian border with your guns in hand? In exactly the same situation, except that the children are white and speak English as their native language, would your reaction be the same? If it is taking a few seconds to consider your answer, then you have already answered the question. You are a racist.

A child is a child, whether their skin is white, brown or black, and the United States has the resources to protect children being threatened. In fact, the United States has an OBLIGATION to protect these children. Who do you think sold the tyrants in Central America their weapons? Who do you think trained these thugs in methods of torture and intimidation at the infamous School of the Americas? We did.

The United States has a responsibility for creating the unstable governments in Central America by being the world’s second largest arms dealer — only slightly behind Russia and far ahead of number three China — and through the actions of our “intelligence” community to interfere with other nations’ development. And now, the fruit of our efforts has come home to roost. When you sew violence and political corruption, whether you think your intentions were good or not, then you should be prepared to accept the consequences. Well, those consequences are showing up at our doorstep. And if we turn them away, then America stands for nothing but greed, arrogance and hypocrisy.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Letting Go of Religion


We spend our whole lives letting go. We let go of things, places, people and ideas. Sometimes letting go is easy — we make a gift to give to a friend, we leave one job for a better one, we pack our belongings and move into a new home.

Other times, letting go can be challenging — we end a relationship with a loved one, we lose an heirloom, a favorite store closes its doors. Sometimes, letting go can be traumatic. A thief steals a car or valuable property. A fire destroys your home. A cherished love one dies. But, perhaps most traumatic of all is letting go of ideas.

From birth, we are blank slates, constantly written upon by parents, siblings, teachers and perfect strangers. Every scribble enters our mind and gets categorized into our identities, our sense of self, and our moral compass. And when we enter our teen years, we naturally begin to question whether or not that developed identity indeed reflects who we really are. We begin to question the easy dichotomies of Western thinking: good/evil; rich/poor; liberal/conservative; male/female; believer/non-believer.

The regressive mind will resist these questions, falling back on stock answers and dogmatic teachings learned throughout childhood. They will refuse to let go of comfort, privilege and even irrational beliefs that give them satisfaction.

Others will explore, willing to consider letting go of ideas, but the quest is a perilous one and not without its dangers. The act of questioning alone may cause us to let go of seeming truths and of self-obvious paradigms. These explorers may fall into a valley of doubt; they may climb a mountain rejecting everything and become hardened skeptics; or they may simply become lost and hopeless facing a foggy world they cannot change and are doomed to endure. But, those who make the quest along the valleys, over the mountains and through the fog emerge as seekers.

And the seeker is prepared to develop a progressive mind. And it is the progressive mind that is best suited to keep ideas that make sense and to let go of those that do not. The progressive mind thinks beyond its own happiness and comfort and concerns itself with the common good. The progressive mind lets go of asking “Why?” in favor of asking “Why not?”

As a minister, my expertise is religion. Young progressive minds often let go of religion once they find that their Sunday School stories don’t match the world’s reality. Young progressive minds often let go of religion when it makes irrational demands, rejects people who think differently and disempowers women, LGBTQ folk and other oppressed people.

But, letting go doesn't have to be an “all or nothing” proposition, either. I can let go of a label without completely erasing all that comes with that label. The choice is not between being Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or not. The question is whether there is truth and meaning to be found in any religion — perhaps in all religions — as you continually reshape your identity.

Sometimes, we rationalize letting go as an irretrievable loss. But it doesn't have to be that way. Even if you feel betrayed by your religious upbringing, I believe that there is value in religion for the young progressive mind. For me, of course, Unitarian Universalism is one such religion. We support same-sex marriage, reproductive justice, environmentalism and most other progressive causes. I am a religious atheist and mystical humanist, serving a congregation with a wide range of opinions and beliefs.

So, as you let go of ideas, as you question the teachings of your youth, always leave the door open to keep the pieces of the past that make sense. The progressive mind never closes any door completely.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Revelation

Recently, the Islamic Center of Midland hosted the public as part of the Choosing a Culture of Understanding program in celebration of Ramadan. Attendees shared wonderful interfaith understanding, as presenters explained the month-long observance. The evening also revealed a surprising element of our programs this year, the auspicious coincidence of a recurring theme — revelation.

In May, participants discussed the meaning of Sabbath at Temple Beth El, and Rabbi Chava Bahle explained the Jewish practice of Counting the Omer (a measure of grain used in ancient times). Beginning on the second day of Passover, the idea of counting each day represents the Jews’ spiritual preparation and anticipation for God’s revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

In June, we celebrated Pentecost, the festival that marks the revelation of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ as described in the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-31. And this July, we observed Ramadan, the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed as guidance for all the people.

An Evening of Meditation on Sacred Writings is planned for Sept. 23 at the Creative 360. Participants will be invited to meditate silently while sacred writings from many of the world’s religions, including Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, are read. And on Nov. 1, we invite the public to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to observe Samhain (pronounced Sow’-in), a holiday shared by many religions as the day in the year during which the veil between the spirit world and the world of the living is at its narrowest. This is a time for honoring our beloved dead and seeking their revelation and guidance.

In many religions, periods of revelation come with some form of sacrifice. During Ramadan, for instance, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset and avoid other behaviors deemed sinful, such as swearing, arguing, gossiping and procrastination. For some Protestants, the nine days between Ascension Day and Pentecost are a time of fasting and world-wide prayer in honor of the disciples’ time of prayer and unity awaiting the Holy Spirit. Similarly among Roman Catholics, special Pentecost Novenas are held and the Eve of Pentecost was traditionally a day of fasting.

Eastern traditions, such as Hinduism, often include a period of asceticism on the path to enlightenment, releasing oneself from worldly desires and connections. The Anishinaabe Naming Ceremony (Kchitwaa noozwinkewin) requires a person seeking a spirit name to undergo prayer and fasting for months, even years, before a name is decided upon. And Unitarian Universalism, as a noncreedal faith, offers its adherents no universal answers to the great mysteries of life, but rather places the burden of finding truth and meaning on each person. The struggle for revelation can be difficult and painful.

We might be tempted to view depriving ourselves as a harsh price to pay for revelation. But, as the Qur’an says in Sura 2: “God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful.” The Hindu Mundaka Upandishad says: “They who practice austerity and faith in the forest, the peaceful followers of who live on alms, depart passionless through the door of the sun, to where is that immortal Person, even the imperishable Spirit.” Isaiah 58 tells us: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

In explaining the Counting of the Omer, Rabbi Bahle told the story of two brothers with adjacent farms. The younger brother married and had a family, while the older brother lived alone.

One year at harvest time, both brothers bundled their stalks of grain into sheaves, counted them and took them into their barns to store. The older brother worried that his brother’s family might need more grain and so, in the dark of night took as many sheaves as he could carry across the field to his brother’s barn. At the same time, the younger brother knew his brother had no family to help him. So he too rose, dressed and took as many sheaves as he could carry to his brother’s barn.

The next night they did the same thing and in the morning, each brother stood in awe and counted their grain, which was as much as before they had given it away. Finally on the third night, both brothers rose and again, gathered as much grain as they could carry and headed out across the field to their brother’s barns. It was so dark, that they almost collided in the middle of the fields. They stopped, smiled and hugged one another for a long time. Then they knelt and thanked God for giving them such a thoughtful and generous brother. That spot became the Holy of Holies because the holiest place in the world is in the human heart where we bless and love and are generous to each other.

Whatever religious path we walk, we can all see that there is wisdom to be found in sacrifice and refraining from negative behaviors. In fact, some lessons in our lives can only be learned when we come to appreciate the gift of life, the comfort of community and the love of the divine — by whatever name we apply. So, let us join together with our neighbors of all faiths, thoughtfully and with generosity, in search of revelation of a better world.