Sunday, August 26, 2018

More on Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

Last week we talked about the call to love and how hard that is.  As you may remember, I spent some of the time focusing specifically on the very difficult call to forgive.  And today I want to talk a little more about this. 

In todays’ gospel lesson we are told to forgive and forgive and forgive.  And we are told, what’s more, that in the same way that we fail to forgive, so God will fail to forgive us.  The way that I see this is more that our ability to accept forgiveness and our ability to offer forgiveness are one and the same.  That it is in learning to forgive others that we are also able to release shame and guilt for our own misdeeds and accept the forgiveness that God offers us.

               As I thought about forgiveness, several stories came strongly to mind.  In the Judy Blume book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Fudge ruins the class project left in his brother Peter’s room, he swallows his brother, Peter’s turtle.  And to make matters worse, everyone is concerned about fudge when he swallows the turtle and not about Peter’s turtle or Peter.  You can imagine that these would be hard to forgive.  Especially if, when you finally get to a place of letting it go, the other person does something else to hurt you.  Eventually Peter does come to understand how young and not quite bright his brother is and he does forgive him, but it is a tough path for Peter to get there.

 The movie, Spitfire Grill, is about a very young woman who has just come out of prison for manslaughter and is looking to start a new life.  She finds a small town where she is hired to work at the Spitfire Grill.  And while at first there is a lot of fear and judgment towards Percy, as people get to know her they come to see her and love her for who she is.  There is one exception in the movie, however.  Nahum is extremely protective of his aunt, for whom Percy works, his family and his town.  He sees Percy as a stranger, and as a threat.  He doesn’t want to know her story, doesn’t care to actually look at the real person that she is, he only wants her gone.  He cannot take the risk of getting to know Percy or, as he fears, getting hoodwinked by her charm.  In the end, his failure to risk seeing her ends up in a terrible tragedy for the town.  I won’t give away what that is for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I will say that it is only after this irreversible tragedy that he can see his own failure to forgive, to step into love, to risk seeing this other person as a human being.  That failure to risk a new vision leads to a terrible ending, a deep loss for everyone in the town. 

               In the movie “Philomena”, the part that gets to me every single time is when Philomena who has had truly terrible treatment by the nuns in a convent in Ireland goes back to the Convent to find out the truth, to confront those who have taken away from her that which she valued the most in her life, namely her son.  She goes with a reporter who has helped her discover the truth of what happened to her, and to him, so long ago.  And when they arrive, the reporter is outraged and begins to yell at the nuns.  Philomena apologizes to the nuns for his behavior and says to the reporter, “it happened to ME, not to you!”  He in his rage responds, “So, what are you going to do about it?  Are you just going to stand there?!”  And Philomena says.  “No.”  She takes a huge breath, turns to the nun who pretty much headed the atrocities and says, “Sister, I want you to know that I forgive you.” 

The reporter is incensed at this and yells at Philomena, “What?  Just like that?” 

               Philomena responds, “No, not ‘just like that’.  That’s HARD.  That’s HARD for me.  But I don’t want to hate people.  I don’t want to be like you!  Look at you!”

               “I’m angry!”

               “It must be exhausting!”

               While Philomena was based on a true story, it is a movie.  But still, there are other stories of outrageous forgiveness, stories that we know to be true:

               On CBS, for example, there was a story from MI about a man named Jamel who was arrested for dealing drugs.  The officer made it up.  The former officer admitted on this CBS news clip that he had decided he had to have another drug arrest that day, so he had just grabbed someone off the street and falsely arrested this man, “planting” evidence and falsifying reports as he did so.  Jamel went to prison for four years as a result.  Eventually the cop was caught and brought up on charges for falsifying MANY reports, arresting many innocent people, and for stealing.  He was incarcerated for one year and Jamel, as well as other men the former officer had falsely imprisoned, were exonerated.  Still, after four years in prison, Jamel had lost everything.  After they both were released from prsion, the officer and the falsely imprisoned man ended up working in the same café together.  The former officer said that he had a faith experience in which he felt convicted in such a way that making amends became a necessity for him.  But in the case of Jamel, he didn’t know what he could do to make amends except to simply apologize to Jamel, and that is what he did.  The officer apologized, and, surprisingly, Jamel accepted that apology, and forgave him.  Jamel said he had been extremely angry, but the apology was really all he needed and all he wanted.  They have since become friends; such good friends that they have become public speakers together on the subject of forgiveness, the power of it, the healing that comes to all parties because of it.  When the CBS reporter asked Jamel for whom he had done the forgiving, Jamel’s response was , “for our sakes”.  This confused the reporter who said, “you mean for yourself?”  “No,” Jamel responded, “For the sake of all of us: myself, the former officer, and everyone else we encounter.  For our sakes I forgive so that the world might see what kind of healing can be done through the act of forgiveness.” 

               As I’ve said before, the deep truth is that everything God calls us to do, everything Jesus insists that we do, everything… these are for US.  I will say this again and again to you.  You are not called to do the hard things for God’s sake.  God doesn’t actually need our help.  We also aren’t called to do these things solely for the person we are helping or, in this case, forgiving.  The person who benefits the most from our forgiveness is always going to be ourselves.

How does it feel to be angry to someone?  How does it feel to hate someone?  Does that feel good?  Not only does it not feel good, but it takes up a whole lot of space in our psyches.  Space that could instead be filled with good thoughts.  Space that could be filled with love and joy and peace. Space that could be used to be loving and creative and world-changing.  Forgiveness frees up that space in our hearts, in our minds, in our lives.

 I’m not saying that it’s easy.  I’m also not saying that we don’t learn from the ways we’ve been hurt.  I don’t really believe in the saying “forgive and forget”.  I don’t hear in scripture that we are called to forget.  We are called to erase the anger, release the hatred.  But forgetting is a whole other ball game.  And I think the things that hurt us are lessons to us.

Let me give you an example.  If your dog constantly hits things off of the coffee table onto the floor, if that dog breaks precious things that you leave where her tail can hit it and break it, you can forgive the dog, but you can also learn not to leave your things in a place where the dog or dog’s tail might hit those objects and knock them to the floor. 

This applies to people too.  If we see repeating patters in the way a person hurts us, it is appropriate to change our way of interacting with them so we are not doormats to be stepped on again.  If a person shows up late every single time we are to meet with them, we might choose to come to them, rather than having them come to us – or we might choose not to try to meet with them if it is too much of a strain.  If every time we share a valuable part of ourselves with someone only to learn that it gets passed on to other people, we learn not to share in that way with that person.  Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, and it certainly does not mean setting yourself up to be abused repeatedly.  But it does mean letting go of the hurt and anger, and if possible, finding different ways to be in relationship with those who have hurt us.  It means not seeking revenge or vengeance. 

Again, I realize this is not easy.  I found myself reflecting recently on a situation that happened years ago when we tried to sell our very first home in San Leandro.  We were in process with someone buying the house when at the 11th hour they pulled out.  According to the contract they signed, that meant they lost their $5000 deposit for breach of contract.  But they sued us to get it back and then in court they lied about what we had been willing to do to fix up the house.  I was so stunned by the audacity of the lies that I didn’t even know how to counteract them.  I froze up, my “fight or flight” mode went completely into flight, and I literally said nothing in response to this.  I was so angry afterwards at the lies… not the loss of the money, though it took another 4 months to sell the house, and since we had been in contract on buying a home that meant we were paying two mortgages in the Bay Area for about six months.  But the bold faced lies on their part, and their belief that this was an acceptable way of behaving, their willingness to do whatever it took to get what they wanted, their willingness to hurt others through immoral means – I had a very hard time forgiving that. It took time for the revenge fantasies left my head.  It’s been years since all of that took place.  It took time, but I long ago forgave this behavior.  I now feel saddened for them for what I imagine to be a pretty regular behavior on their part, which can only harm them.  Still, I haven’t forgotten.  I am more aware that, especially in court situations and where money is involved, there are people who will do whatever they want to do in order to get what they want.  I am more prepared to speak my own truth, even in the face of lies, than I used to be.  I am no longer angry.  I don’t carry that with me anymore.  But I have also taken from it lessons in human behavior and how I choose to live in the face of that.

Presbyterians do not just pray for forgiveness, we do not just celebrate the forgiveness that has been given, we are also asked and expected to pass that along.  I have mentioned this before, but the passing of the peace is supposed to be a response to having been forgiven.  In this church we have put it at the end of worship as a way to great one another.  But that isn’t actually what we are supposed to do. 

Our Presbyterian Book of Order says this about the passing of the peace is:  “It is important in worship that we take the opportunity to seek and to offer forgiveness for hurts, misunderstandings and broken relationships among ourselves and that we respond to God’s act of reconciliation by exchanging signs and words of reconciliation and of Christ’s peace through the passing of the peace.”  (2.6001b)  So what does this mean?  The passing of the peace is a mending–of-hurts time, an act of forgiveness time, a reconciliation time.  In other words, the people we might approach during this time should include those with whom we feel the need for reconciliation, or for offering or seeking forgiveness.  You can pass the peace on to others as well, but it is as a sign that God forgives and reconciles everyone, and is not a “greeting time”.    It is supposed to follow the prayer of confession and acceptance of God’s grace because it is a sign that we have taken to heart God’s grace and now want to pass that on to each other.  And for this it is a wonderful gift to one another that we can touch and recognize the grace that is physically given to us.

I want to finish with a version of the Lord’s Prayer written by Rev. Dewane Zimmerman

Lord’s prayer (as it might be prayed by God to us):

My children who are on earth:

You reverence my name

But you do not celebrate my will for you.

You pray my kingdom come,

But how can it

When you ARE what I mean by my kingdom?

You pray for your daily bread,

But you have enough-and to spare.

You pray for forgiveness of your sins,

But how often you will not forgive each other.

You ask me not to lead you into temptation,

But what can I do for you

That I am not already doing?

Use the gifts I am giving you

And you will know my power and glory

Forever and ever.


My prayer for all of us is a heart of deepening forgiveness, for others, and for ourselves as well.  Amen.

Friday, August 24, 2018

God is not Santa Claus

        I understand that belief in a God who functions in a Santa Claus kind of way, rewarding certain behavior, punishing other behavior, is common.  I understand the reasons behind it.  Wouldn't it be wonderful to believe that if we just did x (believed the right things, did the right things, prayed the right way) that God would give us everything that we needed?  Wouldn't it be a huge relief to believe that we can control our lives in this way, by just believing or praying or going to church? I know it brings many people a great deal of comfort to believe that if they only do or believe the right way that everything else in their lives will be fine, will be taken care of.  We hear this belief echoed through so many, again very comforting, faith statements, "Everything happens for a reason."  "God won't give you more than you can handle." "If you just have faith, everything will be fine."
       But there are a number of problems with this way of thinking.  First of all, it is wrong.  It is inaccurate.  Anyone who has lived through a real crisis can vouch for this fact.  As our scriptures tell us, "the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike."  Bad things happen to good people. People do get more than they can handle during this life time. Even deeply faithful, very generous and giving people meet with tragedies beyond what they can handle. Around the world there are faithful people who die in war, who starve to death, who find themselves living on the street or being in violent situations that eventually destroy them.  God has given us free will, has called us into genuine relationships which means that God does not micromanage our behavior, nor the behaviors of others.  If we were controlled by God, there would be no authentic choices or relationships.  But that is not what God created nor what God wants from us.  So God has created us with the choices to be who we want to be, do what we decide to do, and impact the lives of those around us however we do that.  The result is that terrible things happen to people, often because of the free behaviors of other people.  We want free will and the ability to make choices for ourselves, but we still hope that God will interfere with the choices that others make, prevent them from doing damage or causing harm.  And unfortunately, our freedom comes with the cost that everyone else also has that freedom.  God will not step in and take away that free will, or our individual autonomy.  So tragedies occur. Everything happens, but often without any reason other than that people make choices that injure or harm others.  And while our faith matters deeply: sensing and knowing a loving entity who will be with us through our tragedies will absolutely help us to cope, help us to manage; that faith will not change the behaviors of other people, the choices that they make, nor how those choices impede, and sometimes damage, our lives.
         The problem with believing something that is so comforting, but that is ultimately a lie, is that for most people that belief that if we just do the right thing that God will make sure everything is fine, is a belief that is doomed to be challenged.  If our faith is a Santa Claus kind of faith, then at the first real tragedy, we will not be able to keep or hold on to that faith.  We see this throughout history: so many people left their faith because of and through WWII, for example.  People have decided there must not be a God at all because of the numerous terrible atrocities and tragedies throughout human history.  Others give up faith after personal tragedies that aren't on as grand a scale, but are just as devastating for the individuals.  "We prayed to God and God didn't fix it."  "What kind of a God would let their children suffer in this way?"  Well, if that's what you believe God is about: if God is just someone to take care of us and fix our problems, if the only point in our faith is that someone out there will make everything okay, it is absolutely understandable that when those problems are not fixed, when they are awful, beyond belief, and God does not stop the terrible events of history, that our faith would not be able to withstand the realities of human life.
      But there is so much more to faith.  And if we can, finally, accept the truth that God will not manage our lives, that God has given us free will, that we have choices in every possible moment and situation which then lead to the uplifting, or the depression of other people, then we begin at a completely different place to have a genuine relationship with the God who created us for loving and being loved.
      But perhaps this new faith, this new way of understanding God must begin with the obvious question: what is the point in having faith in a God who won't then fix everything, who doesn't ultimately manage the world, and who does not promise to take care of everything for us?  There are many reasons to still have faith, but I will only name a few here that are meaningful to me.
      First, I still deeply believe that God is Love.  Perhaps that sounds trite, though by "love" I am not meaning that high euphoric feeling that we have for people and others whom we like.  By love I am talking about compassion, grace, care, wisdom, and understanding.  When we engage this Love in our daily lives, we are better people. We are less likely to make those free will choices that damage others.  We are more whole within our own lives.  And we can also stand the trials and tribulations that life hands us with greater strength, wisdom, grace and compassion.  So, the first reason to still have faith is that the choice to engage Love in this way is a choice that benefits not only ourselves, but everyone we interact with as we grow in our ability to reflect kindness, thoughtful caring, good humor and generosity.
       Second, even those good relationships with others that do not give us physical rewards still give us support, confidence, strength, and well-being.  Our relationships with God are no different.  If we work at truly forming a relationship with the Good that is beyond us, we will also experience that support, love, strength and well-being.  We can talk to God, we can learn how to listen to God (through other people, nature, our faith writings, through events in our lives).  We can walk with God in a genuine relationship that is infinitely supportive and loving.
       Third, our faith stories (from whatever faith tradition you come) give us wisdom and teach us how to be loving towards one another.  Those lessons are good guides for ways to walk in the world that are positive and healing for others.
       Fourth, for me at least, a relationship with an infinitely loving Other means having the best friend and confident one could possibly have.  This friend and confident will never betray us, puts up with all of our feelings, even anger or hurt, stays by us through every tragedy and difficulty we face, and guides us (when we choose to listen) in how best to walk through those hard times.  This loving Other helps us grow, will never leave us alone or isolated, and is a true companion for each and every day.
       These are just a few of the reasons to still have faith in a God who is not Santa Claus. But I also believe that this understanding of God gives us more freedom even in the decisions about whether or not to choose a relationship with God.  We can choose it now for itself, not because there will be punishments if we decide we don't want it, and not because the only way to be successful in this life (or after) is through correct faith or belief.  If we understand that God is not Santa Claus, then we can make a real choice about whether a relationship with God is something we want to spend our time and energy on, for its own sake.
       If we do choose that relationship, I know it might not be easy to begin with.  If we were brought up to believe in a Santa Claus God who rewards the good and punishes the bad, changing the way we see and understand God is not an easy task.  But relationships of any kind based on what I can get from the other, even if that other is God, are doomed to fail.  And a faith that is based on the expectation of an easy life will quickly be challenged. A faith that depends on our having free will while others are controlled will be inconsistent at best, but one-dimensional at worst.  And a faith in a God who is just Santa Claus is a shallow faith without a depth of genuine relationship with a caring but real other.  Letting go of those hopes and wishes for a God who will fix everything is not easy.  But I deeply believe that the rewards of a genuine relationship are in the relationship itself.
      I find great comfort in having faith in a real and loving Other, despite the fact that there is still a part of me that would like a simpler relationship with one who would just fix everything for me when life gets tough.  But real relationships often have challenges, and growing in our relationship with God is no exception.  I am so grateful, not only for the love that surrounds each of us every day, but for the chance to grow in my learning of who the Divine is.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

More on Loving

Lev 19:1-2, 9-18

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

               Today’s passages are central to the ultimate message of Jesus.  We are told by Jesus that really there are only 2 commandments.  Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  But Jesus explains over and over who that neighbor is, and it is not just the person who lives next door, or the family member or the friend who can return the favors that you grant.  It is also that person whom you fear, and the person you hate, and the person who makes your very skin crawl.  It is that person who represents for you everything that you are against.  Who might that person be for you?  We all have people like this in our lives, and it is not usually those people we might first consider.  In this church we are very good at seeing and feeding and housing and LOVING the economically disadvantaged.  We give money and food to Monument Crisis Center.  We house the homeless through Winter Nights and CCIH.  We serve meals through Loaves and Fishes, Feed the Kids, and the Pittsburg Community meal.  We support advocacy through Multi Faith Action Coalition and Heifer Project. We participate in work days at Oakland Peace Center and Bay Area Rescue Mission.  And it is not just the economically disadvantaged. We are connected with Rainbow Community Center and offer workshops and host booths at their events.  We are good at seeing certain groups of displaced, disenfranchised, rejected and hurting people as our neighbors.  But there are others.  When you think of people who make you angry, or who make your skin crawl, who do you think of?  Are there people you consider the epitome of evil?  Who are they?

               Corrie Ten Boom shared a very powerful story on forgiveness.  She wrote, “It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’

“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]

“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’

“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive (others) their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.  And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”

That was an enemy.  This man, who had responsibility of her sister’s death and for her own torture, humiliation and deepest suffering – that is an enemy in the truest sense of the word.  And while the story I shared with you is a story about forgiveness, it is also a story about making the decision to love, truly love, your enemies, those people you would rather never see, never touch, never interact with.  It is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it is our call.

We know of other stories that are similar: the Amish community that chose to forgive the man who killed all of those children in the school.  The African American church that chose to forgive the man who broke in and killed all those people.  These are stories about people who are choosing love in the face of great evil.  They are not looking at recrimination, they are not looking to counter evil with evil.  They are choosing their own health, by not allowing their souls to be infused with hate.  But they are doing it by choosing love for the other.

I look at these words from Matthew, “But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.  When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.  When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.  Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”  There are so many books, so many studies, so many interpretations of these words.  There are so many explanations out there for what it means to turn the other cheek.  But in each of these situations, the bottom line is one not simply of not seeking retaliation, not simply one of not returning evil for evil.  Each of these commands are calling us into engagement with the enemy.  When someone slaps your right cheek, are we told to just walk away and not retaliate?  That could have been what Jesus said.  Just don’t retaliate.  Accept what has come to you that is evil, accept it, don’t return evil back, and move on.  But that’s not what Jesus said.  He says, turn the other cheek to them as well.  In other words, engage them.  Continue to be with them.  Look them in the eye and continue the relationship, even in the midst of the pain they are causing you.  Second, we are told when someone forces you to go one mile, “go with them two”.  GO WITH THEM two.  In other words, don’t just quietly accept what they’ve asked you to do.  Don’t just allow yourself to be used for a mile.  Engage the other, walk with them for two miles, walk with this enemy, this brother.  Engage them.  We are told when they haul you to court and want to take your shirt, give them your coat too.  In other words, don’t just let go of anger and accept that you have to pay and pay and pay what is not fair and not right and not theirs for you to pay them.  Engage them further.  Give them more.  Interact with them and hand them what is more. 

I am reminded of the musical and now the movie “les Miserable”.   The story begins with the release after 19 years imprisonment of Jean Valjean.  In the story, he was sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, and then he received more time for an attempted escape from prison.  Now that he’s been released, he can’t find a place to stay because his papers mark him as a former prisoner.  But the Bishop, Myriel offers him shelter when no one else will.  Still, instead of expressing gratitude and thanksgiving to the bishop, Jean Valjean waits until night and then runs off with Myriel's silverware, stealing from the very man who has just given him a break, shown him grace and care. When the police capture Jean Valjean, the Bishop though surprises everyone, especially Jean Valjean by pretending that the silverware Jean Valjean stole was actually given to him as a gift.  He goes even farther.  Reflecting what Jesus asks us to do, not only does he not press charges against the man who has hurt him, not only does he fail to insist on what is right and fair, which would be that the bishop be rewarded for caring for this man rather than punished by having his things stolen, not only this, but he follows Jesus’ command to give even more to those who would take from us and the Bishop presses Jean Valjean to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them, too.   He does exactly what Jesus says to do – he gives, in essence, his cloak as well as his shirt; giving the candlesticks as well as the silverware that Jean Valjean would steal.  We know the rest of the story.  Jean Valjean is changed by this act of grace. He changes his life around and becomes a successful and giving member of society.  He forwards generosity, he forwards grace, he offers care to others whom no one else loves and accepts.

               But the reality is that we cannot do good for the other expecting the good that we do to change them.  Because often it won’t.  And, that part isn’t our job.  Our job is to do what God asks us to do and leave the results of that love and that care to God.  Does that mean it might not make a difference?  Of course.  Does that mean that a person we offer care to might just take advantage of us and continue to use and be unkind to us?  Of course.  But again, what others do with the love we offer them is not our concern.  What is our concern is to offer the love Jesus calls us to offer.

               Still, what Jesus asks here is SOOO hard.  How many of us could do that?  When we are taken to court, we fight.  When someone steals from us, we want them to pay.  How many have we seen on the news who insist “in the name of God” on “justice”, completely missing that God’s justice is detailed here, by Jesus, and it is NOT, NOT EVER one of revenge, or one of seeking what is “fair” for us, or seeking retribution.  NOT EVER.  God’s justice, what we are called to do, looks like this.  It looks like the behavior of the Bishop in Les Mis, it looks like Corrie Ten Boom in her response to the guard, it looks like what Jesus outlines here – it looks like loving our enemies and engaging them, giving much more than is deserved, even to those we fear, even to those we hate, even to those who are seeking, actively to hurt us. 

               How hard are these words!  For us, these enemies may be people we have loved, people closer than we know, people who have hurt us beyond compare.  I have a friend who has been divorced almost a year.  When his wife left him, the courts gave instructions for the children to live with their mother but to have a set amount of time with their father.  But his wife is angry, though it was her decision to seek the divorce.  She does not want the children to have access to their father, she does not want their father to have access to the kids.  So even though the law instructs that they have a certain amount of time with him, in the year since the divorce, he has seen them for a total of about 12 hours, or one hour a month.  His ex-wife is an “enemy” in the sense presented to us here.  She is taking from him what is rightfully his.  She is taking from the children a relationship with their father.  She is taking what matters most to him in all the world, despite the fact that she has no real right to do that.  What would Jesus say to do in a situation like this?  How do you love an enemy like this, that is taking what is most dear to you, what is most important to you?  And when that decision is not just affecting yourself but others as well, children as well, how are we to respond in a loving way? 

               The scriptures today again show us this one really important aspect that transcends most problems, and that, again, is engagement.  Continuing to keep those lines of communication open, continuing to work not from an adversarial position (no matter how much we may feel adversarial!) but from a place of love, of care, of outreach, that is what we are called to do.  What will the results be?  We don’t know.  We can’t know.  But again, the results are not up to us.  What is up to us is choosing to act in love, even in the face of our pain, even in the face of our loss, even in the face of others’ determination to hurt us.  Again, not easy at all.  Not at all.  And yet it is what we are called to do.  Every time.

               I do want to throw a caveate, and an important one, into what I am saying here.  Because I don’t think we are being told to stay in abusive situations.  I know of too many women who choose to stay with their abuser of the abuser of their children standing on passages like this.  I don’t think we are being asked to continue to stay in that kind of situation.  Frankly, it is not loving to the abuser anymore than it is loving to the one being abused to allow that kind of abuse to continue.  It is damaging in a very real way to the soul and being of the abuser to be allowed to act in this way.  These passages are talking about taking a stand of strength to stand in front of those who would do harm and choose to show them what they are doing, choose to stay engaged in forgiveness and love, choose to assert one’s ability to care despite the evil coming our way.  That is completely different from allowing oneself to be harmed in a repeated and damaging way.

               As with everything that God calls us to do, this is not going to be something we are always able to do.  But we do it as much as we can.  And we trust in the grace of God, the love of God, that continues to encourage and hold us, even when we can’t spread that same love to others.  And that is the good news, today and everyday.  We are made more whole, we are made more complete when we are able to love in this way.  God calls us to this for our own sakes.  And we truly will be the benefactors of these choices.  They are choices, but the choice is to follow God’s call or to be less for not trying.  Thanks be to God that we are given that choice each and every day, again and again.  Amen.

The Bread of LIfe

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2

John 6:35-51

         As we look at the passage from John for today I am struck with a basic difference between the people that Jesus was speaking to and us.  We, in this congregation, are a people who do not worry about where our next meal is coming from.  We know that we will eat, often; and enough, sometimes more than enough.  So those words that we hear today, “I am the bread of life…(followed by words referencing the manna that fed the Israelites when they were truly struggling to find food in the desert, and then continuing): I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  These words promising bread that will enable Jesus’ hearers to eat, to not go hungry, to live – these words don’t have nearly as much impact on people who are comfortable and who have enough to eat, as they did for those who were not always assured of where their next meal was coming from. 

For people who were hungry, these words were promising another day of living; but more, they were promising a life freed from the anxiety of worrying about their next meal, or the next or the next.  It promises that with Jesus’ sacrifice, life is abundant, everlasting, eternal – and again, without hunger, without craving, without emptiness and without fear.  We understand these words to be about something much bigger than fulfilling hunger. We understand that the life Jesus was promising was not the daily life that we live. He spoke in parables, in metaphors and here he is not talking about physical hunger. Still, in a place, within an experience, where life is so fragile, so precarious, so short, and so full of the fear and reality of hunger, a promise of everlasting bread spoke to Jesus’ hearers so much more than it possibly could for any who have not suffered shortage of food.

Sarah Miles, in her book Take this Bread, said, “it’s the really hungry who can smell fresh bread a mile away.  For those who know their need, God is immediate – not an idea, not a theory, but life, food, air for the stifled spirit and the beaten, despised, exploited body.”  That is what is offered in communion, in this last supper, in the sacrament of that meal.  We are offered food, yes, but more we are offered life, we are offered God’s presence here in this meal.  Sarah Miles continued, “What Jesus offered was a radical…love that accompanied people in the most ordinary actions – eating, drinking, walking, and stayed with them, through fear, even past death.”  She connects all of this with Jesus’ call and command to Peter…She said, “I couldn’t stop thinking about another (Biblical) story: Jesus instructing his beloved, fallible disciple Peter exactly how to love him:  ‘Feed my sheep.’  Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”  Peter fussed, “Of course I love you.’  “Feed my sheep.”  Peter fussed some more.  “Do you love me?” asked Jesus again.  “Then feed my sheep.”  It seemed pretty clear.  If I wanted to see God, I could feed people.”  We talked about this last week: somehow that act of feeding others, and allowing others to feed us, connects us to God in a way that is hard to explain, but deeply profound.  God IS the bread of life.  Jesus exemplifies that for us, but also calls us to share that bread of life with one another.  This is both metaphoric and literal.  Feeding others, making sure others have enough to eat, to live: both at a physical level and at a spiritual level: that is what we are called, most deeply to do.  What do others need that we have?  And what are the ways in which we are called to share that, every single day?  This is what stewardship is about.  We are entrusted with God’s resources in order to share them, to make sure that all have what they need.  And again, this extends far beyond food: education, well-being, health care, companionship, the right to live free of fear from violence or persecution.  These are not things we have earned: these are graces, lent to us by God so that we might share them with others.  Nothing we have is ours.  All of it is God’s.  And our call, always, is to share our bread, share our resources, share God’s gifts with those most in need of them.

Those who are fed by God, not by daily food, necessarily, but by God, those people, no matter how poor they are themselves, those people find within them the strength and gift of feeding others. Greg Mortensen begins his book, The Three Cups of Tea by recounting his story of finding himself in an impoverished Pakistan village after a failed attempt to climb K2.  He was exhausted, he was sick, and yet these poor strangers fed him, cared for him.  The story continues, “(Mortensen) took a bite of warm chapatti dunked in lassi, wolfed all that he’d been served, and washed it down with sugary tea.  Sakina laughed appreciatively and brought him more.  If  Mortensen had known how scarce and precious sugar was to the Balti, how rarely they used it themselves, he would have refused the second cup of tea.”  The story goes on to explain how he had also been given by them their best blankets, their best food, their best everything, things they had so little of, things they did not use for themselves.  They found in the midst of their physical poverty, but their spiritual wealth, that they had this to share.  And they began it all with “communion” – with sharing the food of life with this stranger.  Those who find their fulfillment from God always find that they have something to share, no matter what they lack.

There is a story about a young student who had to be away from his fiancée for a few months as she travelled overseas to do peace work.  This was agony for him, to be so separated from his love.  He was sad and depressed.  He was on a bus traveling back to school, and the bus stopped at the Greyhound station, a rather dreary place.  He sat down on an unraveling, revolving seat at a dirty counter.  The counter was U-shaped, so he found himself sitting across from an old woman.  She saw him and said, “Honey, you sure do look depressed.”  He said, “I am, and before he knew it, he was crying.  The woman reached across the counter to pat his cheek with a dirt-under-the-fingernail hand and he pulled back when he saw it.  She simply asked, “What’s wrong, honey?” and he told her about his fiancée, and how much he loved her, and how much he missed her.  He showed the woman her picture.  The woman said, “Oh, I’ve never seen such a beautiful young woman.”  Then she began to tell him that she had been married to a traveling salesman who had since passed away.  And she related how they used to weep, both of them, each time he had to go away, but how happy they were when he returned.  She said, “You’re going to have a wonderful marriage.  Everything’s going to be fine.”  Then she suggested that he might feel better if he had something to eat, so she ordered a donut from under the scratchy plastic.  And the woman took the donut, broke it, and she gave it to him.  As she did, an announcement came over the loudspeaker and she said, “O my goodness!  My bus is here.”  And she disappeared.  Only then were his eyes opened and he recognized the visitation, God’s presence, in the breaking of the donut.

Again, in that need, and in the feeding, the fulfilling, the answering of that hunger, both physical and emotional, God was recognized.  In food, in the fulfilling of hunger God fulfills deeper needs.  God is present in this food, in this meal and God fills us. 

A Facebook acquaintance posted this story: "When I go through a drive-thru the person taking my order says something like, "does that complete your order?" I always respond by saying, "unless you would like me to buy you something." Usually they will giggle and say they appreciate it, but decline. The young lady today asked, "are you serious?" I told her to add her meal to my order. When I got to the window, there was this young lady with tears streaming down her face. She thanked me profusely and began to tell me her story. Folks, you never know what others are going through. The people taking your order at the fast food place are often working 2-3 jobs just to get by. This young lady was working 3 jobs, pregnant, and was evicted from her apartment yesterday. She now lives in her car. All this info because I bought her a salad ... yes, she ordered herself a salad. When we take time to be kind to one another, we open up the possibility of connecting with people. I'm not sharing this story to hear accolades. I'm sharing it in hopes you will step out of your comfort zone and dare to be the kind, connectional person God created you to be. Who knows ... you may just be the image of God that person needs at that moment. That's worth the $6 and 45 minutes I spent with her... yes, I had lunch with her and gave her lots of community resources to connect with." 

As I read that story, I found myself thinking that it was not just the young woman who was fed by this exchange.  The person who posted the story was fed too: God is in those meals, God is with us whenever we offer our gifts to share with others.

There is a poem I’d like to share with you called the “enough” poem.  It reads:

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright no matter how gray the day may appear.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more.

I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting.

I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger. 

I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.

I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good- bye. (Credited to Bob Perks)

In our wants, in our needs, in our pain, in the hungers that fill our lives – hunger for bread, for connection, for comfort, for ease of pain or grief or sorrow – in those hungers Jesus comes to us and offers himself – his very being to fill this our hunger, to feed our needs, to fill our desires, to fill our hopes and dreams and deepest yearnings to connect to LOVE.  As we eat our meals today, with one another or separately, may our eyes be opened to seeing God with us in this meeting of our basic needs, to tasting the goodness of everlasting life and love.  May we be fed in the breaking of the bread, and may we meet Jesus anew in the fulfillments of the hungers of ourselves and those around us.  Amen.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Communing with God

2 Sam. 11:26-12:13a

John 6:24-35

When we look at the bigger context of today’s gospel reading we see it as follows: Jesus has been healing the sick.  Then he performs the miracle of feeding the 5000.  Then Jesus walks across the water towards the disciples.  All of that directly precedes today’s story. What happened in the passage we read for today?  The disciples, and the people, literally “the crowd” are looking for Jesus.  When they find him he says that they are looking for him, following him, not because of what he has said and not even because of the “signs” he has given, but because he has fed them and they are filled, they are satisfied.  Jesus acknowledges that being filled is very important. It is so important that people work hard for it.  They are also willing to follow and want to be led by someone who will fill them, who will feed them.  But, he says, they are focused on having their bodies fed.  They are not focusing on what will really satisfy them, really bring them peace and wholeness, which is seeking after spiritual bread, after truth, after relationship with God, after following in the way, which is Jesus himself.  That is what will really fill them, but they can’t seem to change their focus from that of getting basic physical needs met. 

That is the central focus on today’s text. But as I sat with this text there was a sub story, related but not the focus, that really stood out for me.  And that has to do with the next part of the story.

After all of this: after hearing what Jesus says to them, after being told what they really want is to be satisfied and not with just physical bread but the bread of life: after they have been miraculously fed and after Jesus has walked on the water and after all of the healings he has performed, then this outrageous thing happens and they then ask Jesus for a sign!  Apparently, they’ve forgotten all the signs he has just produced.  Or perhaps they simply weren’t satisfied with the healings, they weren’t satisfied with the feeding of the thousands, they weren’t satisfied with him walking on the water.  They don’t want to have to do anything except be fed, be healed, be attended to.  And so, when Jesus asks them to do something in return, when Jesus asks them to follow him, they want proof, more proof, that this effort on their part will lead to them continuing to be fed, to be healed to be attended to.  They ask for another sign.  They point to Moses saying, “well, he fed us manna, so give us a sign so we can believe.”  (again, obviously what they are really asking for is a very specific sign: they want Jesus to feed them again).  But Jesus corrects them saying that Moses didn’t do that, God did that.  And that Jesus is there to feed them, is feeding them, has been feeding them: but at this moment, not in the way that they want to be fed, are demanding being fed. 

I think this is the key point here, actually.  They want to never be hungry again, physically.  They want to be fed in a way that makes them feel safe, physically.  They want to be shown that they will never suffer again, never hunger again, never be in need again.  And when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger again,” they are still thinking in terms of physical hunger, physical bread, physical needs being met. 

We still do this.  We all want life to be physically easier, to be smoother.  We don’t like to suffer, and we don’t like to see others suffer, especially people we love.  So we, too, beg and plead for something different, for a bread that will satisfy us always, without us needing to do anything.  We want to be children, taken care of.  More, we want a Santa Claus God whose job and role is that of answering our every need, but also our every wish. 

And what this shows me, what this says to me, what should be obvious looking at today’s culture and at the world and into our own hearts as well, is that people have a hard time believing. They have an even harder time committing to their faith and to living that out.  They have a hard time trusting in their faith, trusting in God, trusting in what they’ve even been experiencing through these miracles.  They’ve been given signs.  They’ve been fed.  They’ve heard the Word of God spoken again and again, and yet they still ask for more proof, more feeding, more signs. They still struggle to believe in a God who loves us beyond our imagining but also calls us into action.  They want to believe in a God who will feed them constantly like a mother bird, without them needing to do anything. But they struggle to do so.  They need constant reassurance. And because of that, no matter what Jesus did, they would ask for more: more signs, more feeding, more proof. 

Frederick Buechner, in his book “Wishful Thinking” speaks eloquently for us in his essay on faith when he says, “I can’t prove the friendship of my friend.  When I experience it, I don’t need to prove it.  When I don’t experience it, no proof will do.  If I tried to put his friendship to the test somehow, the test itself would queer the friendship I was testing.  So it is with the Godness of God.”

He continues, “The five so-called proofs for the existence of God will never prove to unfaith that God exists.  They are merely five ways of describing the existence of the God you have faith in already. Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved.  I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window.  I can prove that the world is round if I’m clever at that sort of thing - that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound.  I cannot prove that life is better than death or love better than hate.  I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful.  I cannot even prove my own free will; maybe my most heroic act, my truest love, my deepest thought, are all just subtler versions of what happens when the doctor taps my knee with his little rubber hammer and my foot jumps.

“Faith can’t prove a ...(darned) thing.  Or a blessed thing either.”

There is something very human in a desire for some kind of “proof” at times of God’s presence.  There is something very human in a desire to know for sure that Jesus is God’s son.  There is something deep within us that wants God to shout out in clear and concrete terms what we are supposed to do and be with our lives, what God wants for us in each moment.  There is something very human in this deep desire to be fed, cared for, taken care of, without needing to give and serve and trust in order to experience that satisfaction and fullness.  And some of the time, at least, we probably feel that the signs God does give just aren’t clear enough.

In reflecting on the nature of signs and presence and feeding in our lives, I was reminded of the movie “Bruce Almighty.”  He’s driving down the road demanding, insisting on a sign from God.  He passes a sign that says “caution ahead” which he ignores.  He prays more and begs with even more insistence for a sign.  He sees another sign, “turn back!”  which he also ignores.  He crashes into a pole and gets out of the car cursing and yelling at God to answer him!  To respond to him!  And then his pager goes off.  We know the person paging Bruce is God, but Bruce doesn’t know that.  Instead, he takes the pager and yells at it, “Don’t know you.  Wouldn’t call you if I did.”  And we are left both laughing but also reflecting seriously on the truth of that.  He didn’t see God when God was right there, answering his prayers, responding to his pleas, even calling him and asking him to listen.  He didn’t know God.  He didn’t call the God who is real, who exists, who is not Santa Claus, just there to dole out what we believe we need at any moment.  And if he had known this God, Bruce probably would not have called on that God. “Don’t know ya.  Wouldn’t call you if I did” was all too accurate a statement from this man begging for a sign.

But while it is entertaining for those of us watching the movie to see how blind and unaware Bruce is to God’s presence and direction for his life, we have signs in our own life as well.  For us too, these signs are not always so easy to discern.  We are each given and we each use eyes that are sometimes foggy as we look for God in our world.  These visions and insights into God’s will for us change depending on our gifts, our moods, our circumstances.  What you and I fail to see may be obvious to those around us.  What you and I do see as signs of God’s presence may completely elude others.

 There is a person in my life whom I am very close to.  We’ve known each other forever, and have been close for a long time.  In our adult lives, we share a dedication to education, we both have a love and interest in psychology (one of my majors was psychology, she has a PhD in psych).  Our children are near the same age and we share a similar parenting style.  Politically we are in a similar place and we tend to agree on almost every issue of real importance.  But this person is also different from me and especially so in one area.  This person I will call Jane is an atheist, as devout an atheist, I believe, as I am a Christian.  She cannot understand why I believe in God when to her, science, chance, luck can explain the Universe and everything within it.  To her my faith is nothing more than superstition, and, I believe she would say, an unhealthy superstition at that.  In answer to her questions about how I can possibly believe in a God, I really have only my experience as an answer.  There is no book and there are no signs which I can offer her which she cannot answer with some historical, scientific or rational explanation.  And yet, there are no experiences that I can recall in which I do not see God’s presence, see God’s hand, see God’s sign.  I experience God’s presence in the extraordinary, but perhaps even more so in the ordinary.  I experience signs of God’s presence and love in the very things which she experiences as scientific and mundane. 

What signs would make her believe?  If the world were to crumble tomorrow and angels and devils jump out of the earth, I doubt that these would be signs enough for her of God’s existence.  While for me, if I never were to experience a “miracle” again in my life, I would still see the signs of God’s presence and care all around me.  We see the world and God’s signs differently.  That doesn’t mean though that there aren’t times when I too find myself wanting, needing, even asking for a sign of God’s will for my life.

God understands us and accepts us as we are in all our humanity.  God knows that we are people who are unsure.  God knows that even the most blatant signs are sometimes hard for us to see, and that we cannot help but ask for them once in a while.  And so, while Jesus seems to scold those who could not simply trust and believe, Jesus also gave the signs that were asked for.  And Jesus did feed them.  I want to say that again because all of us need to hear it.  God does not reject our need for signs, or our need to be fed, but gives them in spite of the fact that what God wants for us is for us to focus on spiritual hunger, on our need to eat more fully of things beyond food.  In today’s passage, Jesus does remind the disciples of his feeding miracles.  Jesus did appear to Thomas and encouraged him, not only to see, but to hear, to touch, to experience the risen Christ to ease his doubt.

In light of this what are we to do? Jesus proclaims himself to be the bread of life.  He also proclaims himself to be the way and he declares that any who would come, who would seek out this bread of life, must be willing to take up his/her own cross to follow. We experience this bread of life, we experience the wholeness God wants for us, we feel what it is to be truly filled when we are communing with God, when we are doing what God asks us to do, when we are following on the way.  And while there are many ways to do that – sitting in beautiful settings such as this one, meeting with others who are faithful, experiencing an incredible sunset, I think we need to take what Jesus says about this very seriously.  He invites us to be fed by following him in his actions.  And those actions, that WAY, is one of loving one another, especially the oppressed, the displaced, those without justice, those without compassion, those without food.  We are not called to be people who simply sit at Jesus’ feet and beg for more signs and more bread.  We are called to be disciples and it is in being disciples that we will find ourselves fed to the core of our beings.

One of the many mission trips my congregation took was to replace the flooring in a mobile home that after one of the storms that hit the Eastern seaboard, had destroyed the roof which then meant the rain and other elements had destroyed the flooring of this woman’s house.  She was extremely poor.  She was extremely bitter.  For the first day that we were there, she watched us work while she sat on her porch smoking and complaining.  She complained about her neighbors, she complained about how unfairly life had treated her, she complained about what we were doing – (that doesn’t look perfectly matched, I don’t like that color, I’m sure I’d picked something a darker shade of brown).  We encouraged everyone to listen because we felt sure that the most important part of our mission work was not just the flooring, but seeing people, hearing people, treating them as the children of God they really were.  The listening opened a door, but it was a small crack.  The change came, though, when she offered us something to drink and made us all some lemonade.  I know that sounds strange, it sounds odd, it sounds tiny.  One of our folk didn’t want to take the lemonade from her because “we were there to serve her” but we just emphasized that accepting hospitality was as important as giving it.  And what we saw was nothing less than amazing.  In allowing her to serve us, we did several things.  First we equalized the playing fields.  We became people who were serving each another.  Second, it gave us a pause in our work to sit and really talk with her – an equal exchange of stories, in which we all saw that there are blessings and challenges for every life.  That act of drinking together, which eventually became eating together, sharing a meal of care, of service, of faith became an opportunity to see the face of God in one another. 

Jesus fed people.  He also allowed others to feed him: giving the woman at the well the opportunity to give him water, allowing the sinful woman to wash his feet with her tears and hair, (Luke 7:36-50).  Those who were most in need were not just cared for, but were allowed to give care as well.

When we want to be fed, it might be well to ask ourselves how we might feed others.  It is in this exchange – in this communing with God, that we are truly fed.  And it is in truly being fed, that we find our proof of God.  Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”  God is all around us, just waiting to be seen.  The best way to see God is to serve and love God’s people.  Amen.

Friday, August 3, 2018

One issue with our school system

     I've had the great gift and privilege of leading a week of music camp for some of the kids Contra Costa Interfaith Housing serves.  As many of you know, I absolutely love working with kids.  I love teaching music.  I really enjoy playing games.  And I love singing.  So combine all four of these things and I'm in my element.  That being said, I knew that these were kids who would undoubtedly come with some challenges (based simply on the hardships they have lived through), and so I was not surprised to find it much more challenging than normal to get and hold their attention, and to consistently expect respectful behavior towards one another or the adults working with them.  That doesn't matter to me.  It's a little more draining, perhaps, but I love the kids all the same and work hard to keep them engaged and having fun.
   During the entire week, we experienced only one real incident of blatant disrespect/difficulty.  One of the older kids (13) was singing in a high, ridiculous, falsetto voice and when confronted he, of course, denied it and said he was doing his best (though I'd heard him the rest of the week and knew he actually sang very well when he chose to).  My 13 year old has been accompanying me this week as a helper and when we got into the car to return home after camp, she told me she really hated kids like that at her school because they were so good at 1. causing trouble and then 2. getting away with it because their protests of innocence are so convincing.  She went on to say that even when these kids are actually caught causing problems at school, they just get rewarded for their bad behavior usually by being sent home for a few days of vacation.  The administrators call it being "suspended" but all the kids know it as "free vacation days".
    The conversation threw me back in time to when my family hit their peek crisis six years ago.  My daughters weathered the storm well, but my son struggled.  He was already challenged with ADHD, sensory integration disorder and depression.  When their father was suddenly and completely gone, when his medication caused a freak out, when the world became overwhelmingly difficult for all of us, my son didn't handle it with ease.  At one point he found himself defending a teacher who had cared for him to another student and my son made the wrong choice of stabbing at the kid with a pencil.  No actual damage was done to the other child, but violence is never excusable, and he was suspended for a few days.  I agree that there had to be a consequence.  No matter what he was going through, violence is not an acceptable option and this needed to be made clear. But what I don't agree with is the consequences that many school systems now use.
        My son, as well as my daughters, both saw him as being rewarded for his behavior, because he was basically given vacation.  Since I had to work, he was given unsupervised vacation where he was allowed free reign of home for three days.  No homework, no school work: just free time to play, or do whatever he wanted.  It was therefore not a surprise to me a few weeks later, when school became challenging again, he purposely set up a situation where he would be suspended a second time so he could have another free vacation.
        I assume the thinking behind "suspension" is that if the kid is home 1.The parents who obviously (sarcasm) caused their child to be "bad" would be punished by having to miss work and having to deal with their kid. 2. The parents, because they would then be suffering loss of money, loss of freedom, would come down hard on the kids and punish the kid themselves.  3. The child would feel humiliated by being sent home and therefore would shape up. 4. The class gets a break from a difficult child for a few days.
       But there are many problems with this thinking.  1. If, in fact, it is the parent's "fault" that the kid is misbehaving, sending the child back to spend even more time with problem parents will exacerbate the problem.  2. If it is not the parents' fault, then the parents are being punished with loss of income (often parents have to stay home with their child and not go to work), with needing to pay for care, or with the fear of having to leave their child at home alone after misbehavior at school.  3. Most of the kids who get into trouble are already struggling at school, struggling to keep up, struggling to stay on top of their learning.  Taking them out of school will only make them farther behind, create a situation where they are learning even less, and increase frustration as they try to make up for lost classroom learning.  4. If, in fact, the removal of the child from the class gives the rest of the class a break, when the child returns, he will not be treated well by his peers, which can cause even more problems for him at school, more acting out, etc.
       There are so many more affective alternatives to this that it frankly baffles the mind why they aren't in place.  There is a school district near ours that "punishes" by requiring community service time.  That makes sense to me: have the kids give back, have them experience and remember that there are other people who are also struggling who choose non-violent responses to their traumas.  I always thought detention was affective; if you have to spend more time in school as a result of behaving badly at school, that works pretty well, especially if during that detention you are doing more school work.  In a restorative justice model, a consequence for bad behavior is for counselors and administrators to spend time with the offender and figure out why they are acting in this way and actually work to bring healing to all involved (offender and potential victims alike).  Natural and logical consequences would say that if a child does vandalism, they are required to clean it up.  If a child hurts another child, they are required to help bring healing to the child harmed.  They may have to go through an anti-bullying program, etc.
        I realize schools in the United States are extremely poorly funded.  I realize that sending a child home is an easy "solution" when a school has limited resources.  I also believe deeply that it does not bring change, does not fix the problems, and does not improve school life for anyone.  My girls see very clearly that bad behavior is being rewarded.  My son experienced that to be true. How can this possibly help?
      I understand that our school districts have many issues, including the very way that we teach, using old methods for a culture that has outgrown them.  This is just one area that needs to be changed.  I know I have no say or authority to encourage a change, but as a parent, I can see that it is ineffective and doesn't work.  Hopefully others will stand up and work for change as well.