Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fear Or ...

           So I was driving down to my parents’ house in Cape May on Friday, and I had a lot on my mind. First of all, I kept hearing this one guy’s voice in my head. He’s from New York, like I am, but he’s running for president, and he had given a convention speech the night before, which I had heard in part. It kind of freaked me out, because there was so much darkness in his words. He was saying in his speech that “our very way of life” is threatened in America, and that the person he’s running against leaves a legacy of “death, destruction and weakness.” He said these are very difficult days in America, and that we need to take care of our country first. The thing that upset me the most was when he told America, “I am your voice.” I have never lived under a dictator, but when I study them, they usually say things like that, tapping into our fears and convincing us that they know what we need.

            I was wondering what drew people to this guy and his rhetoric of fear and passion. I was wondering if this was the message I’d keep hearing in the days and months ahead. I had music playing on my iPod, and was paying tribute to the late Prince by listening to his tunes. In between songs about little red Corvettes, raspberry berets and purple rain, I listened to the lyrics from the song 7, which is the closest Prince every got to predicting the future when he released it almost 25 years ago. “I saw an angel come down unto me,” he sang. “In her hand she holds the very key / Words of compassion, words of peace.” In his Book of Revelation-type lyrics, Prince sings of a world in which “the young” are “so educated they never grow old.” He even sings of “a voice of many colors” singing a song “that’s so bold.” Well, I thought, that’s a different person with different ideas than the one I’d heard the night before. But I kind of like this vision of a world where compassion and combined voices lead the way, better than I like the sound of footsteps approaching.

            I arrived in Cape May and went down to the beach the next day. Every day, there are teenagers on the beach who sell umbrellas and beach chairs, then pick them up at the end of the afternoon. I’d noticed that the chair seller on our stretch of the beach had a tattoo on his upper chest. I stopped him and asked what the tattoo said. He read it to me: “Fear is nothing more than a mental monster you have created, a negative stream of consciousness.” I looked that up later, and saw that it comes from Robin Sharma, a Canadian writer. This young man, dragging umbrellas and chairs through the soft sand, seemed to have already arrived at a very different way of looking at fear than those words I heard on Thursday night. In fact, he’s so confident in these words that he wears them on his tanned torso.

            As I lay on the beach, I read a book by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, titled Fire Shut Up in My Bones. In terms of coming-of-age memoirs, they don’t get much better. I read about Blow’s attempts to find inner peace after a childhood incident left him violated and afraid. Earlier in the week, the author’s most recent Times column had spoken of the recent violence against civilians and police with the words, “It’s not either/or, but both/and.” As someone who has lived through tragedy, Blow is well-suited to help guide our country out of the struggles we face. He chooses to do so through words of love.

            After arriving back from the beach, I gathered up my dog and took her for an early-evening walk. Around the corner, I saw several yellow and orange pieces of paper tied to a tree with pieces of string. As I walked closer, I saw a sign in front of the tree, identifying it as a “Poet-Tree,” and inviting passersby to take one. My dog and I stood in front of the tree for a while, reading poems, many of them about nature, lots of them by Robert Frost and Mary Oliver. I took a poem from Oliver titled Wild Geese, whose beautiful lines speak of shared pain, shared progress, and shared tomorrows. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”

            There are strong words of fear in America today. But wherever my wheels and feet seem to take me, I keep hearing reassuring words of grace. There’s a lot to talk about at those presidential conventions – our country has as much room for improvement as any. But we had a president once who said something about fear, something many have echoed in the 83 years since he said it. And it remains as true as the morning sun: The only thing we have to fear, my friends, is fear itself. The rest is today’s challenge, tomorrow’s triumph, and the music of life. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Choosing Love

            This week, my wife and older daughter have been fixing up houses in eastern Tennessee with a group from our church. As part of the Appalachia Service Project, they’ve been working together to make the world just a little bit better, while also meeting people from a different part of our country. The church group consists of teens and adults – some of them black, some white, some gay, and some straight.
Yesterday morning, I helped my father deliver food to people in need in Cape May, NJ. As we walked through the small housing project that often gets lost in this vacation wonderland, we handed chicken, frozen vegetables and pasta to all kinds of grateful people – some of them black, some white, some older, and some quite young.
            In my high school, I’ve helped run a community service club for 10 years, and the teens who run this club choose our activities. Their favorite job is delivering meals to homeless and low-income individuals in Manhattan. When they do this, I stand to the side and watch our club members interact with the people in need who walk up to their table. Some of the needy are black, some are white, some are Latino, some are Asian. Some are gay, some are straight, and some are transgender. Our own club members also hail from a variety of races and ethnicities.
            The events of this past week in America have been so troubling that it’s difficult to think about it all without feeling afraid for our nation. I’m not a TV guy, so I don’t watch the wall-to-wall coverage that our cable news stations offer. I prefer to read the news. This morning, I came across an opinion article in The New York Times, written by Charles M. Blow, whose meditations on race in America are well worth reading. In his piece, Blow writes about the necessity of choosing love in times of violence. He writes that when we say this, some are likely to accuse us of “meeting hard power with soft,” and of choosing a weaker route.
            But, Blow writes, “That is simply an illusion fostered by those of little faith.” Anger is so easy to access and use recklessly, he writes. “The higher calling — the harder trial — is the belief in the ultimate moral justice and the inevitable victory of righteousness over wrong … When we all can see clearly that the ultimate goal is harmony and not hate, rectification and not retribution, we have a chance to see our way forward.”
            There are so many ways we can address the current racial crisis in America. Perhaps the most important first step is to listen, learn and engage in productive dialogue. A former colleague of mine posted on Facebook yesterday that he had recently taught Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the National Book Award winner that explains with clarity and historical depth why an African-American individual might doubt that true change will come in American race relations. In my own world, my co-teacher and I showed our high school seniors Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing this past year, and Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters last year. None of our students had seen either film before, and they all had lots to say, think and write about after seeing these important films.
            We all can do more to engage our minds in thinking deeply about race in America. We can pay closer attention to the words of our current president, who has spoken about matters of race in complex and important ways. We can hold discussion groups where we listen and share our experiences. We can think, and wonder, and imagine what it would take to reach a place of equality, understanding and peace.
            Most of all, we can follow the lead of those who have shown us how to do this hard work. More than a year ago, a young white man brought racial violence to a level of cruelty similar to that of this past week. The man visited a church Bible study in Charleston, S.C., then proceeded to kill nine African-American men and women during the Bible study. Two days later, that church modeled forgiveness in a way that might at first seem impossible. “You took something very precious away from me,” the daughter of one of the victims told the shooter during a bond hearing in which he appeared via video link in court. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
            These words are at the heart of what Charles Blow is talking about, and at the heart of what we sorely need. Bullets cannot move mountains. But faith and fellowship can. Racial anger is real, and it’s grounded in facts. It needs to be heard, and discussed, and addressed with changes in laws and attitudes. The work we do together in areas of race is everyone’s business. It is not something that affects only some. The responsibility is on all of us.
            But we know it can be done because it is being done – by my wife, daughter and their friends in Tennessee this week. By my dad and his friends at the housing project in Cape May. By those service club teens at my school. And in thousands upon thousands of other places, where we choose love over hate, and where we work to build bridges.
Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I brought a group of teenagers to a national youth gathering for the Lutheran church in New Orleans. Every night, tens of thousands of teens would walk to the Superdome and sing songs together. The emcee of the event was a young woman in her early 40s, a pastor from New Jersey. She was dynamic and inspiring. After the gathering, I wrote to her and she wrote back. She gave me ideas on how to make a difference in the world.
Today, that woman is the pastor of our church. She’s in her 60s now, and my wife and I view the words and themes in her sermons as a map toward the ways in which we can help make positive change. Oh, and she happens to be African-American.
As my pastor makes her way back from Tennessee with the church group this weekend, I know her heart is heavy from the violence and unrest in America. But I also know she will choose the route taken by Charles Blow and Barack Obama and my teacher friend and my service club kids and, of course, the parishioners in Charleston. She will choose love. And she will preach love. And we will hear her, and give it a try.