We’re Moving to Clean Air

Forest outside Gualala, CAImport 12.05.10 472

Photo by Barbara Anderson

On Wednesday, my husband and I move from Los Angeles to Seattle.  I’ll miss Pasadena, Los Angeles, friends, congregations, and the San Gabriel Mountains.  I’ve loved it here.

I think I will also love Seattle.  When I am walking the dogs in the rain, or lamenting another gray sky, remind me of this thought: I exchanged air pollution that exacerbates my health problems and limits my activities for cleaner air with mist, rain, and a more active life.  I know I breathe better in mist and rain than I do in high ozone and particulates.

This summer was filled with getting our house ready to sell in six weeks, and keeping it clean and staged for open houses. When mid-August came without an offer, we thought we would be here until the end of September.  Just two weeks ago someone submitted a bid on the house with a short escrow of only twenty days.  Yikes.  Hooray.  OMG.  Everything I planned yet to do, including saying some good-byes in person won’t be done, after all.

One more thing:  I developed a systemic infection that not only made me feel really crummy all summer.  It also caused me to lose my balance and fall, breaking my right shoulder.  Of course I am right-handed. The infection was finally diagnosed last week and I spent a few days in the hospital having it treated with IV antibiotics.  I am slowly feeling better.  As a friend said to me, “Why do something the easiest way, Barbara, when you can make it more complicated?”

We’re living among boxes today.  Movers load the truck tomorrow.  One day later we head to the green Northwest.  We still need to find a house so are staying in a dog friendly vacation rental for a few weeks while we look.  Both of us are venturing into unknown territory with a feeling of excitement and anticipation–and a touch of anxiety.  I am eager to be near family, to breathe well, to see my husband thrive in new ministries, and to spread my own wings in new ventures.

We are changing direction and heading around another bend in the road.  Onward!

My [Least] Favorite Things

After weeks of tweaking this post from one angle after another, I promised myself not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  This post is my attempt to do something I can control when everything else in my life and world seem beyond my control. The perfect is the enemy of the good and another excuse for paralysis.  So, here it is–perfect or not.

My Favorite ThingsDuring a fierce thunderstorm in The Sound of Music, Maria calms the von Trapp children with a song.  She sings, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens, these are a few of my favorite things.  When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad; I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad.”

I don’t like dog bites or bee stings, either, but they are not my least favorite things.  Those prizes go to canned Lima beans and feeling powerless.  I avoid Lima beans by not putting them on my plate.  Problem solved.

Feeling powerless is harder to avoid. There is way too much in life over which we have no control:  bosses who don’t listen, co-workers who make us crazy, spouses who don’t change, poor decisions by others that affect our future, loved ones’ suffering we cannot alleviate, unemployment while bills accumulate, limitations in our body that keep us from doing what we want and living as we wish.  “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” don’t make any of these problems disappear.

Nor do they wipe from our heart how powerless we can feel to address mega issues like helping refugees around the world, slowing climate change, or freeing our country from the tightening grip of oligarchy.

One of the hardest struggles in my life is the tension between powerlessness and agency, paralysis and action.  Part of why its has been so hard to write this post is its subject and my commitment to honesty.  Dishonest writing is not worth reading.

To write it with honesty and depth has required me to make the medium the message, in the words of Marshall McLuhan. One of the best ways to counter paralysis and powerlessness is to act, for in so doing, we realize we do have power, after all.  We gain strength and retain our sense of self.  Making myself write honestly, without sugar-coating or easy answers, pushes back against feeling powerless. It has taken a long time to write so few words.  On the other hand, the medium is the message.

Much in my life is wonderful, loving, and beautiful and for these I am deeply grateful.  But today is for speaking uncomfortable truths many of us would like to avoid.  Sugar coated platitudes brush-offs do not sustain us when the fiery trials of life threaten to consume, the rivers of sorrow overflow, or the trail seems too steep to climb. Speaking truth to each other about the hard parts of life reminds us we are not alone. Others have traveled difficult paths, as all of us will either now or in the future.  The wisdom of fellow travelers is only available if we dare to speak honestly.

When I tell of challenges in my life, therefore, it is not to complain, seek pity, or freak anyone out.  Reared not to complain or speak about my problems, I have a strong aversion to writing about the disappointments and difficulties of my life.  I can only do so with this caveat:  that I hope to open a window through which we speak to each other about how to be resilient in the hard parts of life, how to resist feeling powerless in the face of circumstances beyond our control, and how to hold onto hope when the night seems long, and dark.

cropped-billingsley2520creek_full1.jpgEvery day I wish my body could do more than it can.  For eleven years I have tried to adjust to a new normal, but I still struggle at it.  I want to go for long walks, hike in the mountains, attend concerts and after-parties, and be a pastor, but I can’t.  I want to get rid of my steroid weight and rebuild my muscle tone, but the steroids that cause weight gain keep me alive and my ability to exercise ebbs and flows.  I’d like to take Spanish, computer, dance and bridge classes but can’t sustain the necessary energy or count on good air quality for me to attend regularly.  I want to visit my mother back east without needing two months to recover from each trip.  I long to go outside whenever I want instead of being captive to the vagaries of air pollution, but living somewhere with cleaner air is not up to me.  I want to shake my fists in the air, and scream at the world to straighten up and fly right. That won’t change anything either.

I hate feeling powerless.  It nibbles away my hope and sense of self.  Like Chinese foot binding it warps my stance in the world.  Like a clipped wing, it prevents me from flying.  Like a blindfold, it keeps me from finding a way forward.  It debilitates and paralyzes. It is truly one of my least favorite things.

Even if Rodgers and Hammerstein’s words about raindrops on roses seem trite, there is wisdom in the song.  Maria is teaching the children they can at least control their attitude and responses to unpleasant situations.  She is teaching them about personal power in the face of powerlessness.

The key to countering powerlessness is to find something, no matter how small it seems, that we can control and then do it. American prisoners released by Iran this year gave powerful examples of how even small actions helped them survive in prison. One spoke of how, hooded and handcuffed, they bumped into each other as a sign of solidarity when passing in hallways.   A journalist wrote articles in his head to stay mentally sharp and remember who he was.  Another walked laps around his tiny cell to feel his muscles move.  Each found something, internal or external, to control.  The small sense of personal power they gained built a bulwark against the devastation of feeling powerless.

Like the prisoners, no matter our circumstances, we can control our attitude and our response to our situation. Even if we cannot change the external world or the people around us, we can create an internal space where we do whatever we want–repeat a mantra or pray; imagine decorating rooms, planting gardens, writing music or kayaking on a mountain lake; work math problems or create Rube Goldberg machines. Controlling our attitude is a type of personal power.

Do you wish you could take away a loved one’s suffering?  Wipe a fevered brow with a cool cloth, rub lotion on dry hands, play a CD, or bring forbidden treats to share.  You are not powerless, after all.

Are you afraid of being fired or can’t stand your job?  Don’t wait for the axe to fall or remain paralyzed in unhappiness. Force yourself to write your resume, even if it seems frightening or overwhelming. You will stand straighter, feel like flying, and begin to see a way forward.  Only you control whether your resume is written. You are not powerless, after all.

Even seemingly tiny actions  remind us that we have choices to exercise, ways to celebrate life and help others, ways to enjoy beauty and create goodness, and ways to work for good.  Besides, small actions often lead to bigger ones and cause ripples in others’ lives of which we may never be aware.

A few weeks ago, I wrote the following for this blog to help myself recognize how I am pushing back against feeling powerless.

I am walking 20 – 30 minutes at least twice a week and still hope to walk around the Rose Bowl again soon.  I exercise with my trainer twice a week to rebuild strength and stamina. I am trying again to write each day and stretch these mental muscles.  I attend worship, concerts, and study groups whenever I can so I stay in contact with the world. Air quality permitting, I sit in my backyard and marvel at the beauty I helped create. I pray for others and the world.  I try to bring bring joy to cashiers and and tech support people with whom I have contact.  Maybe I’ll take Spanish, computer and bridge tutorials on my computer.  I am not powerlessness, no matter how much of life is beyond my control.

It not only sounded good, it was true at the time I wrote it. Then the air quality in Los Angeles tanked and life crashed around me.  For 14 of the past 18 days I have been confined to my house (and often to a small room where the air is cleanest) in order to protect my heart and lungs from high levels of air pollution.  Gone are the walks, exercise, concerts, worship, cooking, and sitting in my backyard.  The pollution reaches to the ocean and north into the mountains, so those retreats are out, as well. It isn’t even safe for me to walk to my mailbox.

How do I keep from feeling powerless when once again, everything has been stripped away?  The honest answer is that I don’t know yet.  It stinks.  To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out how to walk the talk of this post under my latest circumstances. I do know that publishing this post is something is an action I can take. I will push the publish button, no matter what.  Then I will take a nap and rest.  I am not powerless.  Nor are you.

PHOTO CREDIT:  JULIE ANDREWS in the 1965 film “The Sound of Music.” ( Argyle Enterprises and 20th Century Fox in NYTimes 5/30/05)

Living as Christians in a Multi-Faith World

Donald Trump’s call to bar Muslims (both U.S. citizens and non-citizens) from entering the U.S., and the anti-Muslim feelings bubbling up in the U.S. and Europe compel me to respond.  There is much I could say, but I will begin by adapting for today portions of a sermon I preached in 2007.  I hope it helps Christians and others find a helpful alternative to fear and hatred of those who believe differently than they do.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters. . . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29: 4-7).

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.  As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan.  Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean”  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)

This passage from the prophet Jeremiah has been important to me ever since a hot, humid Tuesday afternoon in Ohio in 1982 when I stood before 200 Presbyterian ministers and elders for examination regarding my fitness to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church.

The final question before the vote was asked by a minister who believed my Christian faith was suspect because I studied theology with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu students at Harvard Divinity School.

“If you were pastor of a local church and a group of Hindus bought property down the street to build a temple,” he asked, “would you take the traditional Christian response?  Would you burn the idols and run the pagans out of town?”

“There are many traditional responses,” I answered.  “I would take the response of the prophet Jeremiah, who said we should build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children, and live side-by-side.  To do otherwise would be to fall into the sin of idolatry, creating our own image of God, and believing that we know all there is to know about the ‘Eternal One.’  Those who know God through other faith traditions may see a part of God we do not see.  We need to listen to and learn from them.”

Our world and nation have changed dramatically since I answered that question.  Gleaming mosques with minarets rise from the cornfields outside Toledo, Ohio.  A Cambodian Buddhist temple and monastery is set in the farmlands south of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, California, is considered so beautiful that “temple view” real estate is highly coveted. Our neighbors wear Sikh turbans and Muslim head scarves.  Many businesses and offices close for Yom Kippur.  Street vendors in Altadena, California kneel for prayer facing Mecca.

The United States has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth, as Diana Eck makes clear in A New Religious America.  Yet the discomfort of many U.S. Christians towards other religions continues. Often those feelings cross over into pride, self-righteousness, fear and hatred.  The belief that Christianity is the pinnacle, the ultimate revelation of God, and the only True way to know the Divine continues as a guiding principle in the lives of many Christians and even U.S. foreign policy. This misinterpretation of Christian scripture was the theological foundation of the Holocaust and informs many Christians today in their response to Islam.

The questions of how people of different faiths live together in this nation and world are important not only for how we relate to our co-workers, neighbors, and classmates.  Now they are critical to our community life, politics, national and international security.  It is time to reflect on these questions biblically, theologically, prayerful, and thoughtfully.

The prophet Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus himself, show respect for those of other faiths and traditions.  They have already shown us an appropriate path forward:  “Build houses, plant gardens, marry and have children, and live side-by-side.  Pray for good and prosperity to come to the non-Jews with whom you live in Babylon.”  In word and deed, show the love and welcome of God for all people.

Of the ten people whom Jesus heals in Luke 17, the only one who comes back to express thanks is a Samaritan whom Jews considered to be of a different religion.  To this man, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.”  Jesus uses the word for “salvation,” not the word for “healed.”  This is an important choice of words given that he is of a different religious tradition.

There are a variety of responses to religious diversity.  God is depending on us to choose wisely the responses that enhance life on this planet, rather than unkindness or death and destruction.  In When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball writes:

“Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth.  Throughout history religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths.  The record of history shows that noble acts of love, self-sacrifice, and service to others are frequently rooted in deeply held religious worldviews.  At the same time, history clearly shows that religion has often been linked directly to the worst examples of human behavior.  It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history (When Religion Becomes Evil, p.1)

Some argue today that religion, itself, is the problem.  Don’t conflicting truth claims inevitably lead to conflict?  A new wave of books is selling briskly as they proclaim that the world would be better off if we stopped believing in God.

Yes, religion is part of the problem when it becomes distorted.  And no, religion is not the problem, for within the religious traditions that have stood the test of time, we find life-affirming faith that has sustained and provided meaning for millions over the centuries.

In daily conversation, most of us talk about our own religion in terms of its ideals.  At the same time, we often characterize other religious systems in terms of poorly understood teachings and the visibly flawed behavior of adherents.

The truth is, however, that every Christian speaks and acts in ways that are contrary to the ideals of the Christian faith.  People of other religions are in the same boat–they don’t necessarily live out the ideals of their faith any better than we do.  But do we, or they, want our entire faith tradition and community judged only by the ways we have fallen short of our ideals?  Of course not.

Despite distinctive characteristics and conflicting truth claims, religious traditions function in similar ways and share some essential teachings.  For example, all religious traditions mark key life stages, offer an analysis of the human predicament, and outline a path toward the desired goal.

Identifying common characteristics among religions is not the same as saying all religions are the same.  In fact, no religion is the same from one century to the next, from one country to the next, or often from one side of the street to the other.  Most people of faith acknowledge that our own theology and religious insights have changed through years of living.

It is also true that not all religious worldviews are equally valid.  They are not all just different paths up the same mountain.  Value judgments do need to be made between and within each of our religious traditions.  Some religions, religious worldviews, and subsets of even the enduring religions are unhealthy and abusive.  The judgement of when a religion is good and when it has become evil ought to be based upon the core values of faith, hope, love, and gratitude.

Kimball likens God or the transcendent in each enduring religious tradition to true north on a compass.  There are two different types of north:  magnetic north and geographic north.  The needle of a compass points to magnetic north, not geographic north.  Depending on where you are on earth, there can be several degrees of variation.  You might say that our religious needles point in the right direction, but we must be careful lest we assume the needle on our particular compass points directly to the sum total of the reality of God (Kimball, p. 191).

Faith, hope, love, and gratitude are the guiding principles on the spiritual compass that point toward true North, or the transcendent, in all enduring religions.

What is most striking to me about the healing story in the Gospel of Luke is that the only person who returns to Jesus with gratitude is not who most of us expect it to be.  It is a religious foreigner.  Only the religious foreigner recognized that the proper response to kindness is untainted gratitude and praise of God’s mercy.

Luke shows the racial and religious foreigner as an instrument of grace and a window into God.  The Samaritan was healed and saved, but continued to be a Samaritan.

I am convinced that it is possible to be a person of faith with integrity–Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh–and at the same time recognize that one’s own experience of God does not exhaust all the possibilities.

Faithful Christians strive to be better disciples of Jesus today than we were yesterday:  to be kinder, more gentle, more courageous, more generous, to keep our tempers in check, speak words of encouragement to others, and provide a gracious welcome to all whom we encounter. Faithful Christians seek the welfare of the city where we live and are open to what non-Christians can teach us about God.  We try to live as Jeremiah and Jesus command us to live.

When asked if good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people would go to heaven, the Reverend Billy Graham replied, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make.  It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t . . . . I believe the love of God is absolute.  He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

I agree with Billy Graham.  Let us build houses, plant gardens, welcome people of all faiths to our shores, respect Americans of all faiths and no faith, and rear generations who will know not Christian hatred, but Christian love.  If we do this, we will be faithful to the God of Jeremiah and Jesus, to the true north of the world’s enduring religions, and to the values of our American Constitution.

Diana Eck, A New Religious America:  How A “Christian Country” Has Become The World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001
Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002