Monday, September 18, 2017

Peace and Justice

                                                          Isaiah 58:6-9
                                                            Matthew 20:1-16

               The Oakland Peace Center, where we have been part of a couple mission projects, building bunk beds, doing some painting, etc, asked the congregations that support it to focus on peace and justice this Sunday.  As one of those congregations, we have chosen to be part of that.  In particular we’ve been encouraged to focus on the connections between peace and justice.  Do you see connections between the two?
               What images or ideas come to mind when you think of peace? Doves, calm, nonviolence, non-conflictive, everyone getting alone.
               What images or ideas come to mind when you think of justice?  Courts, laws, punishments for those who did wrong, retribution, fairness, giving people what they “deserve.”
               These two can seem contradictory, or hard to reconcile.  Justice brings thoughts/images of violence, wrong doing and “pay back” in equal amounts.  Peace seems to exclude conflict at all.
               But today’s story about the laborers shows us something very different, something that is difficult and hard for most of us to grasp, let alone for us to feel good about.  You know the story.  The owner hires different workers at different times.  That means the workers work different amounts.  Yet, at the end of the day, each worker is paid the same amount.  And the laborers are upset about this.  They feel this is unjust.
               We can relate to this right?  Parents, grandparents, guardians spend a lot of time sometimes, trying to figure out what is “fair”.  To use some less serious examples: In our family, for example, Jasmyn got to go out with her grandparents for “special birthday time” starting when she turned 5 or six.  The grandparents decided though that it wasn’t “fair” for the younger kids to get to go out that young so they made the decision to wait until each child turned 5 or 6 to have that “special time” with the grandparents.  Does this seem fair?  Well, from my thinking, the grandparents aren’t going to be able to take the kids out forever and each child should have the same amount of time with them, so I think that each child should start at the same time being able to have that special time with their grandparents.  You see, it is a little complicated.
Another less serious scenario – when I was growing up, the older child always got a bigger piece of pie or cake or whatever because they were “bigger” and needed more.  Does this seem fair?  IN my family, it is my youngest child who needs the most calories and who eats the most despite being unusually skinny.  How do we define fair?
When we lived in San Leandro, Jasmyn went to Head Royce, a private school.  It was an amazing school that gave her basically a free ride.  They were committed to diversity, to taking care of others and the planet.  Part of their curriculum required each child to do some kind of community service, and they taught important values about caring for the world.  However, most of the kids who attended this school were filthy rich.  While Jasmyn got a free ride, the tuition per child was $24,000 a year.  And while they taught great values, one day Jasmyn came home and said, “Why don’t we have a play castle in our back yard?  Why don’t I have my own pony?  Why don’t I have my own bedroom?  Why didn’t we go skiing in France for our winter vacation?”  It didn’t matter what the values were that were being taught.  She was put in a situation where those she compared herself to made her feel poor, made her feel that life was unfair in the way that she didn’t have enough, didn’t have as much.  She could have compared herself to those in our community who lived on the street.  What I wanted for her was for her to realize our many, many blessing and riches and to realize that because of our blessings we have a great responsibility to care for those around us, to be as generous with others as God is with us.  But instead, she had the experience of being in a place where she was the “poorest” and she left that feeling that her life was “unfair.”
               I think about the times when people have offered us grace: like the time I was pulled over for running a light that changed just as I entered the intersection.  I normally forget about that grace that I was offered, though, when I see people speeding in their cars and find myself wishing that they would get pulled over.  I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are.  I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments.  I want justice for others and grace for myself.  But again, my definition of justice is subjective.
A more serious example: How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”?  In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film.  After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe.  There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, he or she is paid for it.  If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation.  But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film.  So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common.  It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made.  But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough.  But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film.  In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe.  And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid.  Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things.  People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed.  Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told it’s own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.
               The truth is from a personal perspective, in our definition of justice, nothing is EVER fair.  When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own needs, our own experiences, then nothing is ever fair.  We don’t get what we think we deserve.  Others seem to get more than we think they deserve. 
But what I call us all to focus on today is the end of today’s parable, which reads, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
As Rev. Sandhya Jha, the director of the Peace Center said it, “What we see in this story is a redefinition of justice.  Typically, we define justice as ‘what someone deserves’ based on their actions or particular qualities….But in this story, the landowner redefines justice to mean a state in which everyone receives what is fitting to a laborer, regardless of their specific actions as a laborer.  This is a radically different notion of justice form our common usage.  The question of deservingness is separated from action, or personal qualities, and instead centers on identity.  This means that all people, as children of God are equally deserving of the fruits of labor.  In other words, it is a metaphor for God’s justice, which is a justice that gives freely to the measure that is sufficient to the needs of the person….justice or what is right is that status in which needs are met for all people equally….On God’s terms of justice, giving more to some and less to others based on merits is not right.”
So what does this mean for us?  Well, first, we have a choice about how we look at life.  Do we focus on what is Unfair?  It is unfair that I work hard for little while others don’t work at all and are given much.  It is unfair that I have to struggle with this challenge or that challenge while others seem to have charmed lives.  It is unfair that I do my best and still go through painful situations.  Life is unfair.  Or we can look at the many blessings that fill our lives:  Each of us in this room has enough to eat.  Each of us has a bed to sleep in.  We each have family and friends and a church that loves us and supports us.  We have educations and vacations and toys for all ages.  Our lives are filled with blessings and we can choose to focus on them and be grateful for God’s generosity to each one of us.  We have much more than we need, after all. 
               But more deeply than that, God’s definition of justice does not take into account what people deserve and instead focuses solely on what people need.  That is so hard for us to grasp, so hard for us to take in.  But Jesus presents this definition of justice to us and expects us to also stand up for this justice, this image of what it is to be just.  We are called not to award and discriminate based on what people “deserve” (and again for each of us what someone deserves will be different), but instead to care for and love all people, working hard to make sure they all have what they need.  That is a justice that leads to peace.  When people have what they need, there is room for peace, there is room for living.
               I know this is a really hard concept.  So I want to say it once more.  What scripture shows us is God’s definition of justice is about giving everyone what they need.  It is NOT about what people deserve.  EVER.  And we are called to strive for that same understanding of justice.  

               Next week we will be looking at judgment and God’s call to us to not judge.  That fits in well here.  If our understanding of justice is about giving people what they need, there is no room for judgement in that.  Judgement only confuses and confounds us because it throws us back into thinking about what people deserve.  This is so humanly natural that striving for a different way of looking at the world takes work.  But it is what we are called to do: to look with eyes of love and care, no matter what a person has done, no matter what we think they deserve.  The good news in this is that God looks at us the same way: with eyes that see past whatever we have done or failed to do that has been unloving.  And God wants justice for us as well: for us to have what we need.  This day and every day.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Honoring those who went before: grandparent's day

Exodus 20:12
2 Timothy 1:3-13

A little boy was in church next his parents and grandparents.  During prayer time, he said a small prayer, "Dear God, please bless Mommy and Daddy and all the family to be healthy and happy."
Suddenly he looked up and shouted, "And please don't forget to ask grandpa to give me a bicycle for my birthday!!"
"There is no need to shout like that," said his father. "God isn't hard of hearing."
"No," said the little boy, "but Grandpa is."
Grandchildren don't make a man feel old; it's the knowledge that he's married to a grandmother.
It's amazing how grandparents seem so young once you become one.
If your baby is "beautiful and perfect, never cries or fusses, sleeps on schedule and burps on demand, an angel all the time," you're the grandma.
An hour with your grandchildren can make you feel young again. Anything longer than that, and you start to age quickly.
A teacher asked her young pupils how they spent their vacation. One child wrote the following:
"We always used to spend the holidays with Grandma and Grandpa. They used to live here in a big brick house, but Grandpa got retarded and they moved to Florida and now they live in a place with a lot of other retarded people.
"They live in a tin box and have rocks painted green to look like grass. They ride around on big tricycles and wear nametags because they don't know who they are anymore. They go to a building called a wrecked center, but they must have got it fixed, because it is all right now.
"They play games and do exercises there, but they don't do them very well. There is a swimming pool, too, but they all jump up and down in it with their hats on. I guess they don't know how to swim.
"At their gate, there is a dollhouse with a little old man sitting in it. He watches all day so nobody can escape. Sometimes they sneak out. Then they go cruising in their golf carts.
"My Grandma used to bake cookies and stuff, but I guess she forgot how. Nobody there cooks, they just eat out. And they eat the same thing every night: Early Birds. Some of the people can't get past the man in the dollhouse to go out. So the ones who do get out bring food back to the wrecked center and call it potluck.
"My Grandma says Grandpa worked all his life to earn his retardment and says I should work hard so I can be retarded some day, too. When I earn my retardment I want to be the man in the doll house. Then I will let people out so they can visit their grandchildren."
As I prepared for today’s sermon, I found myself reflecting on how we honor our ancestors, how we honor those who went before, or even those who are still with us but are of different generations.  How do we show that their lives mean something to us?  That the way they did things, though different, is still a valuable part of our heritage, of who we are?
I enjoy going to museums and seeing how my ancestors did things, how the people who went before me lived and worked and played and survived.  I am a 5th generation Californian, my kids are 6th generation Californians, and I take pride in that history.  I enjoy learning about my ancestors travelling to come here to work on the railroad, about their purchasing the land that still remains in our family.  I enjoy learning how gender roles were divided, what women did for the ranch lands and what men did, how they built things, how they washed and cooked and cleaned and made their livings.  It is fascinating to me, and, I feel an important part of my history.
But with every generation there are changes, and those changes seem to be coming at a faster and faster pace.  We don’t just change how we do things, what work looks like, what clothes we wear, what foods we eat, we also change how we practice faith, IF we practice faith.  We change how we do relationships.  Many of those changes we embrace, but I think every change also brings challenges, perhaps especially for those who have gone before.  And I think one of the reasons is that we can see these changes as either judgments on how we did things, or we can feel that it makes our lives irrelevant.
I remember reading in Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith,
 “I remember as a kid, the (Rabbi) admonishing the congregation – gently, and sometimes not so gently – for letting rituals lapse or disappear, for eschewing traditional acts like lighting candles or saying blessings, even neglecting the Kaddish prayer for loved ones who had died.
But even as he pleaded for a tighter grip, year after year, his members opened their fingers and let a little more go.  They skipped a prayer here.  They skipped a holiday there.  They intermarried (-as I did).
I wondered, now that his days were dwindling, how important ritual still was.
‘Vital’, he said.
But why?  Deep inside, you know your convictions.
‘Mitch,’ he said, ‘faith is about doing.  You are how you act, not just how you believe.’ (p.44)…”My grandparents did these things.  My parents, too.  If I take the pattern and throw it out, what does that say about their lives?  Or mine?  From generation to generation, these rituals are how we remain…connected.”
As I read that I found myself wondering, do we feel personally insulted when our kids don’t do what we did?  And how about the next generation, when our grandkids’ lives are so VERY different?  I know I struggle at times with the choices that my kids make that seem like they will be different from the choices that I have made.  There is a part of me that feels like that choice to do something different IS somehow a judgment on what I chose, on what I did.  It’s not, but it feels that way.  We can see this when we look back… we know it isn’t a judgment on women’s worth as homemakers that women now work outside of the home.  It isn’t a judgment on those who walked everywhere that we now drive places.  It isn’t a judgment on those who hand washed dishes and clothes and scrubbed the floors on their hands and knees that we now use machines to do the hard work for us.  It isn’t a judgment on our ancestors and foreparents who were farmers and ranchers when we work in the city at computers.  But it can feel that way.  It can feel like those are statements that say our way of life, our way of living is quickly forgotten.  What mattered to us no longer seems to matter, what made our lives worth while seems no longer relevant.  What about when they no longer go to church?  Does that feel like they don’t value the things we valued?  And are we okay with that?
          I don’t think that updating things or doing things differently means that we no longer honor the past.  And I think it can be seriously problematic to believe that in order to be loyal to what was, you have to reject what is.  The Amish community for a long time has been a separatist community of faith because they did not want change of any kind.  And while that has served them for a time, the Amish are now finally having to make some adjustments.  In Ohio where I lived there was a very large Amish population whose farms were becoming unsustainable because of the cost to run them without electric equipment.  They have finally conceded that they have to change.  As hard as that is, they, too have had to change to survive in this world.  That is not a judgement on the past.  It is not a statement that says all that they did is no longer meaningful or relevant.
So how do we honor those who have gone before?  If not by doing it the way they did, how do we honor them?
Telling stories. Reading and hearing their stories.
        Caring about history and trying to learn from it.
Spending time with those who are older than us.
Listening to the things they value and trying to understand why they value them.
Avoiding ageism (there is a great deal of ageism in our culture.  We equate elderly with less intelligent and less productive rather than seeing the wisdom and maturity and honoring that.  We need to be better about this.).

And if we are those who would like to be honored, how do we move forward?
Telling stories,
Writing down our stories,
Sharing the histories of our grandparents and our parents so that they, too, will be remembered.
 Sharing the mistakes we've made, how we worked through them and how we moved forwards afterwards.
Choosing to spend time with those younger than us and being open to learning from them.
Sharing our values with our kids and why we hold them: not in a way that shames them if they come out in a different place, but in a way that is simply explanatory: this is why I feel the way I do.

Does that mean we have to stop the world from spinning around and stop the changes that our younger people are making?  I don’t think we could if we wanted to, but more importantly, I think the attempts end up only hurting ourselves as we can end up isolated from those we love.  The world is changing, everything about it is changing.  When I think about the fact that when my kids were born, people did not have cell phones and that it wasn’t until graduate school for me that people had personal computers.  When I think that in my parent’s life time TV was invented and that in my grandparent’s life time cars were made… Church has changed radically too.  Calvin allowed no instruments, and especially not organs in his worship.  And as we know, young folk simply aren’t going to church much anymore.  We can’t stop the world from spinning.  But we can teach our young folk about what matters to us and why.
I shared this with you last year, but I love it.  It’s from Kahlil Gibran’s “the prophet”.  ON children:
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
They have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Finally, we honor those who went before and we honor those who are to come by practicing love.  By being the people we hope to be: by living lives that are loving and giving and that bring joy, grace, and light to the world.  In our baptism promises, we promise to care for one another, to love each other and to raise each other in God’s grace.  As a result, all of us, whether we have blood relations in this place or not, are our family.
As one commentary I read this week said, “Some of the people we call grandparents are such because they are our parents' parents — they are blood relations. And some of the people we call grandparents — or "elders" in some cultures — are such because of a quality of compassion, concern, wisdom, and generosity that they demonstrate toward us. The Search Institute has identified that children who have at least five caring adults in their lives, in addition to their parents, are more likely to thrive and less likely to become "at risk." Every congregation is blessed with "grandmas" and "grandpas" who love and share their faith in ways that form us as an extended family, a tribe, a clan of people embraced by the love of God.”  So we honor one another especially by loving one another.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A ramble about boundaries, inner darkness, and listening...

        I had been taught in my counseling courses at Seminary that, generally speaking, men and women listen differently and share differently. When men listen to someone sharing about a problem, they generally want to fix that problem.  This is at least in part because men tend to share what is bothering them when they are wanting advice themselves, we were taught.  So they expect that when women are sharing, it is because they are wanting advice as well.  In contrast, women share for support.  So women know that when another woman is sharing something with them, they are wanting to be heard, to be understood. If a woman wants advice, she usually will state that, "I am wanting your advice", or she will ask a man.  Until men and women figure out this difference in the way we communicate and the way we listen, it can create real problems between the genders.  Women often feel insulted by the advice or the obvious statements that men make in response to their sharing because they feel the advice or common sense statements belittle them.  We hear the advice as a commentary on our ability to make our own decisions, to see things clearly or to be able to work through a problem.  We talk because we are processing out loud, not because we are children who need help.  In contrast, men can sometimes misread the fact that women don't offer advice as women not having insight or opinions as to what should be done in a certain situation.  We have opinions, I can assure you, but we trust you to make your own choices and feel it would be insulting to try to tell you what you should do.
       This is what I was taught.  And my own experience has been that this is accurate.  I definitely need to process out loud.  But when my expressions of struggle, hurt, or pain are met with advice, or worse, with a "just don't feel that way", or worst of all, stating the obvious, "well, you just need to make a decision", my response is usually further hurt and anger.  I wasn't asking advice, thank you very much.  Telling me to "get over it" is not going to make the feelings just go away.  And stating the obvious makes me feel like you see me as completely incapable of seeing the nose on my face.
       However, yesterday, as I found myself in several different conversations about listening, I heard all of this differently.  I'm no longer convinced that the differences in the way people listen is as simple as "some want advice and therefore give advice while others want to be heard so they hear."  I realized that sometimes our boundaries, or lack of boundaries are the deeper issue.  Sometimes when we have poor boundaries, we give advice as a way of shutting people down because their pain hurts us.  If I tell you what to do, I no longer need to listen.  If I can sum it up in a few words, there is nothing more that needs to be said.  I can then move on from the pain that you are experiencing which is also hurting me.  I can dismiss the problem as "solved."  I can make an artificial boundary of "I've solved this problem therefore it no longer exists" rather than working to build an appropriate boundary of "This is you, and I am me.  I can love you and care for you without being torn apart by the pain that you are experiencing.  I can be with you in your pain and I can walk this journey with you without needing to shut it down, end the feelings, or withdraw."
        A personal example: It is part of my job to listen to folk.  That is a part of my work that I really enjoy.  I like hearing how people are, I enjoy being with people as they live their lives and go through their lives.  I feel truly blessed and honored by being able to provide the pastoral care and counseling that is a large part of my work. It is not only easy for me to listen, but a real joy for me to do so.  I can reflect back, ask questions that I hope will help them think differently about their situation, and sometimes offer a different way of looking at a situation.  I am never tempted to offer advice.  But my boundaries feel very clear in that situation.  In contrast, when my children share with me their pain, I often find myself jumping into "fix it" mode.  Their pain physically hurts me.  I want it to stop. I find it difficult to tolerate their hurting. So I shove it away by trying to tell them what to do so they won't hurt anymore (so I won't hurt anymore for them).  Sometimes I have stepped in where I shouldn't.  Often I have given advice when it was not wanted, sought or needed.  I don't have the same good emotional boundaries with my children, and as a result, I often react differently, in unhelpful, and occasionally hurtful ways.   My lack of good boundaries with my kids cause me to fail to hear well when I am listening to them.  Instead, I try to "fix" it.  It doesn't help.  It makes it worse for my kids who want someone to hear them.  But it is because they are hurting, and because I am therefore also hurting, that I don't handle their sharing well.
        As I thought about this, I found myself reflecting on other similar situations.  When I was giving birth to my second child, I was in so much pain (yes, the reality of childbirth) that it was almost unbearable.  Despite what the experts say about forgetting the pain once the baby is born, it was bad enough that I do remember it.  What I remember even more, however, was that my husband became overwhelmed with my pain.  He was not able to have a good boundary around my pain, and he broke down.  The midwife who was working with us shut that down fast, however.  She said to him, "You have to get a grip!  She has to go through this. She has to.  The end result will be beautiful but she has to go through this to get there. There is nothing you can do about that.  But if you start focusing on the pain that her hurting is causing you, you are no longer with her to support her.  You become your own needy island and no one is helping anyone else.  She needs your support right now!  You have to get out of yourself and how much her pain hurts you and you need to be the support person she needs in this moment!  Get a grip!"
        When I was studying anthropology in college, one of the classes I took required us to read a book about a tribal culture in which the boundaries between people were not so confused as they sometimes are here. People in this tribe were incredibly happy, they didn't complain but laughed a great deal and focused on the good rather than problems. The author described a man who had a serious cut in his leg that needed stitches.  There was no anesthesia so each stitch was painful.  His wife held his hand throughout the process and supported him with her love, with her smiles, with her care.  But the anthropologist who wrote about it noted that if a similar situation had happened in the United States, the wife would have flinched and probably cried out herself every time her husband was gripped with the pain of a stitch.  She might even have excused herself, unable to stand watching her husband suffer in this way.  She would not have been able to stay present and strong with him without being traumatized by his pain.  But in this tribal culture, where boundaries are clearer, she was able to be a support without experiencing the pain herself.  As a result, her presence was a huge help to him and carried him through the experience.  
         I recently saw a youtube video in which a couple fathers were in a grocery store with a couple children who were having temper tantrums because they wanted candy that the fathers would not give to them.  Again, with our lack of boundaries, the normal reaction when our children act up in the grocery store is to grab at them, sometimes harshly, because we are embarrassed.  We try to get them to stop the tantrum because our lack of boundaries tells us that this reflects badly on US.  What is interesting is that our attempts to shut them up usually increase the length of the tantrum, the severity of the tantrum, and their inclination to repeat it when they don't get what they want again; after all, it successfully upset us.  But in this video, the fathers really remained calm.  They clearly stated "no" and stood watching the kids throwing the tantrums, but they didn't allow themselves to get upset or embarrassed or even angry with the kids. They didn't abuse the kids, they didn't walk away from the kids, they didn't threaten the kids, but they also were clear that they weren't giving in.  There was a clear sense of boundary: the fathers did not take on the embarrassment or shame of the kids' behavior.  It wasn't the fathers' bad behavior after all, it was the kids' behavior and they understood that.  And what was interesting is that the kids themselves became quickly embarrassed about their own behaviors and ended the tantrums, again with very little time, themselves.
       One final example.  I know two couples who have this boundary issue in another way.  When one person in the couple says something that the other feels is wrong or stupid, the one hearing the comment responds with embarrassment and sharp critique of their spouse.  They are unable to remember that their spouse is not a reflection on themselves.  And, as with the other examples, their lack of boundaries and the subsequent harsh critique of their spouse then leads to others seeing them as unkind. They are treating their partner meanly and everyone sees that.  While they are trying to avoid the judgment they believe will come their way from the comments made by their spouses, they are instead incurring judgment for their attempts to "correct" their partners, especially in this public way. While trying to avoid embarrassment, they are bringing shame on themselves as those around them watch this painful interaction.
         What is ironic about all of this is that those with stronger boundaries, and a clearer sense of what is mine and what is yours are often also the people who see more fully how interconnected we all are.   Those are the very people who often really understand that we must care for all people in all things if any of us hope to be okay as individuals.  Somehow that clear sense of boundaries, of where I start and end also allows people to be more open to the understanding that under all of it, we are still one.
        All of this leads back to where I began, with the way we talk and listen to one another.  I think we would be better at hearing and supporting those we love if we were able to step back a little and be okay with witnessing (and experiencing) pain.  As with my story about childbirth, most pain must be gone through in order to come out to the gifts on the other side.  Shoving pain down does not get rid of it, it does not end it, it does not solve it.  We have to deepen into those hard feelings in order to come through to the other side.  Even if we cannot set up a boundary that allows us to be with others without experiencing their pain, perhaps we can find ways to go through it with them rather than trying to just make it go away.
            In my spirituality circles, there has been a great deal of focus lately on our desire to avoid the darkness, to avoid the unpleasant and uncomfortable, rather than facing it, feeling it and dealing with it.  But everytime we do that, the darkness has a way of making itself bigger until it finally has our attention.  I'm reminded of J.K. Rowling's Fantastical Beasts.  The magic that is repressed became an evil force.  Our feelings, when repressed, do damage.  Our dark sides, when avoided rather than faced, grow into monsters within us.  We see this again and again as those people who condemn something in others are caught in those actions themselves (our politicians who speak so harshly against LGBTQ folk being caught in homosexual liaisons, for example).  When we cannot face within us what we do not value, do not like, what we condemn: when we cannot look with honesty at all of who we are, those parts of us we try to squish or stomp down tend to reappear in frightening and destructive ways.  Scott Peck, in his book, People of the Lie, says that we do evil when we cannot face something in ourselves so we put it out there onto others and work to destroy it in the other.  If we want to be people of light, people of love, people of hope, we have to be willing to look hard at those parts of ourselves we condemn and to work with them and through them.
         We can start by listening to others, really listening, rather than trying to 'fix' what others are going through.  We do them no favors by failing to truly support them.  Nor do we aid in their recovery by encouraging them to suppress and stomp out their feelings.  We also do great damage to ourselves by denying the reality of unwanted feelings, unwanted thoughts and unwanted pain.  We have to step through.  There is no other way.  "Can't go under it, can't go around it, guess I'll have to go through it" as the children's song tells us.  The pain we and our loved ones experience is not pleasant, but it is an opportunity to grow, to work through problems in a different way, to move forward in our journeys towards wholeness.  The journeys are easier if we travel them together.  But that starts with a commitment to listening and being present, even with those things we would rather not know, rather not hear, and especially, rather not feel.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Tragedy of the Commons

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

               While we were on vacation, I took my family to the Exploratorium.  They have an exhibit currently on social dilemmas in which people are invited to look at times when they choose for themselves and their own best interests, vs times when they choose for the good of everyone, the common good, the highest good for others.  The exhibit entrance starts with a look at what was originally called the tragedy of the commons.  The tragedy of the commons describes a situation of cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, (this used to be the way it was done in English villages).  If a herder puts more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing may result. For each additional animal that a herder adds to the common, that individual herder will benefit, but the whole group will suffer from the damage to the commons. If all herders were to make this individually rational economic decision, the common would be depleted or even destroyed, which would harm every herder there, including the one seeking self-betterment by putting more than his fair share of animals on the land. 
           The tragedy of the commons has been used to study many things including sustainability, care for the environment, economic systems and human psychology.  And, depending on who does the study and how the study is done, the results vary between communities where people put their own self-interest above others and communities where people truly work together for everyone’s best interest. In the United States, the study tended to show people to be more selfish and self-oriented, taking advantage of what was common to serve themselves above others, and only really understanding, too late that what was harmful for others, also was harmful to themselves. 
               Another part of the exhibit explored a study called the Career criminal dilemma: The scenario is as follows: Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the main charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:
If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)
       Obviously the best self-interest of each alone is to betray the other, though if they have a bigger view of connection or care for the other, then neither will betray the other.   Interestingly, usually in this situation, neither does betray the other.
               I’ve shared with you before one other example of this.  I have a family member who was a psychology professor at Cal State East Bay.  Every semester for his many years of teaching he used to do an experiment with his psychology class.  He would tell the class that everyone would have a choice about how many points they would get for attending class that day.  They could choose to get 5 points or 25 points.  However, if more than 15% of the class were to ask for 25 points, everyone in the class would get zero.  What do you think the results were?  Always the entire class would receive no points.  Every single time it was almost exactly 70% of the people in the class who would ask for the 25 points for themselves.  Even when they knew the results of other classes in which Gene had offered the test, the percentage was the same.  There was, however, one thing that could change that percentage.  If the professor told the class that those students who asked for the 25 points for themselves would have their names read aloud, the effect went away.  The fear of loss of social status was the only thing he found that was greater than the fear of not getting ahead in points.  That fits in with our other two examples.  In the prison dilemma, both would have been aware of what the other had chosen, so the pressure to act in a way which benefits the other is strong.  This is opposed to the tragedy of the commons in which people could probably find reasons to justify and ways to hide the choice to be more selfish.  These experiments also show us that much of the issue here has to do with personal connections.  People act and vote and generally choose behaviors that benefit those of their own community – their own family, their own economic class, their own race… people generally act in the best interests of people they understand, can relate to, who look like them and share cultural commonalities.
               My children recently found and purchased a book entitled Hyperbole and a Half (Simon and Schuster, Oct 29, 2013).  In one section, author Allie Brosh wrote,
“I like to believe that I would behave heroically in a disaster situation.  I like to think this because it makes me feel good about myself.  Conveniently it is very unlikely that I will ever actually have to do anything to prove it.  As long as I never encounter a disaster situation, I can keep believing I’m a hero indefinitely.  Similarly, I can safely believe that I am the type of person who would donate a kidney to a loved one, give a million dollars to help save the animals, and survive a biological disaster due to my superior immune system and overwhelming specialness.  As long as no one I love ever needs a kidney, I don’t become a millionaire, and my immune system is never put to the test by an antibiotic-resistant super flu, these are just things I can believe for free.
It gets a bit trickier when I want to believe a thing about myself that actually requires me to do or think something.  The things I am naturally inclined to do and think are not the same as the things I want to believe I would do and think.  And I’m not even slightly realistic about what I want to be.  …I desperately want to believe I would seize the opportunity to help a loved one without a second thought for my own well-being but I’m almost certain it wouldn’t play out like that. …   What I am is constantly thrust into my face while I’m trying to be better than I am.  Even if I’m actively doing all the right things, I can’t escape the fact that my internal reactions are those of a fundamentally horrible person. I don’t just want to do the right thing. I want to WANT to do the right thing. … being aware of not wanting to do the right thing ruins my ability to enjoy doing the right thing after I’m forced into doing it through shame.“
               The point is that these feelings are pretty normal, I think.  If you realize that 70% of us, at least in the United States, choose selfishly for themselves in a class room of highly educated people, that means that probably 70% of folk struggle with that sense of wanting more for ourselves and focusing predominantly on caring for ourselves and our loved ones rather than for the “least” of these.  I say in the United States because we know there are other cultures that do not behave this way.  For example in South Africa, there is a word they use: Ubuntu.  It means, “I am because we are.”  The belief behind it is that they understand that each person does not and cannot exist in isolation.  How this manifests in South Africa: if someone asks for something, they are given it because you exist together and what serves one serves all.  An anthropologist had been studying the habits and customs of this tribe, and when he finished his work, had to wait for transportation that would take him to the airport to return home. He’d always been surrounded by the children of the tribe, so to help pass the time before he left, he proposed a game for the children to play. He’d bought lots of candy and sweets in the city, so he put everything in a basket with a beautiful ribbon attached. He placed it under a solitary tree, and then he called the kids together. He drew a line on the ground and explained that they should wait behind the line for his signal. And that when he said “Go!” they should rush over to the basket, and the first to arrive there would win all the candies. When he said “Go!” they all unexpectedly held each other’s hands and ran off towards the tree as a group. Once there, they simply shared the candy with each other and happily ate it. The anthropologist was very surprised. He asked them why they had all gone together, especially if the first one to arrive at the tree could have won everything in the basket – all the sweets. A young girl simply replied: “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”
               But in the United States, we are a culture that is more focused on individualism.  As a result, it is harder for us to remember that we truly are all connected and that what hurts you hurts me.  One of my favorite quotes as a result is: a good person fights for themself and their own. A Great person fights for everyone else.
               What does all of this have to do with our faith?  Today we heard two stories.  The first was about Moses who was called to set the people of Israel free from their enslavement.  It is important for us to remember the context of who Moses was, because although he himself was born of an Israelite mother, he was raised by the Pharoah’s daughter.  He was brought up with all privileges and advantages of being in the royal palace with those in charge.  But from that place of privilege, he gave up all he had to fight those who had raised him, those who had loved him, those who had cared for him in order to set free the people of Israel.  Moses gave up his security, his privilege, his house and wealth and riches and travelled in the desert for 40 years.  He died there, following God’s call, after having given up everything to help lead people out of slavery. 
Then we have Jesus.  Jesus gave up his life loving us, caring for us.  But he also told us that we are called to follow.  In this passage he is very, very clear.  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” 
When we are willing to die caring for Jesus, caring for God, caring for the ones God loves, caring for God’s children, we will find our lives.  When we put our own self-interests first, we will lose our lives.  We will be lost.  The tragedy of the commons says the same thing: when we put our self-interest above the self-interest of others, all of us lose out.  ALL of us.  We go down as well.  According to the experiment that my brother and law always did, only about 30% of folk get that.  The rest?  Not so much.  But our faith calls us to act on behalf of the least of these, the poorest, the most oppressed, the most displaced, as Moses did, as Jesus did, even when we don’t feel like it, even when we want to do only what is best for ourselves and those closest to us, even when we are afraid. 
               This desire to care for others should affect every single decision that we make.  How do we spend our money?  Where do we shop?  Does the places we shop and the things we buy use child labor?  Do they damage or harm others?  How do we vote?  Do we vote in ways that lift up the poor, the oppressed, those suffering?  How do we decide what to do with the money we “earn” that has been entrusted to us by God to use for the glory of God?  How do we treat the “least of these” – those who are poor or oppressed or struggling?  How do we treat those who make us uneasy, those who are cruel, those who are mean, those with whom we disagree?  How do we behave in our cars towards others who are unkind or who make mistakes?  How do we behave even when we are afraid?  Do we take from others to save ourselves?  Or do we willingly put ourselves at risk in order to care for God’s “least of these” in whom, we are told, we will find Jesus?
               As I was working on this sermon, a praise song came to mind, written by Matthew West, “My Own Little World”:
               In my own little worls, it harldy ever rains
               I’ve never gone hungry, I’ve always felt safe.
               I got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet
               In my own little world: population me.

               I try to stay awake thru Sunday morning church
               I throw a twenty in the plate but I never give ‘til it hurts
               And I turn off the news when I don’t like what I see
               Yeah, it’s easy to do when it’s population me.

               What if there’s a bigger picture
               What if I’m missing out
               What if there’s a greater purpose
               I could be living right now
               Outside my own little world.

               Stopped at a red light, looked out the window
               I saw a cardboard sign that said, “help this homeless widow”
   Just above this sign was the face of a human
               I thought to myself, “God, what have I been doing?”
               So I rolled down the window and I looked her in the eye
               Oh how many times have I just passed her by
               I gave her some money then I drove on through
               In my own little world there’s population two.

               I’m going to break my heart for what breaks Yours
               Give me open hands and open doors
               Put Your light in my eyes and let me see
               That my own little world is not about me…

               Jesus is clear: we must be willing to lose our very lives for our enemies as well as those we love if we want to find them.  That is what it means to follow in the way, to follow the call of Jesus, to follow the God of Love.  It isn’t easy, but when we practice what is hard, it does become easier, it does become clearer.  The call is for all of us.  Amen.