Tuesday, May 28, 2013

God Doesn't Say, "See You Next Fall"

“See you next fall,” one church member says to another at the end of May.  After all, the summer season is beginning.  The expectation is that many pews will be empty as people leave for vacation.  People often live down to our expectations.

Not unlike expecting a half-full church the week after Christmas or Easter.  Perhaps it is not the same in Judaism or Islam the week after a high holy day or during the summer season.  I cannot authoritatively speak to that. But I do know that in none of the world’s great religions do I hear of God taking the summer off.  So why do we?
Lest I be misunderstood, I have nothing against vacations! Everyone, including clergy, paid and volunteer staff, needs vacation time. We have a God of Sabbath rest.  And a God of the mountains, lakes and sky.  The Creator God re-creates us through recreation.

But God doesn’t say, “See you next fall.”  And thank God for that, because although people need a break from routine, think what it would be like to have a God absent from our lives, from the world, for three months.  During the summer, people will have joys to share with their faith community, discernments to make, suffering to endure, grief to bear.    Babies will be born and people will die, perhaps some suddenly, shockingly.  We will need each other. We need to worship together, to hear words from a holy book, places to talk about the ordinary and unimaginable happenings in the world, a faith community with whom to pray.
Many congregations provide creative ways to carry out education and worship: alternative times of the week, outdoor services, family vacation Bible Schools, multigenerational learning opportunities, service trips, mission projects.   I trust these alternatives will be offered not out of frustration, but joyful expectation. We need to expect each other to come. And someone might just come for the first time.

Kevin, a single father, brought his three-year-old daughter to church one summer Sunday.  Although unaccustomed to weekly worship, she participated fully in listening, singing, and praying.  Kevin asked afterwards about Christian education for her. He was told to come back in the fall when things would start again.  
I need to see you this summer.  You need to see me.  Company in town? Bring them along! Our joy will be complete.  God doesn’t take a vacation from us.  Thank God.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Pentecost, Power and the Invisible War

It is hard to relinquish power once you have it, particularly when it is unlimited and unquestioned power.  President Obama Thursday acknowledged both the helpfulness, even necessity, of having the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) law. He also questioned it, noting the danger of continuing to have a law with such unlimited and far-reaching power.

On the other hand, having unlimited power and license to rape within the military system until recently was not questioned. The sexual crime of rape is all about power. The Independent Lens film, “The Invisible War,” shows the culture of privilege, power and impunity within the U.S. military. The U.S. Department of Defense in its recently released 2012 report showed that 26,000 women and men were sexually assaulted last year, a 35% increase from 2011.  It is not about men and women in close proximity or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is about domination, the unquestioned right of some men to dominate and overpower women and men they assume they can. And it is about being able to retain that power.  Rape and war have long been intrinsically intertwined.

Strange, isn’t it, that women entering the military, particularly in combat zones, was projected as being a danger to military men’s morale and ability to fight.  Likewise, fighting side by side with gays would supposedly weaken the strength of what was thought to be a heterosexual male military. It turns out women were not dangerous. They were in danger of being sexually assaulted by the very men they were told they would demoralize. And the real danger was to LGBT people themselves.  And the silent torture of thousands of straight men has been that they, too, have been sexually assaulted.  It is all about domination.

On Memorial Day weekend we honor those who have died in war. How do we honor them without glorifying war itself? We honor them by remembering their lives, their dedication, and their service.  And we honor them by being honorable ourselves and by helping contribute to creating and sustaining our military culture as an honorable place to serve, a place where people honor each other’s personhood and body.

President Obama addressed difficult topics in his major policy speech on Thursday including terrorism, the use of drones and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The latter is an elusive goal, complicated by Congress. As expected, however, disproportionate news coverage was given to the one woman in the crowd who called out her passionate views on Gitmo. Reports said things like, “Protestors repeatedly interrupted. . . .” (there was one person and one incident) or, “President is speechless for 30 seconds when. .  . .” Actually President Obama remained in calm control without being drawn into either anger or argument. He was patient, not powerless, and then simply went off-script to give an even a finer explanation of his position.

Obama did not so much defend his use of drones on the basis of his power to do so, as deliver rubrics in their use. He said it is clear their use is effective and legal. But, he added, their use must also be wise and moral. 

Think about those words in terms of any use of power. In terms of the invisible war within the military, sexual assault and rape is effective in retaining male dominance, and in keeping power within the hands of the most powerful.  And it has mostly not been judged illegal. Changing that will be a huge challenge, but one taken on by  Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) whose  bipartisan legislation has the support of Senators Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). It places the reporting and decision making for cases of sexual assault in the hands of a trained military prosecutor instead of with the commanding officer.

What about wisdom and morality? Victims of rape in the military have been continually victimized after the assaults. They have no power, most often receive no justice, and are often denied medical treatment. They have faced loss of their careers, PTSD, even suicide.  They, even if single, were accused of adultery, while their married assailants were not.

“The Invisible War” documentary stated that 33% of servicewomen did not report their rape because the person to whom they had to report was a friend of the rapist.  Twenty-five percent did not report because the person to whom they had to report was their rapist.

When interviewed, a person higher in the chain of command said they had alternatives such as to go to their congressional representative, to which a victim responded, “Who in the civilian culture when raped is told to go to their congressperson?”

Of the victims interviewed, their assailants retained careers and license to continue to perpetrate sexual domination. One was promoted to lieutenant. Another was named “Airman of the Year” during the time his victim’s rape was being investigated. Another is now a supervisor in a major U.S. corporation and there sexually assaulted a female employee.

It is hard to relinquish power once you have it.

The season of Pentecost has just begun. The Christ who relinquished power on the cross now lives eternally. Christianity is about morality, but also so much more.  It is about becoming again the Body of Christ in the world during this Pentecost Season.

On Memorial Day Weekend we honor bodies who have died and honor the bodies of women and men who live. We respect sexuality and see Jesus in one another, not that we might dominate and abuse, but so that we might respect, love and live together in all kinds of service.

We are not God. Only God has unlimited power. Christ chose to empty himself, taking the form of a servant, relinquishing power.  The Spirit’s power is unlimited. When you have more, I do not have less. Together we each have more, for the sake of peace and justice.  I do not need to kill, dominate or abuse you. The Holy Spirit empowers us all to claim resurrection power in order to share it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

When Help Is Not Just a Phone Call Away

“We're going to send them [the police] as soon as we get a car open,” said the dispatcher.  Amanda Berry replied, “No, I need them now before he gets back.” Of all the courage and strength it took to survive and to escape, one small phrase signaled to me Amanda Berry had not lost her sense of identity in context when she talked with 911: “No, I need them now.”

She had begun, “Help me. I'm Amanda Berry,” to which the dispatcher responded with the usual, “You need police, fire, ambulance?” Simply and straightforwardly Amanda replied, “I need police.” Most other people calling 911 would have thought, “Fine, they will send a police car.” Amanda knew, “when one is available” might be, well how long?  Ten minutes? An hour?  Three hours? Not at all?

When I heard those words I was drawn back in time to when I as a young women lived with my husband and three children in the inner city.  I am in no way comparing my situation to that of Amanda Berry, her daughter, Gina DeJesus or Michelle Knight.  But nonetheless I felt again the haunting reality of knowing that help might not be just a phone call away. 

Her words brought back images. When we lived in a poor neighborhood in an East Coast city, robberies were routine. We and our neighbors would call the police; however, noticing they were not writing down anything we said, we concluded they would not try to find the intruders. But when businesses needed protection, police took notice and went into action. We, the residents of the neighborhood, learned how to cope by ourselves and what help not to expect any time soon. We didn’t count. We were automatically devalued.  

This is not an indictment of any particular police department or individual, but of our system of values. Who and what is important? Who counts when someone goes missing? Rep. Marcia Fudge who represents Cleveland in the U.S. Congress said in an interview with Rev Al Sharpton that missing persons cases are not given the attention they should receive and that,  “There is even less attention given to young women who live in poor neighborhoods.”  When Michelle Knight was reported as missing, police told her family she had just walked away. Rep. Fudge said, “Had she been in another neighborhood, it is my belief the police would have handled it differently.”

All of us contribute to this un-equal system of values. When a pretty, blond young woman from a prominent, wealthy family goes missing, we follow the media stories of the search for months.  Neighborhoods that do not have such influence are invisible. So, how do we see?

How could no one have seen what was going on inside the house at 2207 Seymour Avenue in west Cleveland?  No one came. Some neighbors say they had noticed and called the police, but the police chief said, “We have no record of those calls coming in.”

It is true all sorts of people call 911 making foolish, even distracting calls. However, when someone calls out to 911, to the neighborhood, or to me, I need to be careful not to dismiss or judge, “They didn’t give information accurately enough,” or they did not speak clearly in my language or use professional English, syntax or grammar. Amanda did!  In the midst of possibly distracting questions about why she was calling from 2210 and not 2207, she said clearly, “I'm Amanda Berry. I've been on the news for the last 10 years.”

Amanda, Gina and Michelle have said they knew family and friends were waiting and searching.  How difficult that must have been.  To know and to be locked inside and not able to tell their families, “We’re here. We’re alive.”

And the joy in the neighborhood when those feared dead were found alive. What about our own neighborhoods? We formed neighborhood block clubs, not neighborhood “watches” with one race of people ready to stand their ground against others, but community groups which sought to know and include everyone, walking the streets together.  That is a way to gain courage, like Charles Ramsey and Angel Cordero who heard Amanda’s cries and (similar to people at the Boston Marathon finish line) walked toward the risk instead of away. Although this is a tragic, almost unbelievable, case, there are people in every neighborhood living in all kinds of bondage, crying out, some silenced, longing to be free.

Our family today lives in a place where we can safely walk the streets, even at night.  Not much danger here, and if there is, police come quickly. . . although there are more guns everywhere.  But I have not forgotten when we were living among boarded-up houses and dismissed as “those people.”  We cared for each other as neighbors there.  We need to know that in every neighborhood people are valued, even more valued when missing, and that we can count on each other to come now when called.