NOTHING WENT “WRONG” WITH AMERICA

FRIENDS IN GERMANY WHO SERVE THERE AS RELIGIOUS LEADERS WROTE ME THIS MORNING ASKING, “WHAT WENT WRONG WITH AMERICA ON ELECTION TUESDAY?” AND I RESPONDED:

Nothing went wrong with America. Representative democracy works here. But more specifically, there are huge areas in America populated by poor, white and non-white working class people who feel bitter and abandoned by a self-seeking government (11% approval rating of Congress). These rural and industrial-area poor persons were not content to cheer-on Wall Street financial gains when they couldn’t find a job. They were not interested in having their domestic or international fears minimized or dismissed. They voted for the message as much if not more so than the messenger. Furthermore, the Democratic Party made a bad decision to mock the huge support of Bernie Sanders in favor of an establishment, entrenched, wealthy, old-guard candidate when people were fed up and wanted change. Trump was right in saying, “Poor Bernie.” Trump and Sanders ~ as candidates with a radical message ~ had a lot in common.

Personally, I have been in regular, continuous contact with the Republican Party Chairman here on Long Island ever since my confrontation with Donald Trump that made national news. The Chairman reached out to me, even inviting me to meet Trump at a fundraiser. I have told the Republican Party that I was never seeking their defeat ~ but I was and will continue to seek the defeat of hatred, injustice and evil in ANY of its manifestations. \

Now, as always, my primary prayer is, “Thy Will Be Done.” Greetings to my soul sisters and brothers in Germany. Tell them that hope springs eternal, and if America isn’t great already ~ then it surely will be as we, according to President-elect Donald J. Trump, “make America great again.” Now it is our turn.

VOTE FOR THE SERENITY PRAYER

One primary thing we did not get in the 2016 presidential primary is serenity. Now that the election debates are now over, many people have observed that like it or not, Donald Trump isn’t going to change and neither is Hillary Clinton. And while one candidate has tons of money and the other had tons of experience; neither money nor experience can buy serenity. With all that’s going on in the world today, we could use some serenity. But where and how does one find it? Many wise and learned ones ~ religious, secular, or higher-powered ~ say that serenity comes primarily from acceptance, courage and wisdom.

Serenity, acceptance, courage and wisdom are not religious attributes. They may manifest in religious persons just as they may manifest in those who are not. And that is why I believe “The Serenity Prayer” is the perfect guide to get our nation safely through the dire straits of troubled waters otherwise known as our 2016 presidential campaign.

By way of brief introduction, the Serenity Prayer was written in a little stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts by theologian and professor, Reinhold Niebuhr, around 1932. It became widely known when it was printed on cards and distributed to the troops during World War II. It became even more widely known when an early member of Alcoholics Anonymous saw it in a New York newspaper obituary and many AA groups began to use it. It remains an extremely popular prayer. Let us begin this three part exploration of the Serenity Prayer with the first third of it:

PART ONE:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept

the things I cannot change…”

Where do you find serenity? I find it by walking the beach and watching the tide coming in and going out. Part of what I like about the tide is that I am utterly in awe of and powerless over it. No matter what I think, feel, or do; and whether I am present or not ~ the tide comes in, and the tide goes out. I accept that.

But how many times do we suffer needlessly because we lack the willingness to accept the things we cannot change? Like trees refusing to bend with the wind, we snap. Like a tide rising despite our refusal to accept the change that life brings ~ we lose the ability to experience the serenity that acceptance often brings. But how do we gain acceptance of things we cannot change?

We can realize the blessings of the Serenity Prayer by accepting (not denying) our present circumstances as they are; by accepting ourselves as we are (not as we wish we were); and by accepting others as they are (not as we think they should be). It is in accepting our weaknesses; our unrealistic expectations; and our unreasonable demands that new strengths are discovered and developed. Acceptance of people, places and things that we cannot force to conform to our desires may feel like defeat; but acceptance eventually becomes the foundation upon which sustainable change can be built.

Notice that the first third of this prayer does not say that “I will grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It says, “God grant me…” The Serenity Prayer is a prayer, not a self-help mantra. It is a petition to God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. But Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as many other persons and organizations, adopted this prayer because of its appeal to all persons, religious or not, and a petition to the “God” or “god” of their understanding. Some people, for example, define God as “Good Orderly Direction” while others subscribe to a definition according to their birth right or choice.

Despite or because of these similarities and differences; the Serenity Prayer calls us to a soulful or spiritual axiom that by accepting what we cannot do; we create an opening where God can gain access to our soul and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

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PART TWO:

God, grant me the…courage

to change the things I can…”

In part one, we considered the tide as a lesson in acceptance of things we cannot change. You can stand on the beach and threaten retribution if the tide dares to come in; and you can later plead or bargain with the tide if it will promise not to go out. But neither threats nor pleading will change the results. The onus is thus on us to seek the serenity to accept [the tide] we cannot change.

Here in part two, allow me to tell you another beach story: A woman was walking along a beach that was littered with dead and dying starfish. Periodically, she would stoop down, pick one up and toss it back into the ocean. A man was watching her and shouted, “There are thousands of starfish stranded on this beach. Your efforts won’t make a difference.” The strolling woman stooped and picked up one more starfish, tossed it back into the ocean and said, “It makes a difference to that one.” Clearly, this woman knew that she was powerless to completely reverse a dire situation; but she had decided to change the things she can, no matter what a doubting onlooker was shouting at her from the sidelines.

Many times, we feel our actions will not matter and we shrug our shoulders and say things like, “You can’t fight City Hall.” Other times, we give up on our dreams as if they were dead and dying starfish. We abandon our dreams, without first trying to place some of them back into the nourishing water.

We may even choose to do nothing about global poverty and hunger. We feel we can’t possibly make much of a difference ~ so we choose to make no difference whatsoever and we… walk… away… without realizing that when we offer even a simple bowl of soup to a hungry person ~ that one bowl of soup makes a big difference to that hungry soul, that malnourished starfish.

A person saving a dying starfish on a beach, and a person serving a hungry person in a soup kitchen are changing the things they can ~ but what about the word “courage” in this second section of the Serenity Prayer: “courage to change the things we can”? Does it really take courage to change? Not always. You can change a person’s life forever by barging into a situation with guns (or words) blazing ~ shooting first and aiming later ~ but that is not courage. There are other words to describe such behavior.

The Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz says, “What makes a king out of a slave? Courage! What makes the flag on the mast to wave? What makes the Hottentot so hot? What have they got that I ain’t got?”

Many people claim that if they could eliminate fear from their lives then they would be more courageous. But Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Courage is not the absence of fear; but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

What, to you, is more important that fear? If courage is not recklessness and arrogance; then what is it? Courage ~ to many spiritual and/or religiously-inclined people ~ is depending on God (however we may conceive, believe, understand or mis-understand him, her or it) to guide us as we do the next right thing. Courage is demonstrating ~ not what we can do ~ but what God can do to and through us. Courage is not a way to bully our way into victory. It takes courage to realize and accept that while God may not spare us from all adversity; God will surely guide us through it.  God is a source of strength and help in times of trouble. Therefore, we shall not fear… or at least we shall not allow fear to paralyze us into inaction as we ask God to grant us the courage to change the things we can.

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PART THREE:

God, grant me the…wisdom

to know the difference…”

Welcome to part three, where we pray not only for the serenity to accept the change we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can ~ but also for “the wisdom to know the difference.”

Look around the world today. Do you see a whole lot of wisdom? Maybe wisdom is a thing of the past. Maybe the modern-day wise ones avoid the media, politics and religious. Or maybe people are looking for wisdom in all the wrong places. Or maybe looking for wisdom isn’t such a wise thing to do.

Wisdom isn’t simply deep intelligence, worldly knowledge, vast experience or even compassionate understanding. You don’t get wisdom out of a textbook, not even the Bible. If you could, then everyone who read the Bible would be wise and that clearly is not so. “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” it says in Proverbs.

You also don’t necessarily receive wisdom simply by listening to others; even if the ones you listen to are wise. If that were so, then everyone with ears to hear would be wise and that too is clearly not so.

And you also don’t necessarily receive wisdom by accumulating experiences. We all, I assume, know people who have done things over and over again and yet seem to have failed to learn, grow or change from them. A wise friend refers to this phenomena as, “repeating the same year over and over again between birthdays.” Experience, like knowledge, in and of itself is not enough.

And it pains me deeply to admit and accept that you don’t receive wisdom by writing about wisdom either. If that were so, the author of every thesis or dissertation that line the shelves of libraries would be wise; the author of every article in every magazine in the waiting rooms of every office would be wise; and every sermon of every clergy person would reflect their wisdom. But writing about wisdom, like experience and knowledge, in and  of itself is not  enough.

Despite my many disclaimers thus far in this writing that the Serenity Prayer is not the exclusive domain of religiously-inclined persons; bear with me as I tell a story from Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament and a very brief one from Christian scriptures, also known as the New Testament:

Millennia ago, Solomon became King of Israel. He could have asked God for many things but Solomon asked for wisdom (1 King 3:9) and God said to him that since he had asked for wisdom and not for long life or wealth for himself, nor did he ask for the death of but enemies ~ but had asked for discernment in administering justice ~ God declared that God would do as Solomon had asked. And so God granted Solomon a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like him, nor will there ever be. And people came from the ends of the earth to hear the Wisdom of Solomon.

In the New Testament, Jesus was said to be full of wisdom even as a young child. Later, Jesus taught in his hometown synagogue and people were astonished and asked where he got this wisdom and mighty works (Matt 13:54). The conclusion was that something greater than Solomon was present in the young Jew named Jesus (Luke 11:31).

So where does wisdom come from? True wisdom, as simple as it seems, is found in praying and asking for it. Thus, the Serenity Prayer could also be called the Acceptance Prayer; the Change Prayer; the Courage Prayer; and the Wisdom Prayer. This prayer reminds us that wisdom is, ultimately, a gift from God, whoever we may understand God to be. The prayer petitions: “God grant us the wisdom to know the difference” between when we should accept the things we cannot change and changing the things we can.

In this presidential election season of rancor and debate where one of the few things upon which people agree is that we are hitting new lows on an almost daily basis ~ perhaps it is indeed wise to pray to the God or god of our understanding or mis-understanding that there will be an opening where God can gain access to our soul and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, one day at a time. Most certainly, we could use a little help.

The Serenity Prayer, as written by Reinhold Niebuhr, is actually much longer than the few verses with which most of us are familiar. Check it out. It is a good investment of the ten seconds or so that it takes to read, and the ten seconds or maybe a lifetime that it may take to embody and fulfill.

And if you agree with this, visit #SerenityPrayer2016Election and cast your ballot to make it the Officially Unofficial prayer for the 2016 election. Let’s vote for serenity, acceptance, courage and wisdom. Meanwhile, hear our prayer:

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

The Poetic Spirituality of Bob Dylan

When pressed about his religious slash spiritual beliefs, Bob Dylan replied, “I have always thought there was a superior power; that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come; that no soul has died; every soul is alive, either in holiness or in flames.” When asked if he belonged to a church or synagogue he replied, chuckling, “Uh, I belong to the Church of the Poison Mind.” When asked about a particularly obtuse line in one of his songs, he said that, for him, some of the lines of his songs “open a door into the unknown.”

Imagine pastors, sermons and liturgy opening doors into the unknown and unlocking mysteries in the company of strangers and wanderers who venture into churches seeking refuge from the company of small minds and even smaller hearts that they find at work, at play, and splattered like spiritual road kill on the internet highway.

Bob Dylan (formerly Bob Zimmerman) took his professional name from the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who once wrote,

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan was always a writer, a poet, a wordsmith who knew that poems and poetic lines were uttered long before writing was invented and that it was the rhythm, the pulse, the heartbeat of accompanying music that drove the meaning deep into the souls of listeners.

While the Beatles were writing lines like, “If I fell in love with you, and I promised to be true” Dylan was writing lines like, “Name me someone who’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him” and “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Beatles. My second book is dedicated to John Lennon and I own a piece of his art, the purchase of which was a great financial sacrifice for me. But when the Beatles heard Dylan, they realized that musicians of integrity could write songs of authenticity and not kowtow to the delusional wolves of commerce; and they need not contort themselves into cotton-ball-minded minstrels of mediocrity in order to get a gig or a record deal. Dylan changed the Beatles. And Dylan changed me.

After I first heard Dylan, when I was young, it was suddenly okay to simply be myself ~ as a person and as a writer ~ and not “twist and shout” myself into some version of me that might be more popular with the rest of humanity. My writing prospered when I stopped trying to jam my flowers into any vase that I was handed and that is an artistic lesson I learned from Bob Dylan.

Dylan was and is a soul seeker; a cultural vagabond; a spiritual tourist; and a spiritual tour guide at the same time ~ welcoming us onto a bus that has no designated destination other than, “Into the unknown.” And it is into the unknown that millions of us have traveled with Dylan as a flask of inspiration always within reach.

At my service of ordination into ministry at the age of 47; it was the music of Dylan that was played. At the baptism of my youngest grandchild, it was the music of Dylan (“Forever Young”) that was performed. It was “The Spirituality of Bob Dylan” that was the first segment of a live musical and narrative series, now in its fourth year, that tutored me in the belief that it is a song more so that a photo, sermon or speech by which I will be remembered. And so, if I ever some day get a chance and a good reason to plan my own funeral ~ it will be the music of Dylan that helps to guide me home.

Ah, sweet congratulations to Bob Dylan on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature (a prize for which he has been previously been nominated several times). I am pleased that he ~and I ~ got to experience it during our respective, but somehow intertwined lifetimes.

THE SERENITY PRAYER (PART 1 of 3)

“God, grant me the serenity to accept

the things I cannot change…”

Welcome to part one of this three part series on the Serenity Prayer. The Serenity Prayer was written in a little stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts by theologian and professor, Reinhold Niebuhr, around 1932. It became widely known when it was printed on cards and distributed to the troops during World War II. It became even more widely known when an early member of Alcoholics Anonymous saw it in a New York newspaper obituary and many AA groups began to use it. It remains an extremely popular prayer.

With all that’s going on in the world today, I could use some serenity. How about you? Where do you find serenity? I find it by walking the beach and watching the tide coming in and going out. Part of what I like about the tide is that I am utterly in awe of and powerless over it. No matter what I think, feel, or do; and whether I am present or not ~ the tide comes in, and the tide goes out. I accept that.

But how many times do we suffer needlessly because we lack the willingness to accept the things we cannot change? Like trees refusing to bend with the wind, we snap. Like a tide rising despite our refusal to accept the change that life brings ~ we lose the ability to experience the serenity that acceptance often brings. But how do we gain acceptance of things we cannot change?.

We can realize the blessings of the Serenity Prayer by accepting (not denying) our present circumstances as they are; by accepting ourselves as we are (not as we wish we were); and by accepting others as they are (not as we think they should be). It is in accepting our weaknesses; our unrealistic expectations; and our unreasonable demands that new strengths are discovered and developed. Acceptance of people, places and things that we cannot force to conform to our desires may feel like defeat; but acceptance eventually becomes the foundation upon which sustainable change can be built.

Notice that the first third of this prayer does not say that “I will grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It says, “God grant me…” The Serenity Prayer is a prayer, not a self-help mantra. It is a petition to God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In accepting what we cannot do; we create an opening where God can gain access to our soul and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

TONIGHT I DINE WITH MY ENEMIES & WATCH THE DEBATE

I too ~ not unlike current candidates fighting for your attention & affection ~ have been vilified by many and lived to tell the tale. But, whether I like it or not, the rain falls on the just and the unjust; the fundamentalists of the right and of the left; our friends and foes. So far in this election season, yelling, screaming, insulting, threatening and ridiculing have gotten us where? Representative democracy is a messy experiment. I repeat: experiment. I hope it works, although it does not seem to be growing by leaps and bounds on a global scale. I will not yet abandon civility, discourse, negotiation, respect, acceptance, change, humor and/or the possibility of spiritual transformation.

Tonight I will be at the beautiful, waterfront, Long Island home of my wealthy, die-hard Republican friend watching the debate with a few people across the political spectrum. I am bringing a chilled shaker of Pepto Bismol martinis. I am pleased that we all are patriots who are civil in our discourse, respectful in our differences, and accepting that while our differences aRE significant ~ our similarities are far more numerous. “Enjoy” the debateBlessing of the Toilet Paper

 

Is There Anyone in Your Life Who Really Knows You?

Many people do not seem to know each other very well. In the breakups of everything from childhood friendships to marriages, the reason for the demise often cited is some version of, “He just doesn’t know the real me” or “She doesn’t understand me, and I don’t think she really wants to.” But there is One who knows us, ~ far better than we are known by others, and even far better than we know ourselves ~ even the things we know about ourselves but don’t like. God knows and accepts us. God never arrives and never leaves. God is always for us and with us. God has our back. God is a very real and present source of help in all our joys and sorrows before the cradle and after the grave.082

Part-Time Jesus

I have read the Bible many times and have found no evidence that Jesus ever took the summer off. Therefore, my philosophy has always been that neither should we. But I am also confident that when the summer breeze wafted over the Sea of Galilee, Jesus took some time off to go swimming, grill some fish, and play Frisbee (or the ancient equivalent).

We should also keep the churches open and ready to welcome and serve because Jesus said, “the poor shall always be with you.” I take “the poor” to include those who cannot afford to go to some exciting vacation by land or sea. And I take “the poor” to include those who are grieving or in poor health and need support at a time when many other persons are at the beach and its “summertime and the livin’ is easy.” And I take “the poor” to include those who feel “poor” if they cannot start their Sunday and their week with one hour of devotion, prayer, music and message.

I really enjoy church in the summer. I enjoy the informality and the lack of fuss. I enjoy listening to soloists or other instrumentalists not on vacation or sabbatical until the week after Labor Day. I even enjoy fine recorded music if that is all there is to offer. I enjoy the intimate setting and the special bond with the Summer Service People. And I really enjoy and feel good knowing that we are “present and accounted for” in case someone needs us.

For the remaining Sundays between now and Labor Day ~ if you cannot physically be in church ~ then continue to be there spiritually, wherever you may wander, wherever you may roam. Pray for your church while you are away. And if indeed you are away somewhere ~ don’t forget that the church is still here “holding up the fort” and that the bills never take a vacation. Let us remember to thank those who keep the church open. And remember to thank God for a full-time Jesus in a summertime season.

HATE CANNOT DRIVE OUT HATE

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence ~
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I speak what I am about to say from experience, knowing and accepting that some will differ: In the aftermath of a hate crime or other act of violence that may incite an individual or community to retaliatory violence ~ it is imperative to immediately include all “sides” in the process of seeking justice and healing.

As President Obama said at his press conference in the aftermath of the recent killing of police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it is important to involve, “People of good will who pledge to work together for the common good ~ that is what we need right now.”

As I mentioned, I speak from experience: Immediately after the 2008 hate crime murder of a person of color, Marcelo Lucero, by a group of seven teenagers from the local high that made national news for weeks~ and even before the funeral that was held at my church, and over which I presided ~ I contacted the families of the perpetrators and invited them to be a part of the community in our anger, grieving and healing process. I did so knowing that that process I invited them to join would undoubtedly send their children to prison. As I had anticipated, their attorneys did not allow them to respond. But I made the sincere gesture anyway. Eventually, after the trials that sent the teenagers to prison (one of them for 25 years), a few of the families responded and a productive, though not always painless or calm, healing process ensued. I did this with the conviction that half of a community cannot heal.

Immediately after the hate crime murder that ripped into the flesh, bones and soul of our community ~ I also reached-out to the police department, (which the Department of Justice later investigated and issued over 100 citations of needed change) ~ and told them that I did not consider the police to be the enemy. Hate was the enemy. I communicated the same conviction and sentiment to the executive levels of our county government.

Not surprisingly, not everyone was in agreement with me. Many persons, especially activists and advocates from the immigrant community, had seen many unreported hate crimes caused in part by the inflammatory rhetoric of elected officials. They had seen the repeated injustice that was tolerated and/or perpetrated by the schools, police, and elected and appointed government officials who were sworn to protect and serve all persons equally.

Shortly after the murder, our church planned an event where alleged victims of hate crimes were invited to come to the church and tell their story (many felt unsafe going to the police), with the assurance that they would not be not be arrested, deported or harassed. Many people involved with planning the event were seething with rage at the police and argued strongly with me against allowing the presence of the police in the church during the telling of alleged hate crimes. Anger, resentment, hate and fear were, as the saying goes, “just beneath the surface” waiting to explode. And explode it did. The potential on the streets for violence initiated by both “sides” of the hate debate was huge.

In the midst of this, I reached out, through a mutual friend, to Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He had been the convener of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. I asked his opinion on my efforts to include the families of the perpetrators, the police, and government officials ~ who many believed were partly responsible for the escalating climate of racism and violence in our community ~ as part of the justice and healing process. Archbishop Tutu wrote me a letter stating that he was praying for the murder victim and his family; for me and my church; for the community at large; and he was praying for those responsible for the murder, as well as for their families. Everyone deserves a seat at the table of justice.

This is not a happy ending story of an angel floating like a feature down from heaven to initiate a group-hug between hate crime victims and hate crime perpetrators. This is, rather, a story about a community brigade passing buckets of water to put out a fire of violence and hate that exploded into flames over seven years ago that sometimes appears to have been extinguished, at least until periodic smoke and embers arise.

My conviction ~ based on an experience of blood, death, hate and hope ~ is that, in immediate and intentional attempts at healing ~ it is possible for a community to go where fear and hate have no dominion over love and peace.

Our healing began with the realization that the worst level of violence, hate and terror is when you allow it to infiltrate your mind and soul and twist you into a version of what you deplore in others. The healing in our imperfect community is based on an experience that has proved, at least to us, that it is possible for a wounded people to seek common ground and to emanate a peace that surpasses all human understanding. All this is made easier when ~ right now ~ we drop the rhetoric that engulfs, inflames and burns us and begin to pass the buckets of water one person unto the other. The price of not doing so is very high. Our cities and our souls appear to be burning. May justice and peace flow down like water.