What helps, what doesn’t

November 14, 2015

How do we process and respond to the stream of tragedies we bear witness to, day in and day out? This week, it is the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut that have captured our collective attention and broken our hearts.  But every week, there’s something.  How do we stay awake and aware, without succumbing to compassion fatigue?  For those of us who are religious leaders, how do we support people whose lived experience is that things are bad and getting worse?

When the trauma is acute, it helps to turn off the tv, the radio, the computer.  It helps to connect with the real people who are nearby, to remind ourselves of the love and beauty in our lives.  Later, it helps to look at the root causes and educate ourselves on the events leading up to the tragedy.  It helps to find concrete ways to contribute, whether sending money or attending a vigil or just saying a silent prayer.  It helps to take a long view, to step back and realize that people who are good and caring and responsible outnumber those who are hate-full and violent by several orders of magnitude.  It helps to pay attention to the outpouring of love and support that inevitably follows each tragedy.  Yes, Mr. Rogers, it helps to “Remember the Helpers.”

It doesn’t help to jump to assigning blame.  It doesn’t help to watch bloody footage over and over again, imprinting traumatic images on our brain.  It doesn’t help to chastise people for their way of responding to the tragedy; each person is entitled to their own reactions and responses.

It helps me to practice tonglen meditation.  I visualize breathing in the world’s suffering, transforming it, and breathing out love and peace.  But there are other individual practices that can help…walking meditation, lighting candles, expressing solidarity through images or art or music.  These days, we all need our ‘go to’ post-traumatic spiritual practices.

It helps us all, collectively to come together and lament as a community.  In the wake of every tragedy, attendance at churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship tends to increase.  When we are hurting, we need one another more than ever.

As religious leaders, our job is to set the pace and the tone of communal mourning.  We need to be sensitive to the level of trauma in our congregations. Sometimes, our folks need us to be prophetic, to open their eyes and hearts to something they might rather ignore.  Sometimes they need us to be pastoral, to soothe and uplift.  Sometimes they need us to just acknowledge the feelings of pain, helplessness, and loss; to sit with them in the midst of the turmoil and to acknowledge how hard it is to be human just now.

These are challenging times, but they are also rich with potential.  As hard as it is to bear witness to the stream of tragedies sometimes, our broken hearts connect us in a way that has never occurred before, a way that is desperately needed.  I have unlimited faith in the resilience of the human spirit.  Together, we will figure out how to weave a web of compassion that embraces the whole human family.

What We Owe Our Veterans

November 9, 2015

Reading:  Used by permission

A message to my children’s teachers on Veteran’s Day
Will Hopkins, US Army Infantry, Iraq 2004-2005

When I am thanked for my “service” I cringe
I asked my stepdaughter
What she wanted to be when she grew up, she said
“An animal rescuer, or a veteran.”

She would choose those images, and the guilt

I was a tool of evil men
A foreign invader killing men defending their homeland
For oil, territory, politics, whatever

I was a murderer-am a murderer
A killer

“An animal rescuer, or a veteran.”

I don’t want to be recognized, as the hero you are tasked to paint me
I don’t want to be recognized, as the monster I allowed myself to become

I want you to teach my children peace
That the men defending their homeland from me, were as real and human as me
And that their children, starving, barefoot, now parentless
Are as real as they are
As human as they are
As worthy of living safe from war,
and going to school,
and playing on the playground

That that woman who stepped out in front of our humvee was as real as you
As real as your student’s own mothers

I won’t be attending your ceremony

And I have a request, as a parent on this Veterans Day, as a veteran on this Armistice Day
Please, please, please
Teach my children peace.

In a couple of years, my other daughter will come through your doors
Let her tell me
“An animal rescuer, or a doctor.”
“An animal rescuer, or a teacher.”
“An animal rescuer, or a firewoman.”
“An animal rescuer, or anything.”

I am no hero, and the world has had enough war
If we can teach our children peace can the world not see its last veteran?

Sermon

On Wednesday, Veteran’s Day, people will wear flag pins.  Fox news will take swipes at President Obama for not being at the right cemetery to observe the holiday or not saying the right words or looking at the camera funny.  There will be a lot of talk about ‘heroes’ and ‘sacrifice,’ patriotic music, parades and the like.

And all of that is well and good.  (Well, maybe not the swipes at our President.  But the rest of it is all well and good.)  But if this Veteran’s Day is anything like most of the other Veteran’s Days I’ve lived through, what there won’t be is serious conversation about what our Veterans need from us, what they deserve.

No one will point out that the transition to an all-volunteer military means that enlisted men and women who are low-income or come from marginalized communities are more over-represented than ever.  No one will talk about the fact that multiple deployments, which are becoming ever more common, lead to exponentially higher rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

In some places, folks might read the names of the men and women who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan this year.  But I doubt anyone will point out that we’ve likely crossed the ‘grim milestone’ of one million non-fatal injuries.  The Department of Veterans Affairs has stopped releasing those numbers.

And I especially doubt that anyone will mention that Veterans’ organizations suspect that the rate of suicide among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is something like 5-7 times the rate of combat casualties.

No one will talk about the far higher than average rates of drug abuse, divorce, and domestic violence.  No one will mention the high percentage of Veterans who are unable to find stable employment after leaving the military.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average unemployment rate for veterans has risen to more than 12.1 percent in the past year. For the youngest veterans, aged 18 to 24, the jobless rate was 30.4 percent in October of this year and a striking 48.0 percent for young black veterans. (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/01/05/1051926/-What-Do-We-Owe-Our-Returning-Vets)

I would venture a guess that some folks will talk about how important it is to defend ourselves against ISIS.  But I suspect that no one will be brave enough to say what one Veteran of the Iraq war said in an article on the Daily Kos:

The U.S. media has relentlessly driven home the point that our soldiers protect our freedoms but the truth is the War was a misguided attempt to stabilize oil prices. Bin Laden and other “Islamo-terrorists” never broadly threatened U.S. shores.  They were surprised as much as we were that jets could bring down large skyscrapers.

As my brother put it after returning from Iraq, “I knew when I signed up that I was putting my life on the line.  I just thought I would be fighting to defend civilians, not to maximize Halliburton’s profits.”

So.  I’m saying it all now.  I know that it’s hard to hear.  It’s easy to get all goopy and patriotic.  It’s a lot harder to pay attention to the actual experience of today’s veterans.

Today, though, I’d challenge us to do just that, and to ask ourselves, what do we really owe our Veterans?  Let’s start with one of our own.  Donal?

I was an 18 year old senior in high school with a low G.P.A. and with no connection with how more academics were going to make my life better.  My father made it clear that I would be paying rent to live at home after graduating high school in the tiny town I lived in.  I wanted out.  After a brief failing attempt to get into the Merchant Marine Academy (I wanted to captain a tug boat) I went to the recruiter’s office. He took one look at my ASVAB score, 94 out of 99, and I could almost see him salivating.

(Your ASVAB scores determine what jobs you will qualify for in the military.  It’s very comprehensive, testing language, math, reasoning and scientific thinking skills.)

The recruiter went right to work selling me electronics for the nuclear program.  Five months later I graduated and was ready to be care free for the next few months of my life before being shipped off to boot camp.  Not once did I think about the moral issues or political repercussions of joining the military.  Reagan had not started a nuclear war with the Soviet Union yet, and there was no other “war” going on.  After all, I was a Deadhead. 

I went into the navy conservative by birth, even though I was a Deadhead.  Over the course of the four years I spent in the Middle East and North Africa spying on Russians, training the Taliban in their war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, bombing Libyans, and manipulating geopolitics worldwide I became liberal.  It didn’t happen overnight, but rather a result to what I saw we were doing to people, for oil companies, and in the name of the citizens of the United States.

I re-entered the “real” world on October 26, 1989, with 4.0 evaluations, and assurance from the navy that I would fail and re-enlist within a month.  They offered me a $60,000 re-enlistment bonus because of my 4,000 hours of school and $300,000 security clearance that was three levels above top secret – higher than our president. But I was done.  I was done with my government, done with electronics, but not done with world politics.  The navy made me an activist for world peace.  “No one prays for peace more than the soldier, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”  General Douglas MacArthur

I became a full time peace activist during the first gulf war.  I volunteered to help conscientious objectors file their paperwork to avoid military service.  It wasn’t long before the folks at the San Jose Peace Center and the Bay Area Peace Center in San Francisco figured out they had a gold mine in this passionate former navy spy who they could use as their media spokesperson.  I spent the next year doing assemblies at high schools, T.V. and newspaper interviews, and speaking at many large protests.  I researched who we recruited, who fought our wars, and at what cost. 

Immigrants and the poor fight our wars, and they have in every war since the American Revolution.  You won’t find many senators or representatives children in the military.  Our politicians send the most desperate patriots into battle for the benefit of large corporations; oil, and companies who fuel the military industrial complex, and then businesses like Halliburton and Bechtel to go in a rebuild what we destroy.

I am a veteran.  My heart was in the right place.  I wanted to defend my country for my family and friends.  I wanted to honor the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower.  I didn’t get to do that.  I was on the offense. I was a spear point for big American corporations to increase their profits for more wealthy Tories who were stockholders.  I feel like it is important to honor people who had the best of intentions to serve those that they love to protect their freedom.  That should not be tainted by the motivations of the politicians who send our young men and women to war.

Thank you.

I want to acknowledge that every veteran’s experience is different.  Many never see combat directly.  Some who do are able to heal and go on to live productive and happy lives.  I know a lot of veterans who are proud of their service, satisfied that they did the right thing, and delighted to be remembered and honored.

But I agree with the authors of our first reading when they say:

We owe it to (our veterans) and to ourselves to do our best to support their recovery…we must be willing to engage the same intense moral questions that veterans undertake about our own responsibility as a society for having sent them to war. 

If we are really to take responsibility for having sent young people, precious men and women with inherent worth and dignity, to war, we can’t yield to the limitations of our political system.  I wonder sometime if the fact that enlisted people are overwhelmingly people of color or poor people makes it easier for our leaders to forget?  Easier to discount their loss?

I will say this for the draft- when the draft was in place, everyone knew someone who was away at the war.  Everyone knew someone, personally who had died or who had lost a child, a spouse, a sibling, a friend.  These days, it’s rarer.  But not as rare as we might think.  How many of you know and love someone who is a veteran?

When my brother says he doesn’t want to be honored for his service or recognized at school assemblies, I listen.  When he says that what he does want is for all of us to teach peace, I listen to that, too.

But teaching peace- it doesn’t feel like quite enough.  Teaching peace doesn’t help the Veterans who have come back broken.  It doesn’t help their families who are forced to live with their absence or their anger.  I’m haunted by the memory of one former congregant who, on his way to his FIFTH deployment, said to me, simply, “I’m not fit for anything else anymore.” Sure, we taught his daughter peace in her Sunday School class, but what I really wanted to do was to somehow get her Dad back for her.

We owe our service members more than our efforts to teach peace to our children, our society, and our government.  We owe them love and support, healing, and companionship on their road back to wholeness.

I am so grateful to and proud of our UU military chaplains.  They are really cool.  I have two close friends and a number of acquaintances who answered the call to serve in the armed services.  I want to share with you something my friend, Susan Maginn, a chaplain for the Marines wrote as she prepared to lead worship for her 3000 ‘congregants.’

Tomorrow’s lectionary themes are about how to keep yourself undefiled and unstained by the world. Which is lovely, but I’m preaching to warriors-in-training who are preparing to get pretty dirty in the world, preparing like those sheepdogs who are bred and trained to protect the herd.

Tomorrow’s take away:

In ancient cultures, warriors wore masks into battle to scare their enemies and to keep their souls ‘undefiled and unstained’ by war. So right now, while you are training, right here in boot camp, build a spiritual mask for yourself. Make it fierce and intimidating. Make it your most precious piece of gear. Take it with you. Wear it as you run into combat, and do exactly as you are trained to do. When the fight is over, remember you are wearing that mask. Weeks, months or even years may pass, but remember you are the one who built that mask and you are the one who knows exactly how to take it off. And when you do, God’s love rushes in.

We can be the ones who help Veterans take their mask off.  Or, to use a more fitting metaphor on this Quilt Sunday, we can wrap these beautiful, lovingly crafted quilts around them, like a blanket fort.  We can help them stitch their experiences together into a coherent whole- even the parts that are still ragged or stuffed in a pocket or left behind on a battlefield.

I’m reminded of the little cartoon- I think it was the Oatmeal- where someone walks up to a person in obvious distress and says, “What’s wrong?”  He answers, “I don’t know.”

“How can I help?”  “I don’t know.”

Then the first person goes off and makes a blanket fort, comes back and says, “I made you a nest.  Do you want to come?”  “Ok.”

“Does that help?”  “Yes.”  “Are you ever coming out?”  “No.”  “Okay.”  And he crawls into the blanket fort with his friend and holds his hand.

We who may or may not believe in God can nevertheless embody what Susan calls “God’s love”- that unconditional, healing love that accepts and doesn’t judge, that meets people where they are and wraps them up in as many quilts as they need.  We can SEE our veterans.  We can LOVE our veterans.  Above all else, that’s what we owe them.

There is a class by the UUA that looks at how we can make our congregations more welcoming and supportive of service members.  It’s called the “Military Ministry Toolkit.”  It’s comprised of six two-hour sessions, and it would lead us through a process of reflecting and then planning, sort of like the Green Sanctuary program, except with a lot less work and no need for certification.  Would anyone like to work on this with me?

One more quote from Susan:

Last Sunday. Me leading worship with 2000 Marine Corps recruits. The final praise song, wherein they are all yelling and dancing in the aisles, has just finished. Benediction time.

Me: Eyeballs!

The 2000: Yes, ma’am. (They snap their heads toward me)

Me: Ears!

The 2000: Yes, ma’am. (They are silent)

Me: I’m going to bless you now!

The 2000: Yes, ma’am. (They close their eyes)

God help me if I ever lead civilian worship again.

(Such a powerful image.  You know, if it weren’t for her also writing about hilly, thirteen-mile pre-dawn runs, I might be tempted to follow her into military chaplaincy.)

This Veteran’s Day, in addition to respect and thanks, I believe we owe our service members a commitment to remain active in the political process and informed about our country’s military strategies.  Until every one of their lives is seen as precious, we need to be advocates for their well-being.  We need to do everything in our power to make sure that our government doesn’t go to war lightly.  We need to do everything in our power to make sure that when they come back, our Veterans have access to the health care and support they need.

Above all, we owe them welcome and love and blessing.  My heartfelt prayer is that we wrap every Veteran who comes through our doors in our strong, beautiful, integrated, unconditional love.