Sweating Joy in Spite of Suffering

Photograph of the building used by 16th Street...
Photograph of the building used by 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama from 1884 to 1908. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I heard today that some people who were affected by Hurricane Sandy are still without power, without electricity, without heat.

I heard that as I shivered in my car which was warming up. It was 11 degrees outside in Columbus, Ohio, and at least that cold in the Rockaway section of Queens. Some businesses in lower Manhattan are still without heat and power as well; some businesses are boarded up.  A museum which housed American history artifacts is struggling to survive. A wine store in Lower Manhattan lost many of their precious wines.

I feel for the businesses; their not operating means that some families’ income is suffering. Many businesses are still closed.  But is the families without heat and power that I an stuck on, that I can’t stop thinking about. One family was reported to be sleeping on the floor in the kitchen of their damaged home, and living in that kitchen all day long,  because that was the only room in the house where they could get some heat – from the stove. Those crammed in the kitchen included a woman, her children and grandchildren, and three dogs. (http://www.npr.org/2013/01/24/170198110/thousands-still-cold-and-struggling-months-after-superstorm-sandy)

But it’s winter. How will the people survive?

We don’t think much about the victims of horrendous storms or events once the cameras go away.  Bad events tend to be like the labor endured during childbirth; we see the pain portrayed on television and then, like the release of even the memory of labor after a baby is born, we forget. Some might say that we needn’t worry because federal dollars are either there or are coming; the people will be all right.

Maybe. But there’s a good chance many people who are suffering will not be all right, not any time soon. Chances are some of them are angry at the government for not doing more for them, quicker. Some are probably struggling with anger towards God. wondering why God let this bad thing happen to them, good people. Some are probably wondering why, in general, help is so slow in coming. Some probably feel like they are being ignored.

Sarah Collins Rudolph, the sister of Addie Collins, one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, is suffering, and feels ignored.  She survived the bombing incident which killed her sister, but was left scarred, emotionally as well as physically. Even though her life as she knew it was blown to bits that fateful day, she had to go on…but she suffers, still. (http://www.npr.org/2013/01/25/170279226/long-forgotten-16th-street-baptist-church-bombing-survivor-speaks-out) To feel ignored is to suffer…

The families of those who were killed in the Aurora, Colorado theater shootings are still suffering, as are the families of the young people who have been gunned down on the streets of big cities all over this nation. But if we are not near suffering, or have not been touched by it, we tend to minimize its impact, power and resistance to be pushed away. In fact, we forget about it, or worse, refuse to believe it is as deep as it really is.

But back to the families on the East Coast who are enduring this frigid cold spell without heat, I wonder what we who have heat can and should be doing. Something, surely. Do we need to be sending tons of blankets and, what, hats, gloves, coats…? What? The report on National Public Radio (NPR) said that some who are without electricity are waiting for a permit of some kind to restore or repair the electric systems in their houses. ( http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=170267851&m=170267838) We can’t do anything about the permit, but isn’t there something we  can do?

The suffering has so many tentacles. Many homes on the East Coast that are still standing are being devoured by mold. Some houses had standing water for weeks, some for months…and mold started growing like mad, eating the insides of the already damaged homes. Many of their homes will have to be destroyed. Then what?

I have heard and have been taught that when one is suffering the best way to feel better is to serve others. I would bet that some reading this are suffering for one reason or another; suffering is a part of living. The suffering we all go through is bad sometimes, but it can be a catalyst for us to feel better. Some who have endured horrible loss on the East Coast are busy helping to minimize the suffering of others. That is moving.

It is also inspiring. It made me think about ways to serve. There are so many people who need help, who need to benefit from the gifts and blessings that we all have. Perhaps in one’s dark night of the soul, a way to feel better, to see some light, it so help someone else. If we ask what is needed by those suffering, an answer will come.

I thought about President Kennedy‘s famous words this week as I listened to President Obama’s inaugural address. President Obama was stressing the need for us as human beings to make the right and gift of freedom accessible to all. Prior to the festivities of the inauguration, the Obama White House sponsored and pushed a National Day of Service. We, as citizens with certain freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution, were urged to help someone else.  President Kennedy gave a formula for us all to use, in suffering and out of suffering  which gave the same message: serve, when he said,  “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  If we ask what we can do for those worse off than we are, we will get an answer.

In his sermon at the National Cathedral Prayer Service this week, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of  the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, talked about the vision his congregation has to focus and guide their service. They wanted to deal with the root causes of poverty, and decided to concentrate on early childhood education.  They got involved and studied what was going on in those schools. They saw what the children needed. They got involved, as a congregation, donating books, clothing, meals(bagged meals)  for children who seemingly had no food at home.

With our country as polarized as it is, it’s a sure thing and more and more people are feeling marginalized and left out. There are people all over the place who need helping hands and helping hearts. We who have more …just need to give more. If we extend ourselves, our own suffering will recede and will be replaced by deep joy.  It’s a big surprise, what happens when we serve and give. It is as surprising as I was surprised when I began training for a marathon and found out that when one works one’s body, even in the frigid cold, one’s body will react …and will sweat in spite of the temperature.

We can sweat joy even when we are surrounded by our own pain and suffering.

A candid observation …


Poverty By Design

Even while survivors of our own country’s horrible 2012  “storm of the century,” Hurricane Sandy, are still reeling from Sandy’s wrath,  Haitians are still suffering from the 7.0 earthquake that happened three years ago today. Over 200,000 people were killed; 1.5 million were left homeless.

Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Pres...
Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Presidential Palace, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In spite of billions of dollars pouring into the tiny country, said to be the poorest country in the world, the look of destruction is almost as stark as it was three years ago. Too many people are still living in overcrowded camps, where people are living in tents, with no fresh water, no sanitation, no electricity, and no privacy. Some camps have closed down, with some Haitians having been paid to leave them, but with so little new housing, one wonders where they have gone. A report on National Public Radio (NPR) said that some people have moved into new houses, but have ended up back in camps because they haven’t been able to get work to pay their rent. (http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=2&t=1&islist=false&id=169078876&m=169117672)

A friend of mine recently visited Haiti, and came back shaken. “I can’t stand to see that kind of poverty,” he said. “It’s too much.”

If it’s too much for a visitor who sees what is there but can leave it, one wonders how those trapped in the abject poverty and destruction are faring. One wonders what the overall psychological effects are on the spirits of the people who live in such squalor.

There was money pledged, billions, in fact. That money was received and according to Haitian officials, used well and wisely, but apparently the “wise and well” spending of the money did not extend to the millions of people living in misery. What happens to people who get “used” to being miserable? And what happens to the world when there are so many people, internationally, who live in such disgusting poverty?

In every poor nation, there are people who live quite well, and I would bet that those who live well try their best to stay away from the poverty and misery literally at their feet. Poverty is ugly. Nobody wants to see it.

And yet, perhaps if they would see it, and smell it, and taste it and hear it…they would be moved to help in ways they could. Maybe if they could see the squalor they know is there, their hearts would be pricked.

Once, when I was a reporter, I did a story on poverty in the city. I visited the “home” of a family, where the walls were cracked and broken, where there were holes in the floor of one of the upstairs bedrooms, where the roaches were everywhere, even in the refrigerator. The resident, a mother with small children, explained that she could not afford anything else, and that the landlord ignored her requests for help. “I clean,” she said, “but the roaches are everywhere. I can’t get them out.”  At night, she said, she would put cotton in her ears and in the ears of her children so that no roach would climb inside of them.

“I don’t sleep well,” she said. “I worry for my children.

Yes, she worked, but at a job which paid her barely enough to live. She had no benefits. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.

“In the winter, we all stay in the kitchen,” she said, “and stay warm by the heat from the oven.”

I don’t even know why I wanted to do that story, but the images, the voices, the smells have never left my consciousness. That there are people living like that in these United States is troubling…and the fact that the poverty here isn’t even close to the poverty I have seen in other countries is sobering. Jonathan Kozol, in some of his books, describes the poverty and squalor that many urban kids and youth in this country face every day, in their schools, of all places. The facilities many of our kids go to every day do not encourage learning or the desire for wisdom. Rather, as students shudder in the winter and roast in the summer, as they go to bathrooms which many times do not work well, as they look through broken windows, or, worse, look at the place where windows are supposed to be, but see giant pieces of plywood instead, one wonders how they manage to learn anything. Even the poor like nice surroundings.

The poor are not objects, though we tend to look at them that way. I read recently that in the system of capitalism, some are supposed to be poor; that’s the way the system works. Wrote H.W. Brands in his book, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900, democracy and capitalism are two opposing ideologies, antagonistic to each other. Juxtaposing the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith, Brands called them “dueling manifestos.” “Democracy depends on equality, capitalism on inequality,” wrote Brands. “Citizens in a democracy come to the public square with one vote each; participants in a capitalist economy arrive at the marketplace with unequal talents and resources and leave the marketplace with unequal rewards.” (page 10)

In order to make this capitalist democracy work, then, we have to be able to look at some people as objects, not human beings with souls and needs. Their suffering cannot be allowed to reach our nostrils or our hearts.  They become objects which can and will be used to further the wealth of those who, frankly, do not need more money, but who are driven to get more and more.

It is the way the system works.

That reality is sobering. When I think of the people squashed in those tents in Haiti, while some in Haiti are living in luxury, when I think of the poor in this nation, the richest in the world, we’ve been told, when I think of the poverty in India and in Latin America…and even in the places where we who are more fortunate actually go for vacations. I shudder.

Something is wrong and not enough of us want to face it.

A candid observation …

Is God Absent?

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Yesterday I heard a program on NPR where people from Texas were being interviewed about that state seceding from the Union. Following the re-election of President Barack Obama, a petition began circulating requesting that the Lone Star state be allowed to secede. It has over 100,000 signatures thus far, with more coming, it is said. Texas Gov. Rick Perry does not support secession, but not even his voice can stop the groundswell of support for secession.


One of the leaders of the movement explained that the movement began because Texans are troubled by the nation’s policies. Said that leader:told  Politico that “Obama’s reelection was a “catalyzing moment” for his group’s efforts to leave the United States. He insists, “This is not a reaction to a person but to policy” and what they see as a federal government that is disconnected from its constituents.”  (http://caffertyfile.blogs.cnn.com/2012/11/14/should-texas-be-allowed-to-secede-from-the-union/?iref=allsearch)


While I don’t believe for one moment that what’s going on in Texas is not about a person, namely President Obama, I am very concerned and confused as I listen to people, from Texas and from elsewhere, who say that we now live in a “Godless” country – a statement one of the callers made on the NPR program.


A pro-secession guest agreed with her, saying that America is no longer the America they have known, which means that God used to be here, but is now absent? Is that what people think?


When did God leave America? Does God do that?


OK, I know that in the Hebrew scriptures, God, disappointed with the fact that the Israelites did not keep the covenant they had made with God, they disobeyed God continually, they worshiped idols, they continually did “what was wicked in God’s eyes,” as is stated over and over in the Bible – but haven’t we in America always done that? Haven’t we always been a stubborn people, refusing to listen to God? If that is so, why would God wait until now to …turn on us and leave us?


Is discrimination pleasing to God?  I mean, discrimination against black people, Native Americans, women, the elderly, gays and lesbians… Was God with the signers of the Declaration of Independence and did God ordain the signers’ misrepresentation of their intentions when they wrote “all men are created equal” when they knew in their hearts they didn’t mean “all” men, but just a privileged few?


Do people think God is absent because the demographics of this country are changing, making us a truly pluralistic nation? What? God doesn’t want a pluralistic nation? Is God absent now because more and more non-white people are going to the polls and making their voices heard, which is different from the voice of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants?


I know people are upset about same-sex marriages, but has God left America because of that becoming a new normal? Has God left us because our government has tried to help people survive who were devastated by the recent recession? Was the government supposed to do nothing and let the people just wing it? Did God not approve of the intervention made to help people who used to be self-sustaining but were swallowed by our horrible economy?


When does God leave God’s people?


If we were to list the grievances God has against us, what would be the first three on God’s list?


I am really trying to understand why people think America is a godless nation now, as opposed to before when so many other things were going on which were a violation even of the Greatest Commandment, which says that we should “love the Lord our God with all our minds and with all our hearts and all our souls…and our neighbors as ourselves. If God demands that, and we as a nation clearly have not done that, then why would God leave now?


What would a nation in which God still resides look like?  What should America look like today? Are racism, sexism, militarism all right with God?  Didn’t Jesus tell us to reach out to “the least of these?” So if the government is doing that, is the government offending God?


I am confused. What is America’s theology? What is it as opposed to what people think it should be? Because if God is absent from America, we are in big trouble, and we need to get right with God, quick and in a hurry.


A candid observation …


America Exceptional?

Flag of the United States of America
Flag of the United States of America (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have heard over the past couple of days several people talking about “American exceptionalism.” I have remained quiet as I have listened to these people tenaciously defend the concept, one person saying that anyone who didn’t believe in American exceptionalism was not a true American.

The concept of American exceptionalism holds basically that America was chosen by God to be a beacon of light to the entire world. In an article which appeared on the CNN website this weekend, CNN Religion Editor Dan Gilgoff wrote that “the Puritans saw themselves as the last, best hope for purifying Christianity and for saving the world.”  (http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/30/despite-fights-about-its-merits-idea-of-american-exceptionalism-a-powerful-force-through-history/?hpt=hp_bn1)

Gilgoff writes that “America’s exceptionalism was a religious idea with big political repercussions.”  The Pilgrims, Gilgoff writes, formed a theocracy which they thought would be a model for English Christianity.”  I guess that means that the Pilgrims believed that they had to create something better than the Christianity in England from which they had fled.

Boston, America…were to be the “New Israel,” the “New Jerusalem.”  But for whom?

Gilgoff’s article makes me lean toward believing that the first Americans really wanted an egalitarian society. Democracy, he writes, meant that everyone had rights, but everyone also had responsibilities. That is a delicious, democratic thought, at least as I have always interpreted “democracy” to mean.

But the reality was that by the time the United States Constitution was written, the notion of egalitarianism was gone. Howard Zinn makes the point, which I had never thought about until I studied him, that the Founding Fathers only meant for men of means, property holders, to be exact, to be included in the definition of “all men  being created equal.”

That revelation broke my heart…

As America grew, it was clear that there was no intent for the government to make everyone equal politically and economically. America did become the symbol of economic opportunity, and really did allow (and does allow) more economic freedom than I have read exists in other countries.

But America has also sorely neglected many of her own people. Native Americans, African-Americans, women…are amongst those who were never intended to be granted equal rights. So, the notion of Independence Day, a day where “everyone” in this nation is free, has at times left a bitter taste in the mouths of some Americans.

A nation, it seems, cannot be “exceptional” if it neglects its own, even if it is helping people in other countries. There is a strange disconnect when a family can ignore its own while it reaches out to others. Today I heard someone on NPR said that “big business and big government should work together.” For whom and for what?

I wonder how American exceptionalism will play out, or if it will have a role or will be thought about, as this nation wrestles with its economic situation. I have heard some Americans call us a “welfare state,” the disdain unmistakable. I have heard people criticize entitlements, programs put in place by government to help more people live a decent life in this country. At the end of the day, will “exceptional” America cast its poor to the wind, drastically cutting programs and funds for the most needy?

Don’t get me wrong. We need our economy to get a whole lot better…but can a nation which calls itself “exceptional” really feel OK about perhaps going after programs that make life more bearable for millions of people?

It seems to me that that’s kind of impossible…but maybe that’s just me…

A candid observation…

Would the World be Better Without Religion?

A report issued this week said that lobbying and advocacy by religious groups has increased by fivefold since 1970 and has become a $400 million industry.

The study, issued by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, said that religious groups are making their voices and opinions known as never before, addressing issues including abortion, marriage, the relationship between church and state, and bioethics and life issues, among others.

Religious groups include Roman Catholics, evangelical and mainline Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and other, smaller religions of this country, and all of them seek to influence both domestic and foreign policy.

But a question arises: Why? Why should religion get so heavily involved in politics and policy-making? Is there separation between church and state, or not? And, echoing a question argued this week on National Public Radio, “Would the world be better off without religion,” would it? Would there be less of a mess, less gridlock and less acrimony on Capitol Hill if religious people would simply “do God” and leave politics alone?

Some argue that there is a moral crisis in this country and in the world, and if that is the case, a co-mingling of religion and politics hardly seems the way to address and rectify the problem. Religion is supposed to be the vehicle in which rule of morality and “right behavior” are carried to people and taught. Politics, on the other hand, would scoff at such a vehicle because the aim of politics, or politicians, is to win, no matter what.

Forget the “golden rule” would seem to be the battle cry of those looking to win an election. Politicians, it would seem, push God to the periphery so that they can freely ignore all religious precepts as they go for the “big win.” The quest for salvation can come later, if at all.

There seems to be no concern for religious precepts or the will of God when it comes to politics and elections, so what are religions trying to do as they spend close to $400 million annually lobbying politicians?

In the NPR debate, which occurred on a program called “Intelligence Squared US,” a rabbi, a descendant of Charles Darwin, a philosopher and a scholar squared off over the value of religion in the world.  Predictably, the rabbi and scholar argued for the good of religion in the world, and the descendant of Charles Darwin and the philosopher saw no real need for religion.

Matthew Chapman, the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, and A.C. Grayling,  argued against the value of religion for the world. On the cheer team for religion were Rabbi David Wolpe and Dinesh D’Souza.

Religion, the “keep-religion in the world” proponents said, organizes people “to do good things.” If that is the case, then we might assume that the lobbying going on by religious people are encouraging politicians to “do good things.” But, notes A.C. Graying, there is no one “great rule” or one model of what is good. So, what is “good” for an evangelical might not be seen as good by a Muslim, or what is lobbied as a good thing by a mainline Protestant might seem reprehensible by a Roman Catholic.

And, noted Chapman, “religion makes everyone an infidel to something.”

Those statements are baffling, seeing as how presumably there is one God who gave one blueprint of what “good things” are, but “we the people” seem to have participated in revisionist interpretation of the sacred texts, so that “we the people” decide what is “good,” according to our own values, culture and predicament, God notwithstanding.

So, what “good” are the religious groups lobbying for? What good are these religions, which have allowed so much pain, and in fact inflicted so much pain, based on their definition of “good?”  While religions are lobbying, using these millions of dollars, I find myself wondering if that money might better be spent on doing “good” for those who really need it, who have nothing to pay except extreme gratitude for being looked upon as human and worthwhile by one who says he or she loves God.

That would be a candid observation.

Would the World Be Better Without Religion? © 2011 Candid Observations