That’s hard truth, because the world can be shaped in ways that harm and hurt, and it can happen by degrees.
So we grieve a world that has made oppression, hatred, injustice, and inequality feel so utterly normal.
I am currently in a time of transition. While I have never been particularly sentimental, a big part of my life has been taken up with reflective practice. So recently, I’ve been looking back as a way of looking forward, thinking about and learning from the last years. In particular, I've been spending time looking at writings from another recent time of transition, in 2015-2016. It has been nice to reconnect with aspirations and convictions I named then. For instance, it remains most important to me that we, as individuals and as communities, care for one another and our world. My reflective practices have value inasmuch as they integrate inner and outer transformation. I am interested in how cultural and religious beliefs and institutions help or hinder the development of social and ecological justice and lasting peace, and what we can learn from each other. I aspire to be open-hearted and willing to encounter truth and wisdom in each person and experience I meet, in resistance to the violent patriarchal, racist, capitalist fragmentation of our world and psyches, and to do this in community.
Last June, I was participating in a workshop dedicated to racial justice and wholeness, especially designed for white folks. During a discussion session, one participant recommended harnessing the power of shame to move us in the direction of justice. For proof of the effectiveness of this approach, he mentioned a study on anti-cigarette smoking campaigns, and that the only effective campaigns were those that utilized shame. It felt like quite the leap to me to move from an anti-smoking campaign to anti-racist work, but, even if that application could be justified, I felt immediately curious and suspicious of how he was framing the data.
I’ve spent a significant amount of my life supporting human beings navigate through and heal from difficult and distressing experiences: as a minister, mediator, conflict coach, peer counselor, support group facilitator, educator, and friend. And after spending tens of thousands of hours over decades of listening, I can wholeheartedly confirm what you already know: having healthy relationships with healthy boundaries in our unhealthy society is hard work.
One of my favorite descriptions of boundaries comes from Dr. Helena Liu: “the framework in which we take responsibility for our own emotions and actions and relinquish responsibility for the emotions and actions of others. They are fundamental to leading healthy and happy lives.” Importantly, Liu notes that these are living spaces, “dynamic and flexible”; the more in-tune we are to our needs and circumstances, the more we can customize our boundaries to the moment. At certain times in our lives, or in certain relationships, we may relax or strengthen our boundaries. In other words, and if I may borrow from a well-known observance about the Sabbath, boundaries are made for human wellbeing; humans are not made for boundaries.
I grew up in a working class family, with an emphasis on community and helping each other during times of need. Those of you who have listened to my reflections in the past know that these experiences were far from perfect, especially when it came to understanding and resisting oppressive systems, from racism to misogyny. Despite these limitations, it was still in my working class family that I received the first tools for deciphering this mess of injustice and oppression that we’ve collectively come to accept as normal. My father especially extolled the importance of labor and unions, as well as studying and understanding history. And even the conservative religious community that hurt and alienated me so thoroughly, also gave me a lens to understand justice, peace, and a vision of healthy, happy society beyond the long reach of exploitation, violence, and inequality.
“… it is a question about the overall shape of our lives and our society. Will they be characterized by violence, relying on our capacities for coercion and aggression? Or will they be characterized by healthy social bonds, relying on our capacities for wisdom and compassion? Which action will be exceptional, violence or empathy? Which action will be normal, violence or empathy? We can understand both paths as strategies to protect ourselves, and recognize that both possibilities live within us. But the research also points out that these are diverging paths. We nourish one path at the expense of the other. … Each decision we make is something of a crossroads. Collectively and personally, our decisions answer the question: which direction do we choose?”
I love walking in the Ozarks, and there is a special place in my heart for glades and hillsides with limestone outcrops. Even after all these decades, every single time I stop to take one of countless photos, or sit and read a book, I pause in wonder that I am on the floor of what used to be an inland sea, the result of millions of years of marine animals living and dying in a shallow sea. (In fact, this sea has been compared to what the Bahamas are like today. So we are, in fact, living in what was something like that paradise; we are just living here 325 million or so years too late!) The memory of this paradise is in the rocks themselves, most readily seen in crinoid fossils. Its stalked form, known as a sea lily, made a tubular calcite shell. When the crinoid died, its shell was added to layers and layers of other shells, comprising much of the limestone we see today. And when the sea receded, more layers of shale, limestone, and sandstone were left behind.
It’s not as if marginalized communities ever get a break, including gender and sexual minorities. But this year continues to be an excruciating one, especially for the transgender/nonbinary/gender-expansive community. While collective indulgence in outrage, like videos of people smashing or shooting their cases of Bud Light beer, are obviously ridiculous, they also send a clear message to us. It’s not like Bud Light is suddenly a champion of trans people just because they work with a transgender influencer like Dylan Mulvaney. This is a marketing strategy, and so is the outrage. But all this outrage also tells me that, not only do these Bud Light-bashing folks hate me and oppose my wellbeing, they hate and oppose anyone that is friendly to me. They are so committed to erasing the existence of trans people that they can’t even drink a beer that is guilty by association.
“Here at the beginning, I want you to know that I am wonderfully happy about my gender and sexuality. I love – I really love – being genderqueer. I love belonging to the transgender family. I’ll be focusing on painful and difficult experiences [today] as we continue to call [our communities] to accountability, but I don’t want there to be any confusion. There is so much joy in my life. There are so many incredible, beautiful, fantastic people I’ve met and you are so important to me, and to our community. I am so grateful for the time and life we’ve shared together. I am so grateful for you. The joy and life and love we share are why I am willing to stand here and assert our humanity … . I am angry, to be sure; but I am angry because all this suffering is unnecessary and cruel, and I am so exhausted from feeling and seeing my transgender siblings suffer so much. I hope that, in the anger, you also can hear this love.”
My life has been filled with a fair bit of change and transition over the last few years, surrounded by lots of uncertainty. That has made for a natural time for reflection, and already being the type of person disposed toward reflection, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time thinking about the shape of my life: the decisions I’ve made, dreams I’ve chased, failures I’ve felt, and unlooked blessings found along the way. Like probably many of you, my life hasn’t taken the course I expected it would take, but I am profoundly grateful for where I find myself now and for the paths that still lie open in front of me.
At the heart of that journey has been maintaining spiritual and reflective practices that support my aspirations, especially those related to kindness, wisdom, and justice. For decades now, for example, I repeat a simple aspiration before I meditate: “may I be with these next moments with openness and curiosity, with gratitude and kindness, so that wisdom can arise.” Those words have soaked into my heart-mind and become a familiar friend. After a few years, I found that they followed me off the cushion. Practicing with them intentionally made them available to me when I needed them during the day, when they can invite me back to the present moment, especially when I begin to feel overwhelmed by the uncertainties and sufferings of life.
There are some conversations with your mother that you can never forget. One of those, for me, was on the occasion of my twenty-first birthday. I had rushed through my university studies, but not so much because of some special educational virtue on my part. The truth was that I thoroughly disliked the whole experience, I didn’t know how long I could endure it, and I thought graduating as quickly as possible was preferable to dropping out. So I graduated early and found myself moving west for graduate school at the tender age of twenty. I turned twenty one while living close to Highway 1 in northern California. An eccentric friend of mine thought my relative youth made for a funny anecdote and couldn’t pass up the chance to take me for a celebration dinner at a winery, where I could take my first sip of alcohol.
There’s a story passed around about Karl Barth. I don’t know if it is a true story, but it’s the kind of story that tells the truth, whether it happened or not. The setup is simple: the community is asking pressing questions of the theologian. One concerned and earnest woman asks, “Is it true that we’ll see our loved ones again in heaven?” It feels clear that this question was about the existence and nature of the afterlife. So - “Is it true that we’ll see our loved ones again in heaven?” And the doctor replies, “Not only the loved ones.”
Even as we begin Black History Month in 2023, the powers-that-be insist on adding new entries into our long history of violence and inequality. Fresh in many of our hearts is the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police in early January. There has been some initial accountability, as five police officers have been fired and charged, and three EMTs were fired for failing “to conduct an adequate patient assessment.” But that accountability cannot erase the tragedy of Tyre’s death, or the continued brutal assault on marginalized, especially Black, communities by those with power and authority.
The continued attacks on studying Black History have ramped up, even as we begin a month dedicated to celebrating that very history. If you haven't heard - in late January, Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida’s Department of Education rejected the Advanced Placement course on African American studies. DeSantis called the move the “pursuit of truth,” accusing the AP course as being “the imposition of ideology or the advancement of a political agenda.” Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr. went further, calling it "woke indoctrination masquerading as education."
While I was working at Peace Bridges in Cambodia, my friend and colleague Mony once explained how terrifying it was to live through the civil war. One description particularly stuck in my heart: it was cheaper to buy bullets than rice.
I spent a very busy weekend last week welcoming the Lunar New Year with my Buddhist community. It was a great joy. We chanted and meditated, packed emergency meal kits for a local shelter, drank tea, shared delicious meals, sang karaoke, gave and received new year dollars and oranges and red envelopes, bowed in gratitude, took group photos, cleaned up after ourselves (more than once!), and generally celebrated the joy of sharing life together. I felt at home and safe. And yet, in the back of my mind, I was aware of the grieving communities in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, California. Then, on Monday, two high school students were shot and killed at a charter school in Des Moines, Iowa in an apparent feud between rival gangs. Three days, three shootings, three settings: community dance center, workplace, and school. As Stephen Collinson observed on Tuesday, “Everyday life is a soft target. Anywhere can become the venue for the next preventable tragedy.”
The tragedy was set in motion in August, 2020, but, like probably many of you, I didn’t learn the story until last week. That was when the family of Larry Eugene Price, Jr. filed a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit after he died in solitary confinement in 2021 in an Arkansas jail. The 2020 arrest wasn’t the first time Larry had encountered the police. After all, he was a Black man with multiple mental health issues who was often homeless. As Newsweek reported, “Price’s hometown police knew him well,” “mostly for criminal mischief, squatting in buildings, disorderly conduct and for wellbeing checks when he, for example, would hurt himself.” But when Larry wandered into the Fort Smith police station on August 19, 2020, and pointed his finger like a gun, “threatening and cursing,” police “arrested him on a state felony – terroristic threatening in the first degree.”
On January 10, newly inaugurated Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed seven executive orders. One of these banned teaching critical race theory in Arkansas schools, continuing a trend we’ve consistently seen over the last two years. EducationWeek has documented that:
“42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.”