God is Good, God is Better…

If I believed that we were born in total depravity, then I would have to believe that I am more mature than God. That is a horrific thought. No — I believe — I must believe that God is greater than I am, that God is more mature, wiser, kinder, gentler, more patient, and better in every way than I am. After all, I do believe that I am made, that we are all made, in God’s image. No, I don’t believe in a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, but I do believe that we are made in God’s image, that we carry God’s Divine spark, the ruach – the Divine wind, within us.

But being made in God’s image does not make us God. We are not the original. We are the copies. We are not as good. We are striving to be.

So I do not believe that we are born in total depravity. I am a Universalist. A capital U Universalist and a lower-case U universalist.  I believe that God never gives up on us. Never. Not ever. Which already makes God better than me.

Because right now – and a lot lately, I find that I am just this close to giving up on humanity.  It’s not just this election, or any election. It’s the general level of nastiness that we are showing one another.  The rape culture that is being condoned and excused. Rush Limbaugh, the poster boy for the total depravity argument, on 12 October, 2016, allowed as how those on the left would call any sexual contact that didn’t include consent as rape. Um…yes. By definition! That’s exactly what rape is! You can read his statement here if you haven’t just eaten.

A man thought it would be appropriate to dress his son in blackface as a Black Lives Matter activist for Halloween. Because his son wanted to go as something stupid. And then he posted the photo proudly on Facebook. I weep for this child – for the way he is being brought up.

A seven-year-old was beaten up by other children on his school bus in North Carolina. Because he is Muslim. On his school bus. Where an adult is present, driving the bus. The family is now moving back to Pakistan, because they don’t feel safe in the U.S. Let that sink in for a moment. They are moving back to Pakistan, where they feel safer.

And today, on the 287th day of the year, as I write this, 843 people have been killed by police so far in the U.S. this year.  That’s just about three people every single day. Every. Single. Day. And yes, police do get killed in the line of duty. They aren’t all killed by people, but police do die in the line of duty. So far, in 2016, 99 police officers have died in the line of duty.  And there were 130 police deaths in 2015, and 146 in 2014, so fortunately, that number is trending down. (The average daily death toll for civilians killed by police in 2015 was about the same as it appears to be trending now).

So I see all these things, and many more things, and I get discouraged. I say “Black Lives Matter,” and someone says, “well, I think all lives matter!” And I get tired of explaining that all lives can’t matter if we’re erasing the black lives.

I take a stand against rape culture, and someone says, “can’t you take a joke?” I can take a joke. Having agency over my body isn’t a joke. And I get tired of explaining to men, and sometimes even to other women that my body isn’t here for your amusement.

I say that I want to learn about other faiths, that my way isn’t the only way it is one way, and someone says, “but they can’t be trusted, they could be terrorists.” And I get tired of pointing out that terrorists abound in every flavor, and that while we sit and cower in the corner about terrorists, the poor are still poor, the hungry are still  hungry, many people still don’t have adequate healthcare or education, and so much more.

We spend so much time looking for ways to hate each other. We spend so much time looking for the things that divide us.  If you don’t love the way I do, you must be broken. If you don’t eat, worship, think, look the way I do, you must be broken/wrong/inferior.

So I think that God must have infinite patience. I think there must be so much more that we are capable of. Because I cannot bear to believe that we are totally depraved. This is my prayer. That God grant me the strength to continue the work. That we will come to know how to be better humans. That we will continue to build the kingdom. To repair the world. It is the only way. God must be greater than all of us. Let us find our way to God.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.



Acting the Part Part 2: Sticking to the Formula

At some point in the mid-20th century, it came to the attention of demographers that the average American family had something like 2.something children. Now, most people understand that people don’t have fractions of a child. Most people get that this meant that some families had fewer than two children, and some had more. And yet. And yet, the statistics said this was the average American family, so as builders raced to build houses in suburbs following the example of Levittown, they built all these three- and four-bedroom houses. To accommodate all of those 2.something children families.  Which was great, if you had a family with two or three children.  But not really so much if you had seven children. Or five, even. Which wasn’t all that unusual in the neighborhood that I lived in as a kid.

But hey, it’s a formula. There are other things that we’ve learned from demographic statistics.  Demographics have told us for a long time (although this is changing rapidly), that about 12% of the U.S. population was black. And it would seem that people in Hollywood must have gotten hold of this. That is the most charitable assumption I can make for how Hollywood has represented minorities on screen (I can think of nothing nice to say about how women have been represented).

Once upon a time, everyone on screen was white, unless there was a specific reason for someone to be a person of color (black slave, evil Indian, stereotyped Chinese guy with buck teeth who was probably played by a white guy anyway (see Part 1)). But eventually, more enlightened producers and directors caught on, and started including people of color. For example, in “The Mod Squad” – one default guy (you know, the “regular” white guy), one woman (i.e. a white woman, because we can only handle one variable at a time), and one black guy. So, boxes ticked.  And there was “Star Trek”, which really was ahead of its time. But again, “Star Trek” had a predominantly white cast. The captain, of course, was a white human man. There was a black woman in a prominent role, which was truly fantastic. And there was a Japanese-American guy, and a Russian character (also a white man, but it was the 1960’s, so this was big – the two communist nations sitting there together). And there was a Scottish white guy, and an alien white guy. Boxes ticked.

But in the late 1980’s, when “Star Trek Next Generation” came around, things hadn’t changed all that much in terms of total diversity. This is supposed to be taking place centuries in the future. The captain is still a white guy. Of all the main characters on the series, two were black: LeVar Burton, who played a human, and Michael Dorn, who played a Klingon in heavy prosthetic make-up.  Centuries in the future, and we were still envisioning people of color in token representation.

It’s no wonder that last week Tim Burton shoved both his feet down his throat when he allowed as how he’s bought into the whole idea that white people are the default for movies unless a character is specifically called to be a person of color (read more here). His exact words were, “things either call for things or they don’t.”  Ew.

Here’s the thing — regardless of what the statistics say about the current population of the United States, we know from our lives that families don’t have 2.3 children, and we know that each school doesn’t have one black student, each office doesn’t have a single black employee, each neighborhood doesn’t have one black family.  So why do we still represent the world this way on screen?

We can imagine better. When “Doctor Who” chose to represent the British Monarch in the 29th century, they gave us Liz X, a black woman.  That’s a good start. I think we need to keep it going. And maybe Tim Burton ought to sit down and watch a few episodes.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.

Acting The Part (Part I)

When I was little, I remember my father commenting on  “Man of A Thousand Faces,” the movie about Lon Chaney.  My father was pointing out to me how Lon Chaney had his own special make-up kit, and was able to make himself up to look like any character the filmmakers wanted, so he was able to get all sorts of parts. It was a new idea for filmmakers, apparently. Instead of needing to find an Indian with a facial scar, Lon Chaney would make himself look like an Indian with a facial scar. And he would get the part.

As an exercise in stage make-up, this was innovative. I suppose. I mean, Lon Chaney didn’t invent stage make-up, but he was apparently the first to apply it in this method in the film industry. Well, that’s something.

And it is something. As an academic exercise, there is something in being able to transform people with the use of make-up. I’m a big fan of the reality t.v. series “Face Off” in which make-up artists compete to create all sorts of creatures and make-ups. Sometimes the make-up artists do spectacular transformations on the models, changing gender, race, age, and all sorts of things. But this is exactly an exercise.

Now, I’ve been acting for a while, and I think it’s a great tool in ministry. And some of the reasons I think it’s so wonderful is that it gives us an opportunity to try on other personas for a bit. Acting allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes for a time; to experience a bit of life from another perspective. It also gives us practice in interacting. It helps us to learn to relate to one another.

In this way it can be helpful, as an exercise, to try on roles that are outside of what we know and who we are. Not as caricatures, but as humans, with thoughts and feelings. So we might play someone much older or younger, someone with a vastly different background, or someone who thinks very differently from how we think. As an exercise. But on the big screen, well, that’s different.

But why is it a problem for actors to be playing races that they’re not? Why am I even writing about this? I mean, what’s the big deal about a white actor playing an Indian, anyway?

Well, it’s precisely because it’s only ever white actors who get to play dress-up. Othello? A white actor in black face  (1951 played by Orson Welles, 1965 played by Laurence Olivier, 1981 played by Anthony Hopkins). But when have you seen a black actor made up to look white in order to play Tony in West Side Story?

White has become default, even though white is not the majority of people on the planet. There are precious few roles as it is that aren’t written as white characters without white actors being cast as the non-white characters, as well. And again, non-white actors are not given the same courtesy.  Non-white actors are not cast in white roles with a make-up job (although we know that this make-up is just as possible).

I’m a big Marvel fan, and I’ve loved the recent Marvel movies. I love that Idris Elba was cast as Heimdahl. I’m fairly certain that the in the original Norse pantheon Heimdahl wasn’t black. But Marvel’s own universe has said that The Ancient One is from Tibet. I’m fine with remaking The Ancient One as a woman in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. But Tilda Swinton is no Tibetan.

Unless we’re going to start opening up all roles to all actors, so that non-whites will be able to play the roles that have been going to white actors, even when it is important that the character be white, we should not allow white actors to play non-white roles. It can’t go only one way. To be clear, I’m saying that unless we allow non-white actors to play intentionally white characters, with all the make-up that it would require, then we must stop allowing white actors to play dress-up in the movies by playing characters of other races.

I don’t know any of the professors anymore. And there are new buildings popping up all over campus. And there’s a new fountain by the circle, and the big main fountain has had a huge overhaul.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Albany, NY to hang out with my college girlfriends, Amy and Dianne With Two N’s (they gave me permission to use their names). We’ve been going up to Albany ever since we were graduated in the stone age. OK, 1984, but it was before the internet and cell phones, so…

I had stayed in Albany for a while to go to graduate school, and Amy and Dianne started coming up to visit. And then when I left, they kept going up, and eventually, I could afford to join them. And often a few other girlfriends have joined us over the years – but it started out as we three.

We three lived together since our freshman year in college. We didn’t know each other before we were randomly selected to live in a suite together, but we’ve been friends now for more than 35 years. And some things are the same, but many things have changed.

As I walked around the campus by myself, waiting for my friends to arrive, I was considering how much had changed in the last 32 years (quite a lot). I don’t love all the changes, but I think most of them are for the better. But the thing is, this isn’t the University of the Mitey Widow. It’s not about me. By the time we had gotten there, many things had changed since the University was founded in 1854. Things change. And then I considered how we had changed, too.

When we first started our Albany weekends, we were young and single. Amy and Dianne stayed on friends’ sofas.  There were things we ALWAYS did. We always ate at Sutter’s. We always had breakfast at Denny’s.

Eventually we all got married. We had children. We paid money to stay in hotels. But we were still going to Sutter’s and Denny’s and walking around the campus, and going to the campus bookstore. We’d sit around the fountain and talk about our husbands and our children.

One day, one of our friends suggested that perhaps we might eat someplace other than Denny’s. So we started going out for a nicer breakfast on Saturday.

Twenty years ago, we used to spend a lot more time around the campus. Maybe it was more important to us then. We were still closer to our time in school, and our children were very young (those of us who had children 20 years ago!). We were full-fledged adults, to be sure, but we were still young adults. Perhaps we were reassuring ourselves that this anchor was still here to hold on to if we needed it.

In more recent years, we’ve used Albany as a base, but we’ve done more adventurous things like kayaking and hiking. We’ve even gone into Massachusetts a couple of times to visit different museums (this year we went to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art -well worth the visit).

We were young and single when we started doing this. We’ve all been married – I’m now widowed. Our children are no longer little. Some of our children are already out of college themselves – some will be headed there in a few years.

The University’s changed. We’ve changed. Our lives have changed. We remain friends, and we’ve learned to appreciate the different ways that we’ve grown. How sad it would have been if we had tried to hold onto everything just as it was. Oh – yes – we always drive by our old off-campus apartment. We always do a little bit of the nostalgia tour. But we’re not mourning the past – just appreciating it while we also hold a curiosity about the future. It’s one of the things I love about getting together with my old roommies.

I don’t know for sure what we’ll do next year. I expect that Dianne-With-Two-N’s will research some great restaurants and things to do – and then we’ll choose. Maybe we’ll go kayaking. We’ll probably go to some of the usual haunts, and probably some new places, too. We’ll keep changing, but we’ll keep having each other. And that’s the thing that really matters.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.

Living in the Wall

Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the wall Jericho. She literally lived in the margin. She hid Joshua’s spies and helped them escape, thereby helping Joshua to capture Jericho (Joshua 2).  For this, she and her family were spared, and she was honored in Israel’s memory. Rahab is even one of only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.  But Rahab couldn’t have been much of a hero to the citizens of Jericho. After all, she betrayed them to the Israelites.

What could have made Rahab turn against her own people? What can make anyone turn against their own society? Well, Rahab lived in the wall. Rahab was marginalized. She was in the most vulnerable place – in the wall – in her society. Rahab chose to do something for herself – she had no allegiance to her own people. She sold them out to the Israelites, and really, who can blame her?

Whom are we marginalizing in our own society? It seems that we are living in a time of increased political polarization.  Donald Trump has been pandering to the fears of white people who are feeling a loss of power. While these are not the truly marginalized, we ignore them at our peril. These are people fighting to keep the status quo. They fear the empowerment of the currently marginalized.

But Trump’s tactics have been to pour gasoline on the fire. He’s been advocating divisiveness and hate, and has recently demonstrated that he’s willing to sell out our own government to foreign powers.

Trump and his supporters have engaged in racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions.  He’s mocked the Black Lives Matter movement.  Trump and his supporters are actively working to squeeze people into the wall. They’re working to make sure that people remain in the margins.

What will become of us if we continue to push people to the margins? God has shown once before that God did not stand with the people of Jericho. We are becoming Jericho. And the more voice we give to Trump and his fascist supporters, the we will push the marginalized to welcome Joshua’s spies.

Where do you want to be when the walls come down?

That’s my mite. That’s all I’ve got.



Keeping Police Safe

When I was a senior in high school, I got to participate in police training. As far as I know, our high school drama students were the only high school group anywhere doing this — it was usually done by professional actors — but our drama teacher had clout and we got to do this as high school students. I don’t mean that we trained to be police. I mean that we helped to train new police officers.

We went to the police academy and we staged some improvisational scenes, and the police cadets had to respond.  I remember my scene very well. I had set my roommate up on a date, and he had raped her.  When the police responded, I was to be over-protective of her. That’s exactly what I did.  There were no women police.  I didn’t want to leave her alone with a man.  I was on edge. The job of the police was to de-escalate. But this was training. They weren’t perfect yet.  Eventually, the cadet had me up against the wall in a half-nelson.  Even though I’d never raised a hand against him.

But you know, the cadets in this class, they had the opportunity, in a controlled setting, to evaluate what they were doing.  Sure, this guy had me up against the wall. But this wasn’t out on the street. He wasn’t really going to arrest me. He didn’t have any real weapons on him.  Perhaps he learned something. I hope so.

Last year, we learned that the city of Miami was using mugshots of black men for target practice (Miami police used mugshots of black men for target practice).  In case you were wondering what the police might have been learning from this type of training, this week, a Miami police officer shot Charles Kinsey, a caretaker (who happens to be a black ma) at a group home who was working with an autistic man who had wandered away and into the street. Kinsey was lying on his back with his hands in the air (as ordered by the police) at the time that he was shot. When asked why he shot at Kinsey, the officer responded, “I don’t know.” I don’t know? That’s not good enough. Perhaps it had something to do with all that target practice shooting at the faces of black men. I’m just hypothesizing.

And just this week at the RNC Circus, another Sheriff Clark (and seriously, what is it about Sheriffs named Clark?) went off about how Black Lives Matter is all about being anti-police and how we should all be worried about Blue Lives Matter.  Um….yeah. Black Lives Matter is not anti-police.  It doesn’t have to be either or. In fact, if we want to make it even safer for police, we’re going to have to recognize that Black Lives Matter. How can I explain this better?

Do you know anyone who thinks the police DON’T have a difficult job? OK. I think we can pretty much all agree on that. It’s a hard job, and it’s potentially dangerous.  But it’s MORE dangerous if people fear the police. If we learn to fear the police, then, just as Yoda said, fear will lead to hate.

We can keep escalating. It’s an option. More and more people will learn to fear and distrust the police. But as I write this, 599 people have been killed by the police in the U.S. so far this year.  Five hundred ninety-nine.  And Native Americans are nearly 3.6 times as likely to be killed by police (per capita) than whites, and blacks are nearly 2.5 times as likely to be killed.

Perhaps it’s time, instead of escalating, that we teach de-escalation. Perhaps everyone, including the police, would be safer, if police shed all the military armor and weaponry and instead got back into the communities.  Because just maybe, if we started to see each other as actual people, then maybe we would be less inclined to shoot 12-year-olds with bb-guns, or men lying on their backs with their hands in the air. And then maybe, if the police weren’t shooting people all the time, then people wouldn’t be so hyper vigilant around the police. And then everyone would be safer.

That’s my mite. That’s all I’ve got.


My Confession

When I was maybe six years old, I was already being programmed by society. My babysitter, one of my mother’s students, (we’ll call her E.), was putting me to bed. I remember looking at her and telling her, “You’re beautiful, even though your skin isn’t this color” (I said this pointing to the skin on my own arm).  You see, I had already been instructed by countless images on t.v. and in all manner of advertising, that beautiful women were white. WhiteWhiteWhiteWhiteWhite. Preferably with blonde hair and blue eyes. But most definitely – White.

I was already learning that I had privilege, and that I was entitled to it. Even growing up in New York City, going to school with kids from all different cultures and ethnicities. I looked like the teachers. My parents were teachers. White people were teachers. I learned that white people knew what was best.

So now I am confessing. I’m confessing to the assumptions that I’ve bought into in the past. To the privileges that I’ve freely benefitted from. Because friends, this isn’t an academic exercise. People are dying. Black people. It’s been open season on white people killing black people in this country with impunity, and the only way we’re going to end this for us to admit to our privilege. White people have to dismantle this. White people have to stop killing black people. And while I’ve never pulled a trigger, I’ve never owned a slave, (my own family was effectively enslaved by the Tsar while slavery was legal in the U.S.), I have absolutely benefitted from the legacy of slavery in this country because I’m white.

I confess that I’d bought into the lie that “this is an isolated incident.” Oh sure, in the case of Rodney King there was a video, so we knew about that. But in the few other instances (because surely this wasn’t a frequent occurrence!), there must be explanations and we should wait to hear all the facts. I bought into that lie.  But now we all have smartphones with cameras.  Now I can’t ignore it. Now I know better. So forgive me, Holy One, and forgive me, brothers and sisters, for I have sinned. I have refused to see what was right in front of me. But I know better now. These are not isolated incidents. These are daily occurrences.  Five hundred sixty-six people have been killed by police so far this year in the United States, and the year is barely half over. Five hundred sixty-six.  Three more people have been killed since Philando Castile was killed yesterday.  The Guardian newspaper keeps a running tally. Oh, and in case you were wondering, 136 of the people killed by police so far this year were black.

I confess that I bought into the “we’re all the same” lie. I think that, back in the ’70’s and ’80’s, we genuinely believed that “we’re all the same” was really the way to go. I didn’t understand that it meant erasing someone else’s culture and asking people to assimilate to the dominant culture. It’s probably better than “othering” – but asking someone else to change to accommodate me isn’t truly recognizing that person as an equal. Just as I love my own cultural heritage, everyone must have this privilege.

I confess that I’d bought into the default setting for human as white. It probably wasn’t a conscious decision, but that’s the thing about privilege – I have the privilege of not thinking about a lot of things. I’ve never been pulled over for driving while white. I’ve never been followed around a store for shopping while white (even though, by the way, the most common shoplifter in America is a middle-aged white woman). I’ve had to consciously train myself to not think of the default setting as white. I can’t say for sure how much I still do it, because, well, it’s a subconscious thing.  But I can say that where I have trained myself, my eyes have been opened WIDE.

And speaking of having my eyes opened wide – I confess to having bought into the lie of the white savior. You know the white savior, don’t you? I refer you to the second paragraph above – white people know best, after all.  I bought into that lie about wonderful liberal white people going into those poor countries and communities to save those poor unfortunates.  So we end up with movies like “The Blind Side” where the wonderful rich white woman saves the poor black teenager who surely wouldn’t have been able to do anything himself.  I confess I had savior fantasies. I would go and save the world. Because I was so smart and wonderful.  And I should be the one to speak and lead because I KNOW WHAT’S BEST.  Or, maybe not. It took me a while to figure out that maybe my voice isn’t the one that needs to be heard. That maybe I could help best by asking people how I might be able to help rather than coming in like a bulldozer and telling them what they need.

This is my confession. I didn’t grow up in lily-white America. I grew up in multicultural New York City. And I still had a lot to learn, and I probably still have plenty more to learn. I don’t have all the answers.  I know this. It is us – the white folks, who are going to have to fess up to our privilege and then leverage it. We’re going to have to admit to all the ways we’ve been benefiting and all the assumptions we’ve bought into. And we — people WE are going to have to stop the unbounded killing of black people.

#PhilandoCastile #AltonSterling Say Their Names #BlackLivesMatter

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.