It is the day after Memorial Day. I get way too many emails, but I’m 57. I’m trying to withdraw from the world without getting fired or retired (sometimes you retire. Other times you GET retired. See “getting fired.”
Anyway, I find myself, more and more, saying to a television screen, “That’s the wrong question” and “neither of the above.” Since we’ve quit reading anything longer than a few sentences, ah, I won’t go there today.
Few weeks ago I went on a retreat to Cullman, Alabama. I stayed with a dozen pastor buddies at the St. Bernard Retreat Center. It was a lovely setting. The last time I “retreated” at St. Bernard’s I stayed actually in the monastery with the brothers, who treated me well, but it was not air-conditioned, and it was August in Alabama. I had a small window, a box fan to blow hot air, and the last vestiges of a stomach virus. Didn’t make it through the night and drove off in the Great Silence searching for a Waffle House or a Cracker Barrel.
Over the past few weeks, I have watched Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” all the way through. Something I always wanted to do, but never had before. So I did it. Glorious, insightful, even after all these years. And “retreat” came to be more meaningful. You retreat when your forces are being obliterated. A “strategic retreat” is one you do to preserve yourself for another fight (“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”) But sometimes you just run for your life. Cannons to the left of you, cannons to the right of you, manure under your feet and bayonets coming at you. No strategic about it, just run, dummy.
Spiritual retreats, honestly, are a little like that. Living in this world is too much like Antietam and Gettysburg, to tell you the truth. There’s foolishness and then there’s what we have now. What can you do? Burns says desertion, draft-dodging by the rich, protests, all of that happened then. Lincoln was trying to get re-elected while the Confederate army kept coming into Maryland to kill him. It’s hard to run a campaign in such times.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain. But this is a crazy time, too. Just yesterday on the news, a man ate another man’s face, and it was reported that a Southern Baptist Leader announced a new coalition in which “Catholics and Southern Baptists have joined forces with Orthodox Jews and Mormons to oppose a ‘secular theocracy driven by a full-blown pagan understanding of human sexuality.’” I don’t even know how you can HAVE a secular theocracy with no Theo. And let’s not talk about the independent preacher in North Carolina and his electrified wall. A school system in New York can’t fire a teacher who couldn’t get hired to pick up road kill for the county if she didn’t have tenure. We don’t have civil war, but we don’t exactly have civil conversation either.
So, all in all, retreating is not so bad. I still know too many people looking for work. I want my grandbaby to have a decent job someday. I want homeless people to sleep out of the rain, and I want everyone to pitch in and help make things better. No one is asking me to sacrifice and telling me how. No one is saying, “Even if I don’t get re-elected, let’s fix this deficit now. Elections can wait.” No one is saying, “that’s not news. It’s stupid. Get that off there and put something better on for us to talk about.”
Sound the retreat!
As I drove into lovely Cullman, Alabama for my “retreat,” I saw the most wonderful signs here and there. They’re having an election, too, and a Judge Lust is running for re-election. Try running a campaign against lust and see how it goes. Another sign said, Unity Baptist Church. Oxymoron?
One church had one of those changeable signs that must come with a book of clever clichés for preachers. You know, PRAYER: WIRELESS ACCESS TO GOT WITH NO ROAMING FEE and THE FAMILY THAT PRAYS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER and WALMART IS NOT THE ONLY SAVING PLACE. This one was pretty good. It said, COME AS YOU ARE BUT BE PREPARED TO CHANGE EVERYTHING. Yeah, I thought, I like that.
Then the best of all—obviously, I was lost by this time, having driven past my turnoff and into the country. But it was worth it. A glorious sign that said, “NORTH ALABAMA BULL EVALUATION CENTER.” Hallelujah! At last!
Alas, to my disappointment, it was about cattle. I turned around and headed the other way. The next morning, I was sitting in the Abbey Church listening to monks chanting and praying for the world. Not so bad.
RETREAT! RUN AWAY!
When it comes to the painful problem of race, it’s never about one thing…it’s about everything.
By Gary Furr
The explosion that has occurred in recent days over the shooting of a Florida teenager has reignited one of our oldest and most enduring debates. The case of Trayvon Martin has caused outbursts between journalists, demonstrations and a weary “Will we ever be able to move past this?” cloud to hover again over us. The gulf between the races is painfully obvious. It sounds as though we are talking about two different cases. And we are.
In the late 1980s, I listened as an African American pastor friend in South Georgia, a disabled veteran, told me about watching men with pickhandles and baseball bats beat his father nearly to death because his father had disagreed with his boss at work. As a ten year old boy, he watched through the blinds in terror. He described a journey of forgiveness and grief over that incident that lasted far into adulthood as he tried to make peace with incomprehensible violence.
In July of 2010, I was a part of a group of pastors from Alabama who traveled together to Israel for a pilgrimage as part of a very generous grant from a foundation aimed at giving us rest, study and spiritual renewal. Amazingly, since our congregations did not have to pay for it, they all voted to let us go.
It exceeded our expectations, as we all enjoyed a wonderful experience of community and prayer in the land where the founder of our faith walked the earth. It is also a place of contradictions, of course, and we saw those, too. We saw the ugly “barriers” that cordoned off the Palestinian people in their towns, born of genuine anxiety for security among the Israelis and yet which only deepens the frustrations between the two groups. Security is always a concern where mistrust abounds.
If you ever go to the “Holy Land,” as we Christians usually call it, the entry to the airport begins with a clump of scowering, eagle-eyed security people clustered around a narrow doorway where everyone enters, looking you up and down with folded arms and either expressionless or glaring. We walked past–I had been before and advised everyone, “Don’t joke, don’t laugh, just walk through.”
At one point, I heard something, and noticed that our three African-American pastors had all been detained and whisked to the side. I started to go back, thought better about, and simply waited until the interrogation was over. In a little while, they were released and we were on our way. At first we kidded and joked, but then we fell silent.
It was obvious to me that they were pained about this. They are three highly educated, holy, respected men, two veterans and one a younger pastor. Their integrity is as high as I know. I would trust my life to them. But in a world of fear and insecurity, all that goes out the window.
Later, we talked about it, and they told us that this was and always had been a part of life. They were pulled out for no other reason than their skin color. They told us stories of being pulled over because of the car they were driving or walking down a street. As we began to comprehend some of what they had been through, our mood about the incident, short as it had lasted, changed to somber and sad reflection. A world in radical distrust is a painful thing indeed.
Having once lived in a small community that exploded in a racial crisis during the 1980s, I once said in a meeting that when it comes to racial divides that “truth can become a casualty.” It got a negative reaction and I realize why it was wrong. It’s not truth that becomes the casualty, it’s the argument about the facts. It is akin to a debate between a married couple about when the last time he kissed his wife—it is beside the point.
The bare facts of a particular event can miss the point when it is connected to a cosmic or cultural reality. There is always more “here” and so we end up arguing, in a sense, about a particular case AND a long painful history AND the emotional, experiential and perceptive divide between us. If we do not understand this, the temptation is then either to say, “Courts, justice and processes should be thrown out” or to say, “This is all emotion, irrationality, fear and overreaction.”
In times like this one, perceptions, experiences, truths, that need, more than anything, to be shared, heard and understood often explode into the moment. Most of the time, these complexities are ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. The outcry calls attention, but there is hard work to be done in every place when the protests end and the media moves on to the next thing.
Understanding is hard, hard work. So is justice. Facts are the limiting factor of an investigation, but our disconnections from one another are something bigger that deserves some work at the level of our citizenship and “neighbor love.” If we have solved many of the legal issues of race, we have not overcome the pain of our disconnections and distrust of one another. We are in the realm of attitude, perceptions, and understanding.
In the community where I was, we had a wonderful group of leaders, black and white, who had met and worked together to deepen understanding for a long time before the crisis happened. Without it, no way to work through it would have existed. That these channels do not often exist in many communities where people of good will intentionally step out of their usual places to offer themselves as listeners is part of the disconnect. Good relationships don’t happen without an effort on both ends.
The particular case of Trayvon Martin’s death is one thing legally, and another in this larger sense. When it comes to racial matters, it’s never about one thing—it’s about all the things. For Christians who have been handed the ministry of reconciliation, this is a fine time to listen, not react. The calling to Christians in such a moment is to patience, to not reacting, to find a place where something good could be done, to keep our tempers, and to work for understanding and patient agape love. Listening never costs anything more than a little time, but it can only be given by the surrender of one’s attention and care. It is fitting in Holy Week to remember Paul’s breathtaking summary that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Holy week is a memory that it is in the most unpromising times that the world can change for the better.