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Turn and Face the World

In a service at the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester a few weeks ago, just before Yom Kippur, I spoke about the Jewish spiritual practice of teshuvah – turning in the heart. How do we turn, I asked, when the failings belong to all of society?

Today those failings are more in evidence than ever. Women and others who report sexual assault continue to find themselves ignored, blamed, and belittled by privileged men in power. Children continue to be separated from their parents at the border, even when the children are United States Citizens and the parents legal asylum seekers. Evidence of global climate change and our failure to address it is greater than ever.

In the pain of the news, I find myself coming back to the that service. Here are some of those words.

“There is a natural instinct in the face of overwhelming grief to cover our eyes with our hands. When we’re mourning, we tend to turn away from what is giving us pain and find whatever is most comfortable. A friend, a prayer, a song, a comforting phrase, we find something, anything, to take us away from the agony of the moment. It makes sense that we would do this; it’s part of being human.  We need to do this sometimes. As we grieve, eventually and slowly we allow ourselves to confront our sorrow, and we emerge wistful, perhaps wiser, certainly more empathetic. It is a healing process.

“In the grief of global and societal injustice, we naturally turn away, because it is our human instinct to do so, and hard truths cause us pain. The spiritual practice of turning bids us to uncover our faces, open our eyes, and turn back towards the pain.  

“Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that ‘prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.’ And he put those words to practice, marching in Selma with Dr. King and so many others. When he came home, he said, ‘I felt like I was praying with my feet.’

“I want to ask us to turn and face realities we would not like to admit, to accept the leadership of those who are most directly affected by those realities, and to pray with our feet. I want to ask us to let go of whatever stands in the way of this work, to forgive ourselves and ask forgiveness whether we think we need to or not, to forgive others whether or not they have yet completed their own turning. I want us to look into our hearts, so filled with goodness and love, and remember why we care so much for other people, and this sacred earth.

“Then, we take that love, that goodness, and let it feed our living in the world, as we give ourselves to the work before us.”

Members of the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester vigil in support of survivors of sexual assault.

 

 

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Dear Speaker Ryan,

This week, a 19 year old man walked into a high school and murdered 17 people, wounding countless others. In response, you said this is not the time to talk about gun laws.

“This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings….  We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically, and just pulling together. This House, and the whole country, stands with the Parkland community.”

I’m not sure what “step back and count our blessings” means in the wake of the grizzly murder of 17 teenagers and teachers.  Perhaps it is meant to stand in for the now discredited “thoughts and prayers” Congressional leaders have offered so many times in the past.

While I understand that special cases make bad law, this is not a special case.  This is normal in the United States of America.  According to the Gun Violence Archive, 30 mass shootings have resulted in 58 deaths and 124 injuries in the first 45 days of 2018 alone.  In that same time, there were 1806 gun deaths and 3126 injuries.  69 of those reported deaths and injuries were young children.  331 were teenagers.

So my question is this.  When is the right time, Speaker Ryan?  How long a pause in the bloodshed is required for Congress to begin addressing its cause?  You speak of mental illness, but every country in the world has mentally ill people; among Western nations only the United States experiences violence on this kind of scale.  Blaming the problem on the mentally ill distracts from the true causes of violence while perpetuating a hurtful and harmful stereotype.

The issue, Speaker Ryan, is easy access to guns.  The issue is a lack of any form of training or licensure to own a deadly weapon, widespread legal ownership of assault weapons, a lack of universal background checks, and above all, a Congress beholden to the National Rifle Association.  (Last year you personally received $171,977 from that lobby, more than $90,000 more than the next highest recipient.)

So I ask again, when is the right moment?  The longest we have gone between mass shootings in 2018 has been three days.  Would that be enough time to “count our blessings?”

If it is not, then I submit that you do not “stand with the Parkland community,” nor any community that has suffered such an attack.  You do not stand with the over 150,000 American students who have been witness to a school shooting.  You do not stand with the vast majority of the American people, who overwhelmingly support universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

More importantly, you do not stand for life.

How long, Mr. Speaker?  How long must we wait?

In faith,
Rev. Dan Schatz

 

photo by Elvert Barnes

photo by Dan Schatz

Each morning
in winter
I walk to the old dogwood tree
that stretches over the front yard.

I am waiting for a sign.

Through the earliest days
there is nothing to see
more than January ice,
hard against the ground,
then mud
as snows melt,
then ice again,

but one sunny morning
comes something new.

Powerful and green
daffodil shoots
begin to work their way above the soil.

Winter will be a long time yet.
More snows will come,
and ice
and cold
and April will seem distant.

Do not be afraid.

Hope will
push through
frozen ground,
always,
and forever.

Dan Schatz
January 23, 2018

 

 

My Dear Friends,

We live in an era of hatred and intolerance directed against those who do not conform to an increasingly archaic set of “norms” – White, cisgender, male, ethnically and economically privileged. This hatred is stoked by those who would elevate their own power at the expense of another human being’s dignity.
Anti-Transgender “bathroom bills” and the incredibly cruel announcement from President Trump (which could potentially start a purge from the military of well over 5000 openly transgender troops currently serving our country) serve no legitimate purpose. They protect nobody, save nothing, accomplish nothing beyond the undermining of our national security, credibility and moral authority. They exist entirely to bolster the status of politicians who view bigotry as a convenient path to power.
It is an old story, and an intolerable one. It is the story of Dixiecrats, the “Southern Strategy,” “Defense of Marriage” acts, anti-immigrant racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, continued legal discrimination against the lgbtq community, and much more; the list stretches far too long. Always the method is the same – find a vulnerable group in society, paint them as less deserving of human rights, and therefore less than human, and use them as objects to create societal division. Always the consequences are the same – violence, discord and despair – and in the extreme, genocide.
To my transgender family, friends and neighbors who are suffering today, I give you my support and my solidarity. You have been victimized, not because of who you are, but because of what you are – an easy target. It is wrong on every level, and I pledge myself to your struggle.
I am far from the only one.  I only hope you know, in this moment of suffering, the love that is yours, the support you have, and the determination with which we will continue on behalf of your dignity, your freedom, and your rights.

Please do not be silent. Tell us what you need, and we will listen. We must listen. At stake is the soul of humanity.

In faith,
Rev. Dan Schatz
and human being
photo by Tim Evanson, used with permission

Pete Seeger once said about Woody Guthrie’s music, “Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity.”

Saro Lynch-Thomason has written a simple song, and it’s genius.

I first heard the young Appalachian folklorist, ballad singer and songwriter last Fall at a Washington, DC area folk music retreat. In a mini-concert which featured a number of traditional and older songs, she ended with one of her own, leading the packed room in harmony.

There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.
There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me,
There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.

As she led the crowd through verses about fires burning and mountains falling, I began to hear echoes of voices past – Jean Ritchie and others whose deeply rooted music documented the devastation brought by mountaintop removal mining, often falsely referred to as “clean coal technology.”

Then the song took a turn.
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.
I will wade through the waters
When they find their way to me,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason had not written a lament, as I originally thought, or even a warning. Hers is a song of resistance and hope. It stayed with me for a long time, and after the election last Fall, the song began to take on new meaning.

I will walk through the fires
When they find their way to me,
I will walk through the fires,
this I know….

When I finally asked Saro if she could send me a recording of her song, she did one better, creating a video for everyone to share. I thought of this song when I marched through the streets of Philadelphia the day after Inauguration, with my child beside me holding a sign that read: “March today and work everyday for justice, equality and compassion.” I remembered its words when airports filled with demonstrators, and immigration lawyers became the new heroes of the age. I heard its melody as I worked with my Unitarian Universalist congregation to reach out to immigrant communities made vulnerable by the government’s actions. Its echoes came to me as I watched the fires burn at Standing Rock. I sing it again today as we face the very real impacts of climate denial and environmental policies that place profit over responsibility.

We are all walking through fire.

There will be damage, it’s true. Many of us are learning what the people of Appalachia have known for decades – that we can’t stop all the harm done by those who act without regard for the land, the water and the people. It would be easy – too easy – to fall to hopelessness. But there is another lesson here – when the people stand strong, holding on to what is important, we can begin to repair what has been broken. We begin to make a difference simply by letting our voices be heard, and we are only beginning.

I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know, this I know,
I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason’s song ends as it begins –

There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me….

– but somehow, having crossed waters and fires and rebuilt mountains, these words no longer feel like a cry of despair. Instead they are a call for resistance and resilience, an affirmation of what is possible when communities from across a country and a world come together in support of human decency. This we can and will do, although the task will be difficult. It always has been, but we will wade through these waters. We will walk through these fires. We will rebuild these mountains.

There are more waters rising!

This I know.

(This article has also been posted at The Huffington Post.)

January is the time for New Year’s Resolutions, and in my social circle, Woody Guthrie’s 1943 “Rulin’s” make the rounds every year about this time:

woody-guthrie-resolutions

(click on photo to enlarge)

Normally, I’m not one for New Years Resolutions. I just don’t seem to have the knack of them.  This year I briefly toyed with the idea of resolving to spend less time on social media, and immediately went to post about it on Facebook before realizing that maybe that wouldn’t be my path forward. Most years, I try to spread the self-improvement out year round.

Still, I can get behind a list like Woody’s. I mean, here’s a guy who knows himself – both what he can do: “Wash teeth if any,” and what he needs to do: “Keep hoping machine running.” Taken as a whole, his list boils down to “Take care of yourself, take care of the people you love, be creative, and do your part for the world.” I think I could do that; I think any of us could. It’s as if Woody were saying, “Make this year count.  Don’t try to be anybody but yourself; just be a good Yourself.”

This year needs to count.  So I decided to come up with my own “New Year’s Rulin’s,” which I gladly share with you (sans doodles).  What would yours be?

Dan’s New Year’s Rulin’s 2017

1. Open your eyes.
2. Wake up before 11 every day.
3. Polish shoes.
4. Listen.
5. Be generous.
6. Open your heart.
7. Love like it matters.
8. Wash dishes.
9. Fold laundry.
10. Cut hair if any.
11. Pay attention to children – all children.
12. Forgive mistakes – mine and others.
13. Sing.
14. Write.
15. Remember.
16. Hope.
17. Enjoy world.
18. Change world.
19. Read.
20. Breathe.
21. Dream.
22. Resist injustice.
23. Build good.
24. Make time sacred.

Last week I let loose with another stream of brilliant, or as my family calls them, awful puns.  Somehow, in the ensuing conversation, the three of us ended up writing this together.  This song is neatly adaptable, depending on who’s doing the groaning – it could be your son, daughter, true love, or anyone else who does not appreciate the higher forms of humor.  Consider it a Christmas present from our family to yours.  And yes, this song contains no actual puns.  It’s all about the reactions.

 

The Twelve Puns of Christmas

(c) 2016 by Dan Schatz and family

At the first pun of Christmas, my young son gave to me:

  1. A shrug and a look of pity.

At the second pun of Christmas, my young son gave to me:

  1. Two massive eye rolls

A shrug and a look of pity

(Similarly)

  1. Three paces backwards
  2. Four dirty looks
  3. Five tortured screams
  4. Six Mommy! Save me!s
  5.  Seven grudging chuckles
  6. Eight I can’t stand its
  7. Nine Dad, just stop its
  8. Ten I’m not listenings
  9. Eleven looks of horror
  10. Twelve Slamming doors

 

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