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This excerpt for A New Way to Be Human was published on Beliefnet.com February 2013 with permission of the publisher New Page Books
Risky invitations interrupt the imagined or assumed course of your life, raising the stakes right where you struggle the most. Responding to these invitations takes you beyond your comfort zone, inviting transformation and an enlarged understanding of yourself, others and the Holy. The murder of Steve Biko in 1977 presented me with a risky invitation.
“Biko’s death cannot go unanswered,” I said. “None of us want to sit back and be passive do we?” asked Maureen as she looked around the room where seven of us sat cradling mugs of tea. We all shook our heads in silent agreement. I said, “It’s why we’re here. I feel helpless and I want to do something.” We were beginning to respond to a risky invitation. I had no idea that the journey we were about to embark on would reveal so much about being spiritually and physically present.
Steve Biko was a hero to many of us. In 1977, while being held in custody he was killed by the authorities. In an attempt to crush the reactions to his death all public gatherings of more than three people had been declared to be illegal.
In his death I realized that the government’s desire to control, to dehumanize and to deny happiness to others was like a voracious demon with an insatiable appetite. As we sat with Maureen’s question one person said, “We can begin by praying.” I suggested, “What if our prayers become part of an eight day fast leading up to Biko’s funeral?” The willingness to give something up in order to be awake to new possibilities stood in contrast to the lust to deny the humanity of others that would stop at nothing to achieve its goal.
As our small group of students and faculty planned a fast built around prayer, meditation and discussion our raw emotions ranged from anger and disbelief to mourning and lamentation. “What if we took some visible action?” I then quickly added, “As much as praying let’s engage people in thinking about what is happening in our country.”
“But what about the ban on public gatherings of more than three people?” someone asked. I felt fear at the mention of this ban because I knew that contravention of it would result in harsh actions from the authorities for whom human lives were dispensable. I said, “Let’s think about a procession of mourners in which you only see one mourner at a time.” The idea electrified the group. Quickly we decided that the university’s tradition of wearing black academic gowns in the dining halls at night could become the dress code of a planned procession whose route would be through the main street of the college town. One person at a time would travel the route wearing a black gown, carrying a wreath in their hands. So our protest march of mourning and lamentation was born as a companion to the fast.
Two days later the phone rang in my dorm. “Please withdraw from this fast and protest,” my parents demanded. They had seen the photograph of me in the protest march which had appeared in several South African newspapers. “We’re scared for your safety. You know what happens to people who speak up in this country.”
As they implored me to “be quiet” I said, “What if people had spoken out against the Nazis? What if we worked for the humanity of every person instead of rejecting, excluding or killing?” Our conversation ended tersely.
I woke up in the early hours of the morning thinking about the conversation with my parents. At seven o’clock I was in the chapel for our morning meditation time. I finally interrupted the silence and said, “Let’s attend Biko’s funeral.” No sooner had I uttered the word than I thought, “You must be crazy Robert!”
On the day of the funeral we left early on a bus that would drive us several hundred miles to the football stadium in which it would be held. Our small band of college students quickly noticed the helicopters flying overhead and the talk about police informers photographing those present. We entered a stadium filled with more than thirty thousand people.
At the end of the funeral a very short man appeared on the stadium field. He told the crowds, “God loves you. Please be God’s partners in love. If you take up violence you will become just like those who have killed Biko.” He begged the mourning crowd to find another way to end apartheid. “With violence you will lose your humanity” he said. This man of small stature with a towering message was Desmond Tutu. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Every person was straining forward so as not to miss a single word or inflection.
Back at the campus a South African curry with its intriguing blend of spices, vegetables and meat that had simmered for hours, seemed to be a fitting meal for the breaking of our fast. Over the meal we spoke about Tutu’s invitation that continued to reverberate in our conversation. One person said, “He treated everyone like an adult with a choice to make about where our hearts belong.”
In responding to being both physically and spiritually present in this time of turmoil I began to understand the pathway of responding to risky invitations.
When you clutch at the imagined certainties of your life you keep life at bay, and drain and distance yourself from your journey with the Holy. To turn back from the risky invitations of your journey is to trifle with life by willfully denying yourself the fullness of who you are meant to be.
The risky invitations are much more than a surprise disrupting your familiar patterns; they are a gift connecting you with others in new mindfulness about what it means to be fully human. Our lives are replete with refusals and acceptances. It is never too late on your journey to develop mindful openness to the risky invitations presented to you.
This blog first appeared in the Washington Post November 2, 2012
My mom longed for a gay wedding. Specifically, my gay wedding.
In the months before she died, her repetitive question was: “When will you and Jerry be married?”
I offered, “When it is legal in Washington State.” I don’t know if her declining health and the impermanence of life drove her insistent questioning. At 79, she had done a 360-degree turn on her gay son. I wish she were alive to watch history being made on Election Day, when Washington voters seem poised to join those in Maine and Maryland in approving marriage equality.
When mom first asked the question about our marriage, I wondered if her lifelong mischievousness and proclivity to stir the proverbial pot was at work. While that was part of her DNA, she had also acquired a new perspective from living with us in the United States for a year. She freely offered her unsolicited critiques of U.S. laws on topics from gun control to marriage equality.
“Can you imagine,” she said reflecting on her life in South Africa, “we approved marriage for couples like you a decade ago.” With a twinkle in her eye she added, “Are you all just slow or scared of marriage?” Her capacity to change and become more generously expansive about life was instructive and hopeful.
Like many LGBT people, I remembered all too clearly the night of my coming out to my parents over three decades ago and the ensuing years fraught with volatile tension. Her anger at herself, my dad and me found expression in going to see our pastor to tell him that I was gay in order to try to prevent me from being ordained in a church that she knew all too well was homophobic.
But here she was, decades removed from that terror, on a farm in rural Eastern Washington, longing for a gay wedding! She and my father had been married for 53 years and she never fully reconciled to her grief following his death in 2006. Over tea one afternoon she brought out photographs of their wedding day, telling stories about each person in the wedding party. Unexpectedly she said, “I know you two love each other like we did; someday you’ll treasure the photos of your wedding.”
That afternoon she wanted me to know how pleased she was that we had decided not to get married in New York or Massachusetts, because her physical challenges would prevent traveling to the wedding. She was glad it would be in Washington so that she could attend! She wondered aloud what we would wear. This really was going to be her gay wedding.
The arc of her journey was one in which fear, anger and disillusionment over having a gay son had been replaced with pride, tenderness and hope. It mirrors the journeys that tens of millions of Americans are making about marriage equality.
I miss that she is not here to track the developments around the upcoming ballot initiatives on marriage equality along with the bonus of her freely offered unfiltered comments.
If the people that I speak to in rural Eastern WA are anything to go by, there are countless parents and grandparents, siblings and other family members in small towns and cities across America who are thinking about freedom to love and freedom to marry. Their gay and lesbian family members are no longer objects of fear, grief, terror and hushed conversations. Instead we are people whose love they know; a love that invites and demands equality.
Mom will be here in spirit to celebrate the ballot box victories: both our wedding, and her wedding.
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This blog first appeared on Huffington Post April 23, 2012
Political conversation is dead in the water. The jadedness and helplessness that many people experience only result in disenfranchising ourselves and depriving the world of your unique voice. There is another engaged, proactive way that requires you taking your place at the table. Our humanity is at stake!
Our culture and political process is adept at demonizing opposing points of view and candidates. What if, instead of accepting this as the norm, we embrace a proactive response that insists on a new discourse?
Ratcheting down the inflammatory rhetoric is possible if we elevate our expectations. The alternative is to accept the social and political gridlock that benefits extremists and pundits.
When people are labeled as “Evil, Un-American or Unpatriotic” serious debate and conversation is impossible. Accepting the name calling as business as usual is more than demeaning, it gives power to those who hijack democracy with loose language and labels. Instead it is possible to engage the conversation and leaders with a proactive demand for adult conversation by conveying your expectations of civility and seriousness about ideas.
Expect a dignity of difference. Strongly held views and robust argument are possible when we dignify difference by honoring the validity of different beliefs. A policy position or policy prescription is not inherently bad because we find it loathsome. We each have the power to elevate public discourse by expecting policy implications or beliefs to be discussed with frank discussion about the implications for the lives of all affected by a specific position. Instead of demeaning difference, dignify the differences by treating them with the serious respect they demand by engaging them.
Polish the world. Politicians and other leaders share in the inherent goodness that marks the aspirations and lives of most people. Like the driving force that compels people to enter politics or assume public leadership most of us want to polish the world by leaving it a more just and conflict free place in which the well-being of all people is possible. Insist on knowing how a leader or institution expects to polish the world through the results and impacts of their beliefs and policies.
Claim your voice in the process. Our own silence, disengagement or jadedness benefits no one. The world needs your unique voice and contribution actively engaged. Instead of succumbing to the incarcerated view that you are insignificant, your own story and experiences reveal that you re a valued and rich contributor to enriching the political and cultural discourse. Your voice and contributions enrich the political and social process ensuring a lively, vibrant and healthy democracy. Throwing up your hands in despair serves only to cede your voice and life to shrill and life-draining voices. Choosing the life-giving way brings new life to you and to and to the human family.
The moral arc of the Universe is towards fulsome life-giving, life-affirming inclusion of all people. We’re witnessing the voices of the Arab Spring and the people of Myanmar claiming these truths. While we don’t know the results they will produce we do know that this moment of human history reveals that the old patterns of control and orthodoxy are giving way to new emergent truths about what it means to be human.
It is possible to be happy and change the world! Not the sort of happiness promised by buying a particular car or item of clothing but the happiness that emerges when you ground your life in seeking your well-being. Your own well-being results in a path of seeking the well-being of others. In this way of experiencing life you change the world and discover a profound happiness in being alive.
In this emergent time of a new consciousness of what it means to be human and to be fully alive the invitation and power rests in your life and hands. The divisive rhetoric and conflicts ravaging our time can only be changed when you embrace a new way of claiming your place in what it means to be human. The choice is yours – life is at stake!
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