Coming out of the Shadows: Whole and Upright

I have been reflecting on The Book of Job recently.  In Stephen Mitchell’s introduction of the translation of this text he defines “The Hebrew … tam v’-yashar, which literally means ‘whole (blameless) and upright.’” Then later comments, “When Job is handed over to the good graces of the Accuser, he is turned into the opposite of what the words mean in their most physical sense.  He becomes not-whole: broken in body and spirit. He becomes not-upright: pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish.” [Italics Mitchell’s]

Since the end of July, the No Papers No Fear: Ride to Justice have been crossing the country stopping in various communities where immigrant communities have been assaulted by SB 1070 copy cat laws or had families torn apart by the federal 287 (g) or Secure Communities provisions in immigration law.  I am beginning to see connections between Job and the undocumented and larger connections in how America views herself.

I believe it was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said “… the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  

One of the tags the No Papers No Fear group has been using is coming out of the shadows.  Their greatest gift to us as a nation is to come out of the shadows.  The average person does not think about where their food or clothing comes from.  Nor do we think about who is cleaning our hotel rooms or mowing our public lawns.  We simply expect that there is food and clothing, clean hotel rooms and manicured public lawns readily available and in ample supply.  These are the people in the shadows, whether they are in a poultry processing plant in Mississippi, a day laborer in Alabama, or a migrant farm worker in Immokalee, Florida; these are all people in the shadows in this country.  Their shadow supports the rest of us to be in the sun, without them all would be darkness.

When I worked in public education many years ago, I had students when asked where milk, eggs, and vegetables comes from, answered me ‘from the store’ with a look that stated what kind of question is this.  Telling them vegetables did not come from a can or a frozen box but were first grown in a field where people stooped over in the hot sun and hand picked them for pennies for a bushel was like telling them that Santa Claus was not the one who made their presents but some worker in China who works 15 hours a day did. It didn’t make sense to them.  These are the shadows we do not like to expose to the light of day. The truth behind our economy is one shadow we prefer to remain in the dark about.

But being whole and upright is what we Americans like to proclaim on the mountain tops.  We have bought the lie just like Job’s friends that if all is well with us, then we are blessed and favored by God. All is well is defined as being able to have multiple safety nets below us that will catch us and keep us from harm. This is the privilege that many in America–White America especially–have come to expect to be here as if it is a natural law like gravity.   We do not need to look down from the trapeze wire to see the scattered bodies of those who fell before us because we have the nets to catch us and bounce us back up to the wire.  But many are discovering too late that the net, without our notice, has suddenly disappeared until we slip and fall.

Melissa Harris-Perry spoke passionately about this recently: “What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I’m sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No, there’s a huge safety net, that whenever you fail, we’ll catch you, and catch you, and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people and when we won’t because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness. We cannot do that.”

When you are wealthy in America one can ignore the poor, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, all of the pervasive issues of our day because we can shove them inside the shadows where they cannot be seen.  The middle class is expected to follow suit and ignore these people as well and when we cannot any longer we pass laws to oppress them back into the shadows.  The middle class is taught in this mobile class society to always keep our gaze on the wealthy because maybe, just maybe, we could be one of the elite.  But this upward gazing is equivalent to navel gazing and keeps us from looking where we need to step. Now many are finding our footing slipping, the upstairs climb has become covered in the oil of greed which dictates mine first and the rest be damned to the shadows. We desire a scapegoat to allow us to keep  casting long shadows to hide our failings as a society.

Jon Stewart pointed out an interesting aspect to America recently: If we are successful, then we built it, if we fail, it is the government’s fault.  I would add this twist… if a poor person, Black or Latino especially,  is successful in America it is because of a hand out from the government; if they are not then they are simply lazy and deserve their lot in life.  Our nation is certainly contradictory in describing itself.  Eric Fleischauer writes about the Cruelty of Kind Alabamians but this trait is not limited to Alabama but extends to all Americans when discussing how we treat those in the shadows.

Job was whole and upright until disaster befell him and pulled him down to be not whole but broken, not upright but immoral and defiled.  If only he kept his mouth shut.  If he only kept silent and accepted his fate as just the way things are but No, he had to state he was still whole and upright.  He had to declare he was still a human being and not something to be tossed aside as worthless trash to be,  at best, composted.  And so, too, are the people on the No Paper No Fear: Ride to Justice Tour declaring their inherent worth and dignity and the brightness of their truth stings our eyes.  They are bringing America’s shadow into the light and we can do something about it once our eyes adjust from leaving Plato’s cave.

When we begin to realize that safety nets for the poor in this country will keep all safety nets intact and ready to catch us, at any level, then we will be able to truly be the class act we proclaim ourselves to be.  The poor includes all of the poor; the franchised and disenfranchised, the employed and unemployed, the abled and disabled, and the documented and undocumented.  If we can bring the poor out of the shadows then we truly will be whole and upright living in the noon day light of love.

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What’s it All About?

Opening Words:

From the dawn of human history, humanity has been seeking the answer to life’s most pressing question:  What is it all about?  There have been variations of this question.  Does life have a purpose?  Is there meaning in life?

There appears to be an answer that has dubious origins.  Some say the answer came from the Shakers in the celibate religious communes in New England in the late 19th century. Others say it was discovered after a brutal battle in the midst of the Second World War in England to cheer the troops.  And still others say the answer refers to the ice cream street vendors selling ice cream in wax paper before the invention of ice cream cones.

The answer to this pressing question is this:  You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in and you shake it all about.  You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about.

Sermon:

Okay so we had some fun with the question by doing the Hokey Pokey.  But we humans are a serious bunch and not so easily given to such frivolity as song and dance.   It has its place, we serious ones might declare and some have even dared to declare that song and dance  was the work of the evil one.  Some of us in the human race when trying to answer this question of what’s it all about received answers that life is very serious and must therefore be lived with a sort of prudence and decorum. 

There is the ancient thought that human life served purposes of the gods who were rivals of each other.  Our part in the scheme of things was some sort of chess match being moved about as pawns.  Greek and Roman mythology is filled with stories of the gods having their rivalry and human life being the means in which their rivalries were to be played out. 

This thought is also found in the Hebrew Scriptures in the story of Job.  In this story, God and Satan are having a conversation.  God is bragging about his faithful servant Job.  Satan responds with ‘but of course he is faithful, look at all you have given him—a fine home, healthy and strong children, riches and comforts beyond compare—take all this away from him and Job will curse God and the day he was born.’  God accepts the challenge and within days Satan has all of Job’s good fortune wiped out. 

‘What’s it all about?’  Job cries out.  His friends all tell him it is because of some grievous sin that he committed.  For his friends life is about seeking the good side of God, of pleasing God;  and those who please God will be rewarded with a comfortable and good life. Therefore his friends insist, Job must repent of his sin and get right with God.  But Job knows of no sin in his life or in the life of his family who have been taken from him.  His friends however, argue that His life is out of his control and his sin is that he piously thought it was his to decide its course.  Job does not accept that answer either.

The premise is that God is wise and the creator in all things.  His friends construct this syllogism:  Suffering comes from God. God is Just. Therefore Job is guilty.  Job constructs this syllogism:  Suffering comes from God. I am innocent. Therefore God is unjust.  According to Stephen Mitchell, a translator of the Book of Job, a third syllogism is not even imaginable:  Suffering comes from God. God is just. Job is innocent. (no therefore.) 

So according to this, what it’s all about is humanity humbly accepting the fate that God has bestowed. Even in the final syllogism that Mitchell suggests, God is still the author and director of life.  God is still in charge and his ways are just and good.  There is yet another syllogism that even Mitchell does not consider.   Suffering does not come from God or Satan. God, and here I will also insert the non-theist Universe, is neither just nor unjust. Job is an innocent bystander in a series of events that he had no control over.  His attempt to make sense of these seemingly unrelated events is a futile exercise. 

Yet we all try to do this, don’t we?  We all try to understand why a sequence of events have occurred, that there must be some fate, some master plan that we are unable to see in the present moment. 

Some religions have taken these random events, both on the personal intimate level and on the national and global level and try to fit them into some sort of schematic.  We want a plan to be there. We want there to be a purpose to answer what is it all about? 

So religions have created these narratives.  One such narrative suggests there is this cosmic spiritual battle occurring in the heavens between good and evil/ between God and Satan.  We are all in this conspiracy of this huge battle being waged whether we want to be in it or not.  Events like tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and even human made events like terrorist attacks, both domestic and foreign, become part of the battle plan in this cosmic war of good versus evil. God or Satan, depending on perspective, allowed or created these events to punish the sinful or tempt the chosen to fall from grace.

And just like in the movie the Matrix, at any moment, if we are not awake to the truth, our actions could become the actions of Agent Smith to fight against those who are enlightened about the matrix and seek to expose this delusion. There are those behind the scenes of the matrix who are watching and controlling what happens, trying to keep balance between those who are enlightened and those who are still asleep in their delusions.

We see it in the current dualistic political landscape, regardless of which party one subscribes to, the other side is an evil interloper out to destroy all that is good, all that is sacred and Mom and apple pie, too.  What it’s all about is to become one of the chosen, one of the elect that will reap in the rewards. Choose your political party carefully.  Even in politics, there are the elect few who will be saved and the rest is refuse for the fires.  

What if all this seriousness is not what it’s all about?  What if there is no god who is waging a cosmic battle with the forces of evil?  What if there is no magic in the universe that if we speak our intentions and let go into the unfolding process things will merrily go our way?  What if there is no hidden plan for our lives that we must strive to uncover? What then?  Does that mean there is no answer to the question: What is it all about?  Perhaps. 

But then I consider our lives.  I consider those who have lived their lives as if it had purpose, as if they had a reason to be here in this time and place.   I think of people like Phyllis Ward, whose memorial service I officiated this past week.  Here was a person whose life had purpose.  What’s it all about? 

Her life seemed to answer this question with an affirmation—to live life as fully as possible, to love others as fully as possible, and thereby make a difference to improve the lives not only for those in her immediate circle but also those far off. She enjoyed all that life offered her and she sought to live that life as brightly as she could.  

The teacher Jesus said his presence and teachings was so that others could have life and have life abundantly.  Phyllis seemed to be saying the same thing with her life as her presence and teachings made a significant difference in the lives of hundreds of her students.  She inspired others in finding their hearts path. I heard repeated over and over how she inspired her students and friends to follow their dreams and how grateful they were that they did.  

What is it all about?  To love and be loved in return. 

 In the eulogy I gave for Phyllis I quoted Ric Masten’s poem End Line with these words: 

I ask God:  “How much time do I have before I die?” “Enough to make a difference,” God replies.

Phyllis certainly made a difference in this world, she made the world a better place for those who knew her and helped shape towards the positive our collective future.  The only way she could have done this is by jumping her whole self into life. 

Jump with our whole selves into life.  Enjoy the heart and marrow of it.  All that comes our way good, bad, or indifferent is there for the tasting and it can spur the development of love and compassion in our days of living and love and compassion to and from others.

Even in the struggles we face in our lives requires nothing less than our whole selves.  Our friends on the Undocubus [no papers no fear ride to justice] made such a choice to live life with their whole selves. This is living with integrity. They are deciding that they will not just passively accept their destiny as dictated by someone else’s rules but rather engage their destiny with their whole lives–with integrity. They are declaring that their life matters and will make a positive difference to others in their living of it.

Begin slowly if you must with just a hand or a foot but at some point all must jump in with our whole selves in order to reap benefits of living a full and abundant life.

All that silliness of the Hokey Pokey may really be what it’s all about. 

Published in: on September 2, 2012 at 1:58 pm  Comments Off on What’s it All About?  
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