It was about this time last year or maybe later around MLK day in January, that I decided to take on a new discipline. Having long been inspired by Dr. King and Thich Nan Hahn’s writings, I longed to make non-violence a personal discipline. I joined Pace e bene and began receiving their materials and as time passed, I realized I had taken on way more than I could chew. The exercise of learning to become a non-violent human being was more than I anticipated —especially alone. Non-violence, I discovered was learned and engendered in community; even the community of me, myself, and I. In the old days, my mom liked to quote the Scriptures, “charity begins at home and spreads abroad;” I discovered that Non-Violence does too.
I am now learning that not only is non-violence a full-time venture, but it also begins with my attitude towards myself and expands to others. I discovered external violence is always a reflection of the inner landscape of the soul. I had to reflect on my tendency to think unloving, unhelpful, and unhealthy thoughts or behaviors that I directed towards myself—often without even knowing it. I’m sure I’m not alone, either. How many times have you spoken less than lovingly to yourself as you stood in a mirror not liking your hair, or clothes, or that pimple that suddenly popped up on your forehead? How often have you gone over and over in your mind, ugly or hurtful words spoken to you—beating yourself up for not measuring up? How often have you agreed with someone else’s judgement of your value or your contribution to a project that you have put your heart and soul into?
It is during times of painful self-judgment that we forget we are Beloved Daughters and Sons of GOD and heirs of eternity. Neither judgement of self nor others is helpful nor healthy and both judgement of self and others perpetuates violence against the sacred self’s Soul.
Even our societal norms are shaped in oppressive structures that perpetuate violence upon us. Without the realization of the Christ within, we are a violent people. The news headlines attest to this fact.
A friend and I were recently talking about how we usually grieve in ways that defy the natural and normal progression of life. Consider the way we are often expected to quickly grieve our losses for example. We feel uncomfortable with our own and other’s grief and often want it to be over and done with as soon as possible. In indigenous and less industrialized communities, grief is allowed to play itself out in more natural and nurturing ways. How can something so normal as grief, be ignored, perceived as unhealthy and something to be hidden from friends and those we love? An act of self-violence to be sure.
This year’s Advent retreat is called “The Non-Violent Journey.” We will celebrate the beginning of a new Church year as we anticipate GOD incarnate, the Non-Violent Jesus, the Prince of Peace into our human neighborhood. The retreat will help us focus on learning how to embody Christ’s Peace and to let go of harmful, self-violent acts in our own lives in the year ahead. Come and join us. You are welcome to learn with us how to “become the change we wish to see in the world.” Learning Non-Violence is an Act of Love.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I have been thinking about tables, about when and how and whether we break bread together, about welcome and inclusion and why we still find that hard sometimes. Stories of eating and drinking together across accustomed lines of difference punctuate the scripture: water at the well with the Samaritan woman, dinner with tax collectors and Pharisees, Peter discovering that God shows no partiality when it comes to house guests and meal-mates. The stories resonate literally in our bellies: the child in us remembers that nothing is more basic than food and learning how to share bread and ourselves.
In 1967 I was a Head Start kid in eastern Tennessee. A year later, in the spring of 1968, my dad dropped out of seminary, in part because of his school’s reaction to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My father has a complicated story, but one thing he was clear about was the equality of humankind, without regard for race or creed or class. The Episcopal church at that time in the south, however, was less expansive. In some places, the church that was calling him to be a priest was more likely to support the Jim Crow status quo than the cause for civil rights, and he lost his faith and calling over that crisis. His separation from religion compelled the loss of everything material we had—home, jobs, old friends—and set our family spinning into a dark whirl of anger and sadness. Years later he told me that he thought saving his integrity was worth the cost, but I wasn’t so sure.
We moved to Little Rock where he and my mother had family, and where my grandmother had a house we could squat in for free. It was a complicated gift: in some ways my father never recovered from the shame of returning to his Momma’s house, feeling like a failure as a son and a father. As far as I know, his family of origin never asked him what had precipitated his withdrawal from seminary. He struggled with “feeling blue” as he called it, most likely undiagnosed clinical depression, and worked as a laborer until he turned 65. I also didn’t think to ask him why he was sad until I was 1000 miles away at college. By then I had been mad at him for over a decade, because he seemed so aimless and because we were poor, but a longing to know him finally won out over my righteous pride. Beginning with a letter written when I was 19, we slowly began to build a relationship. For a year in my 20’s, we met over coffee at McDonald’s on Saturday mornings, our version of strangers at the well, learning to be honest, sorting out trustworthiness, risking intimacy.
We found each other at that table in the fast-food restaurant, an altar as sacred as any church could build.
I hope you will make a date with someone you’ve been meaning to talk with—even if that person is long gone and your conversation will take place only in a journal and your heart. It is never too late to ask someone “What hurts?” and share how their choices have had an impact on you… It’s not too late to get to know someone you’ve seen at church or the grocery store for a decade… This may be the day for you to reach across some superficial divide of race or class and meet in the courtyard for coffee.
Wherever people are breaking open their hearts and hurts, there is an altar in the world. Join me at that table.
This morning, I’m feeling thankful for some practical wisdom voiced through writer Annie Lamott, author of numerous books including Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith; Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers; and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In 2017 she gave a TED talk entitled “12 truths I learned from life and writing” that currently has over 6.6 billion views.
Here’s a taste of her writing, from Bird by Bird:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ “
This metaphor is particularly strong in my heart today, as I think about and pray for individuals who are navigating what feel like insurmountable health and life challenges, and for all of us in our ongoing political and global climate, and in our city of Baltimore.
Two days ago, on Election Day, a group from Redeemer spent the morning with our partners at Turnaround Tuesday, the jobs movement of BUILD (Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development) that has placed over 1500 Baltimoreans in living wage jobs since it began its work several years ago. (See today’s BUILD section for reflections from 2 parishioners about our visit.) Many of the folks who walk through the doors of Turnaround Tuesday are returning citizens searching for employment after having been incarcerated.
After a welcome, opening prayer, and time for “pair shares” (abbreviated 1-on-1 relational meetings!), a staff member offers a “Spiritual Vitamin” (kind of like a mini-homily or reflection) followed by a teaching and some role-play, based on the theme for the day. Last Tuesday’s theme was “Decision Making” and highlighted voting as the centerpiece of our democracy. We then had time for more reflecting and sharing in small groups, before ending with a few minutes of aerobic exercise and final, closing circle.
As part of our closing circle, we acknowledged several participants who have recently completed the “Essential Skills Training” component of Turnaround Tuesday. Every individual who comes to Turnaround Tuesday must first complete this essential skills component before he or she is allowed to even start applying for jobs.
One of the individuals whom we celebrated is someone who has become familiar to many of us here in north Baltimore. His name is Dwayne, and he used to be a “regular” at the intersection of Northern Parkway and Charles Street, sitting in his wheelchair. Dwayne has been attending Turnaround Tuesday in east Baltimore, on and off for the past 6 years.
Dwayne grinned broadly as we cheered for him and his fellow Turnaround Tuesday participants this past Tuesday, on Election Day. I can only imagine the mountains they have climbed, to get to get to where they are now.
“And now, you can start applying for jobs,” Melvin Wilson, Turnaround Tuesday co-director charged them. “And keep coming back here.”
Bird by bird.
Bird by bird.
When I was a clinical lab manager in Dallas, I had a colleague who was known to be a most difficult person. (Yes, even more difficult than Moi!) We, her peers, staff, and even vendors often left her office either in tears or seething in anger. Most of us just did not go near her if we didn’t have to. One day at a staff meeting Cassie invited us to see the new name plate her husband had carved for her in his wood working shop. Passing by her office later, I stuck my head in to check it out.
Imagine my surprise when I read it: IF I’M SMILING, I’M RELOADING—CASSIE. Remember we lived in Texas! I chuckle now even as I write this because that said all it needed to say about how I had truly come to know her.
I was reminded of Cassie briefly while on retreat this past September in Costa Rica because smiles were something I saw in abundance. Yes, the beauty of Costa Rica’s rainforest with its flora and fauna was every bit a delight to enjoy, and yet, its people—like people everywhere—are the ones who truly made my time there feel special. By far Costa Ricans or “Ticos” as they call themselves, enjoy LIFE; and it shows. Because I am a “smiler” I was always pleasantly surprised to see my smile so warmly received and reciprocated. Even the meanest looking motor-biker would smile back.
Adults, children, teenagers, old men and women, young men and women and anyone in between—if you smiled, they automatically smiled back and not one of those fake ones either. Their smiles said, “hello, I see you and I am here, too.” Smiles are such mood boosters and from a wellness perspective they are quite beneficial.
I have noticed how a difficult yoga pose can be made to feel less difficult when I smile. This started me exploring the benefits of smiling. Did you know that besides being a mood booster, smiles do lots of other things? Smiles lower your blood pressure (a big one for me), boosts your immune system, lowers your stress level, and helps you stay positive. You cannot think negatively when you are smiling! The best part is that smiling is a choice that holds personal powerful benefit. I see it as a real part of my repertoire for being well and being me. If you are not already someone who smiles easily, consider it a spiritual training for your soul. Smiling just might make a new you.
But please do not use your smile as a bullet, like Cassie sometimes did. Intention matters. Instead, be like my friend, Joe. Instead of “goodbye” at the end of every call, Joe always reminds me to “KEEP SMILING!”
Thanks Joe…I will.
I am smiling with Love & Gratitude,