Thursday, September 15, 2016

Vote your hope . . .

Every morning when I look in the mirror I see a little bit of my parents looking back at me.  It's a mash-up of dad's furrowed forehead, formidable nose and sharp chin, and my mom's wild hair and soft eyes.  It's a nice thing.  Except for the wild hair sometimes, especially in the morning.  I like that I can see them looking back at me in the mirror.  But they gave those traits to me without a choice. It was a matter of the luck of the gene pool.

The same thing happens when I look at or talk to my sons.  I can see a bit of me in each of their faces and hear the tone of my voice when they speak or sing, bless their hearts.  Again, I did not choose to give them those traits.  It just happened.

But most of the things my parents gave me, and most of the things that I gave to my sons, had little to do with DNA.  There were choices.  There were examples.  There were sermons.  There were tears and there was laughter. There were even a few spankings.  It certainly was not all perfect or even good.  But it was as effective and certain as genetics in shaping the next generation.

My mother could preach a sermon. More often than not she was inspired by one or more of her children making fun of someone, or getting the idea that we were somehow better than someone else. She was relentless.  Like a good southern revival preacher (except for the gender) she would break us down until, convicted of our transgression, we came to the altar in repentant submission, almost wishing for a spanking instead.

As a very young child, my snickering at the awkward movements of a disabled person suffering from a crippling disease was met with an immediate shaming and explanation.  Any hint of a racial slur or joke brought out Mom's A game. Making disparaging remarks about another kid in school who smelled bad or wore clothes that were dirty or didn't fit brought immediate, intense monologues pointing out how and why that was so wrong. Jesus was often mentioned. 

But mom did not just preach with words.  She preached with her life, and much of the time it was done while hauling a car load of kids.  Going to and from school and other places she often picked up an elderly gentleman who walked along the highway.  I remember him to this day.  He smelled like the earth.  He always had a few days growth of beard.  His clothes were faded and baggy and his shoes were heavy brown leather, what my grandparents called brogans.  It seems like he carried a walking stick, but that may just be my imagination filling in the blanks.  He had a  garden and would sometimes give us vegetables.  After school we would sometimes find another kid in the car who did not have a ride home.  Their houses did not look like ours.  And sometimes I remember feeling ashamed, because the family name of the child had  been adopted by the "in" crowd as a derogative term.  You know, like, "where did you get that shirt, a hand me down from the ________'s?"  In the early sixties in Alabama mother hired an African-American woman in town to do some work for her.  She chose to pay her differently than most people were paying household workers at the time.  A good wage.  And mom paid Social Security taxes and made sure they were all filed properly. They became life long friends, long after the woman no longer worked for us.  When that woman had health problems later in life, she was qualified for Social Security benefits. They both would have done anything for the other.  

Several years ago, after I was a grown up, there was a woman who walked around town a lot.  She was said to have a mental illness, but never harmed anyone.  Sometimes she would be eating at a local eatery.  She came over to me often, with Bible in hand, and tell me that my mother was a good, good woman, who really knew her Bible.   I still don't know her name.  I do remember picking her up and giving her a ride myself one Sunday morning . . . with a van load of youth from the church. They were just as wide eyed and perplexed as I had been as a youngster not knowing what to expect on car rides with my mom.   But I guess I did learn something from her sermons after all.

My dad did not preach sermons. But his message was the same as mom's, and just as strong.  We were to work to make a difference.  We were no better than anyone else.  We were given much, and much was expected. There were many people in the world who had it much harder than we did and we were supposed to help.  We were supposed to stand up and speak up for those who had no voice and could not be seen, the mentally disabled, the immigrant, the poor, the children, the oppressed.  The other. The different. 

So I was blessed to learn the best lessons from my parents, who learned them from their parents.

Be kind. Don't be mean.
Giving is better than receiving.  Share all you can.
Don't make fun of another's hardship.
Treat all folks with respect.
Every person on earth is created by God, and loved by God, no more or less than God loves me.
Everybody's got a story that needs to be heard. Take time to listen.
Help people all you can.
Tell the truth. But never simply to cause pain. Try not to lie, and never for personal gain.
Stand with the oppressed, the least, the last and the lost.
To those who much has been given, much is expected.
Knowledge is a good thing. Wisdom is a great thing. Learn all you can.
Violence is never a good response.
Count your trumps.
Don't smoke.

And so much more.  None of us are perfect parents.  But most of us know the good things we hope we can give to our children, things that will make them better people than we have been.   We know that probably, even after we are gone, our children will hear our voices in their heads when it is time to make decisions. We know that because we hear our parents' voices in our heads, even after they are gone. Sometimes that requires counseling, but all in all it's a good thing.  It is the way each generation gets better, building on the lessons of the past.

I like politics.  Maybe that's because my parents did. We spent hours around the round kitchen table talking about religion and politics throughout the years. It was no place for the weak. There was always a connection between the two, religion and politics, in our discussions. And the lessons they taught were always woven into the conversation.

It is all connected in my way of thinking.

So, that is how I decide who to vote for.  Which candidate seems to have learned and exhibits the lessons and values my parents gave to me, and my faith demands?  And which candidate best exemplifies those lessons and values that I wanted to give to my sons?

If we all did that, we still wouldn't all vote the same way.  Who would want that anyway?   But our decisions would be influenced by the best of the hopes our parents had for us, and best of our hopes for our children.   

Decisions based on our best hopes instead of  our worst fears?  Another good lesson to pass on to our children.  Let's start showing them how now. 

Sorry, this went on much longer than I expected.  But I am my mother's child after all. And that's not a bad thing in my book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Ballots not bullets . . .

For those of you who have not heard Donald Trump's statement today, here is what he said, verbatim:

"Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick…(CROWD BOOING) If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know. But — but I’ll tell you what. That will be a horrible day. If — if Hillary gets to put her judges — right now, we’re tied. You see what’s going on."

In a vacuum the statement can be interpreted a couple of ways. After the speech, the Trump campaign said that Trump was simply saying that the supporters of the second amendment are a power political force that could affect the outcome of the election.

The only problem with that interpretation is that it is not what Trump said. His words said that if Clinton is elected to the presidency there is nothing that can be done about her picking Supreme Court Judges, except maybe by those people who support gun rights. At that point it is too late for an election. So a legitimate interpretation is that Trump was dog-whistling a tune about bullets, not ballots.

The statement is a reckless inference that violence toward a political opponent is acceptable. It is a dangerous, and it is a disservice to good and reasonable people who support gun rights who know better. 

I do not pretend to know what was actually going on in Trump's mind when he uttered that statement in the middle of a scheduled political speech. It is important what he really meant to say. But it may be more important what a very few people heard him say.

There are many people that I respect who feel vastly different about this election than I do. That is politics in Alabama, in the USA.   But I know without a doubt that not a one of them, even in our severe disagreement,  condone violence or assassination as a means of resolving political differences.  I disagree with them strongly, and they disagree with me.  But I know we share common boundaries, common decency.

But there are a few among us who do not have those boundaries.  A very few.  But it only takes one out of a few hundred million to respond to what he or she thought Donald Trump was saying. It only takes one that thought Trump was saying it was somehow acceptable to choose deadly force to defeat a political enemy.  It only takes one twisted soul to inflict unthinkable tragedy. We should know that already.

I believe that anyone who interprets Trump's statement as knowingly saying, or hinting, that deadly force is an option to stop Hillary Clinton, will find that statement to be disqualifying as a candidate for the presidency.  

I expect that others will choose once again to give Trump a pass, and say that he did not mean to endorse violence toward Clinton as a solution.

But Trump wants to be President of the United States. Recklessly worded statements, even if innocent in his own mind, uttered about the weighty matters which he must address publicly every day as President, from tensions at home to relationships around the world, will not be met with the charity offered by loyal campaign supporters.

And even worse, there will be some who take the reckless statements as authorization to act on the words they thought they heard.  They will hear that it is okay to shoot and kill. They will hear that it is okay to shoot and kill a political opponent, a member of the other religion,  nationality, race, ethnicity, even sexual orientation.

Or, the careless words may give authorization to others in other parts of the world to kill citizens of the country whose leader so recklessly spoke them.

Words are important.  Cute turns of phrase which allow the candidate to deny the destructive implications of his statements and brush them off with a chuckle may be expected in Junior High SGA races.  But not in a campaign to be President of the United States.

At this time last year, July, 2015, the United States was on track to set a new modern record for the fewest number of law enforcement officers killed by gunfire.  While one officer killed is too many, the number of 18 deaths nationally as of mid-July was a low mark in a continuing downward trend during this decade, despite the growing number of police officers. The national yearly loss had fallen to the low forties in previous years. (2013 was actually the lowest in modern history) But the second half of 2015 was disappointing, and by the end of the year the number of police deaths by gunfire was back up to the low forties, making the last half of 2015 a horrible six months.  While it looks like those sad losses will remain in the forties in 2016, the decade long trend of the numbers going down have seemed to have been interrupted.

It would be intellectually wrong to suggest that Donald Trump is responsible for this increase in violence against the police.  It is just as intellectually wrong to deny that the reckless rhetoric of his campaign which began in late June, 2015, has not fanned the flames of violence, not just among a few of his supporters, but of also among a few of those who feel the threat of his rhetoric is directed toward them.

There are other choices.

It's time to choose one.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Snake handling? Afraid not.

For most of my life I have lived in the woods.  I do not mean like Tarzan or Mowgli.  Like a lot of folks around North Alabama I have lived many years in houses tucked at the base of one of those rolling hills, the tail of the Appalachian range, the place where the pastures end and the woods begin. It is hard to plow the side of a limestone filled hillside, so the woods are allowed to live in peace, except for occasional human interruptions of timber or firewood cutting, or hunting, or moonshining, or just escaping, either from the law or from the world.

It was a good place to be a kid. I wandered into the woods a lot.  I named my favorite limestone outcroppings, my hide-outs, my forts, my castles, my watch-towers.  I was fearless.  Except for one thing.

I was terrified of snakes.

My parents had done an outstanding job of warning me of the horrors of the rattlesnakes and copperheads which slithered, hidden on the forest floor, just waiting to strike me as I passed by. Their warnings were very descriptive.  And serious. Perhaps I could have ignored their warnings, except that at a very early age I had many opportunities to see the monsters they described. I never got bit.  But I watched as they coiled and rattled and struck at a hoe that came their way.  I was mystified how they seemed to be impossible to kill as their long, thick, otherwise beautiful bodies continued to writhe and flail after their heads were cut off or crushed.

When I was five my dad came home for lunch in the middle of a beautiful early fall day and asked me to help him go feed the horses. He tossed a burlap bag of oats onto my fire-engine-red solid metal Radio Flyer wagon. I pulled it across the yard, and, at the edge of the woods, headed down the hill into a gully between the house and the barn. Dad was behind the wagon, keeping it from getting loose and running over my skinny five year old frame.  He yelled at me to stop, the kind of yell that lets a kid know his dad isn't kidding.  I looked down and there was a monster, stretched across the path in front of me.  It began to to move, not across the path, but into itself, coiling like a spring. It's head lifted.  It's tail did too. And began to rattle.

Dad, in a quieter voice, but even more serious, told me to back up slowly, and stand still, as he was turning to run back to the storage room to get his shotgun. So there, for what seemed like a couple of days, I stood, looking at the rattler.  I had a sense that dad did not want me to let it get away, but it would have been okay with me if it had moved on off into the woods.  But it did not.

Dad came back, moved me out of the way, and with the blast of the gun, the head of the snake disappeared. The body began to flail.  Dad and I went back to the house for awhile.  But a little later we went back.  The horses had to be fed, snake or not.  We finished our job. On the way back we found the dead snake which was a little off the path. It was huge.  Its black and grey hour-glass patterned skin was beautiful in a horrifying way.  Dad pulled out a knife and cut the rattle off the end of the snake.  I'm pretty sure that rattle is still in some drawer in my old room. I kept the rattle. And I kept the fear.

Living in the woods kids do a lot of things.  One of the things we did was shoot BB guns, mostly at the burn pile, where there were plenty of bottles, rotten fruit and other targets suitable to be destroyed by our assaults.  Somehow, occasionally, our shots would not be true, and would go places they were not supposed to go, like into the window panes of the house.  Danny and I shared a bedroom (about half the size of our sisters' bedroom I might add).  One of the window panes had a tiny hole in it produced by an errant BB shot. When I say tiny, I mean not much bigger than a nail hole.

I remember lying in bed at night, the sounds of the summer night emanating from the woods roaring in my ears, knowing that the most dangerous thing out there was making no sound as it slithered along the ground, making its way toward my window, toward the tiny pin-hole weakness in our fortress of safety, so that it could contort its amazing body, squeeze through the BB hole as some sort of ironic statement against our use of the shotguns against its brother, and finish me off as I lay defenseless in my own bed. I'm pretty sure Danny was asleep.

Fear is a powerful thing.  Whether snake or human or any member of creation, we are created to do what we need to do to survive.  In the moment of fear, we do not think, we react.  We coil up, stand our ground, rattle and lash out when we could pass on by.  We draw our weapons and kill when we could take a step back to a place of safety and choose a different way.

But fear diminishes our ability to choose a different way, a better way.  Fear, if embraced as a deceitful comfort, distorts our perception of reality.  Fear crawls into the tiny openings that we give it, expanding and growing into a mythical monster that prevents us from seeing the truth in the dark, noisy night.

Fear gives us an excuse to ignore truth and embrace lies as we huddle, afraid in the darkness, yet sadly in plain sight of the light of truth. Standing in the shadows we seek warmth and light from the pitiful temporary fire of our choosing, denying time after time after time that light which we proclaim is our only hope.

Fear is the enemy of truth.  Fear is the enemy of light.  Fear is the enemy of love.

But love is the way.

And love casts out fear.

And that is the truth.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Into the cross-fire . ..

I struggle to find words this morning.  As I think and pray about what to write I find myself tempted to become even more a part of problems that must be resolved.

Like everyone else, my mind is full of opinions.  My opinions are formed out of my personal experiences.  I defend a lot of criminal defendants. I am a lover of words.  I am a white, male son of the South. I am a follower of Jesus, a United Methodist, a father, a grandfather, a Democrat with libertarian tendencies and more.  But it seems that every opinion expressed these days provokes an equal and opposite opinion.  We all feel threatened.  Some of us have good reason.  Most of us do not.

Those of us who do not have a good reason to feel threatened owe the rest of our sisters and brothers a helping hand. . . and head and heart.  Those who are truly threatened because of their skin color, or because of the badge they wear, or because of the God they worship, or because of the person they love, or because of whatever label or target is slapped on their back by public opinion and discourse are afraid for good reason. Some of each of these groups have very recently been shot and killed just because of their label, for Pete's sake.  Fear causes a focus on survival, to be defensive, to fight or to flee depending on the threats of the moment.  For the benefit of all who have good reason to feel truly threatened, to be afraid for their lives, the rest of us need to step back, cut them some slack, offer them love and support and safety in this moment. 

All of them.

But the truth is, we cannot afford to step back to a safe distance and expect them to find us and come.  The threatened, frightened and injured often hunker down and retreat to their sides for defense. We who are not truly threatened must step forward. We must step forward into the in between.

Into the cross fire.

Carrying nothing. Open hands. We must drop the weapons of our harsh, judgmental words,  our positions of privilege or power, our eloquent opinions, our revelations of blame.  We must strip off the jerseys we wear to identify which side we are on, revealing only our bare human identity. We must be willing to take the bullets and stones throne by both sides out of their fear. And in that place, between the fearful, injured sides, we must create a place of safety born of justice and love.   A place that we must not be tempted to give up, leave and join or rejoin a side, even though living in the cross fire is frightening.  We must create a place so good, so just, so loving, that those in fear will feel safe to leave their opposing sides, drawn to join  the loving circle.  A loving circle has no sides. Everyone sees the face of everyone, as everyone faces the center.

It is a dangerous place to stand defenseless, with open hearts and arms spread wide, taking the blows of both sides meant for the other.

That's the way it has always been in the cross-fire.

But it is our only hope.  It always has been.


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