“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

==========================================

[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

U.N. Agency Seeks Emergency Aid for South-West and North-West Cameroon     

In May 2018 the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued a global call for humanitarian aid for the South-West and North-West regions of Cameroon. [1]

According to OCHA, “In November 2017, the sociopolitical crisis progressively translated into insecurity and armed violence. Since then, the escalation of tension and upsurge in hostilities between non-state armed groups and defense and security forces have triggered humanitarian needs across the two regions, linked to significant internal displacement. In recent months, the epicentre of the crisis moved from Bamenda (North-West) to Mamfe and Kumba (SouthWest). All divisions in the South-West region, host to more than 1.4 million inhabitants, are affected by the crisis.”

“The South-West Region [says OCHA] has become the hub of the crisis as it is home to more than 90% of the 160,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in need of humanitarian assistance; 135,000 are located in Meme Division and 15,000 in Manyu Division. The remaining 10,000 are displaced in the North-West Region.”

As a result, OCHA has identified the pressing need for people in these areas for shelter, health, access to safe drinking water and sanitation, education, food security (including livelihood) and protection of civilians.

Conclusion

A copy of this post will be sent to the American Refugee Committee with headquarters in Minneapolis and to others with requests for assistance. Other readers are urged to reach out to church and other civic leaders plus public officials to alert them to this need and to seek their assistance.

=======================================

[1]  OCHA, Emergency Response Plan: CAMEROON North-West and South-West (May 2018)

Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians

arc_tw_graphic_1027152-b39f6fe5On January 3, 2016, a group of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra played a beautiful and successful concert to benefit Syrians displaced in their own country.[1] Here is a poster for the concert with photographs of (a) Erin Keefe, the Orchestra’s Concertmaster, with Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra’s Music Director; and (b) Beth Rapier and Tony Ross, Cellists with the Orchestra and the originators of the idea for the concert.

The concert raised over $75,000 for the Minneapolis-headquartered American Refugee Committee (ARC) to support its efforts to help the 7.6 million Syrians who have been forced to relocate within their own country because of the war.[2] There ARC with the aid of heroic Syrians works to:

  • help improve the physical conditions of make-shift shelters where people have fled;
  • build and repair water and sanitation infrastructure, helping to prevent disease;
  • provide youth mentoring and support services;
  • reconnect orphaned children with family members;
  • counsel victims of abuse and trauma; and
  • provide children the opportunity to play and have fun.

Other contributions for this cause would be appreciated; just go to ARC’s website [http://www.arcrelief.org/site/PageServer] and do so.

The concert was opened by the Minnesota Orchestra Brass Quintet. They played several numbers, including Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” and “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” the Broadway musical. The Quintet members were Douglas Wright, trombone; Robert Doerr and Charles Lazarus, trumpet; Steven Campbell, tuba; and Michael Gast, horn.

Then Osmo Vänskä, an accomplished clarinetist in addition to being a great conductor, played the clarinet in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s beautiful Clarinet Concerto in A Major (K 622), which was composed shortly before Mozart’s death in 1791. Vänskä was backed by 18 members of the Orchestra.[3]

Osmo and Tony

audience DSC02485

 

 

 

 

Above are photographs of Vänskä playing the concerto and of the audience of over 900 in the beautiful and modern sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Edina, Minnesota.

The program ended with Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky’s difficult String Sextet in D minor (Op.70). It was titled “Souvenir de Florence” because the composer sketched one of the work’s principal themes while visiting Florence, Italy in 1890. The violinists were Erin Keefe and Cecilia Belcher; violaists, Tom Turner and Sabrina Thatcher; and cellists, Ross and Rapier. Ross thought the piece might be Tchaikovsky’s greatest.

The concert had principal support from St. John’s Episcopal Church of Minneapolis and Our Lady of Grace along with 24 other Christian, Jewish and Islamic congregations from the Twin Cities.

============================================

[1] Royce,  Minnesota Orchestra musicians unite for concert to aid Syrian refugees, StarTribune (Dec. 23, 2015); Program, Chamber Music Concert for Refugees Inside Syria (Jan. 3, 2016).

[2] ARC, Syria Relief.  As explained in a prior post, one of the international legal requirements for refugee status is an individual’s being outside his or her home country. Therefore, the beneficiaries of this concert, Syrians who have not left their own country, are technically not “refugees,” but rather “internally displaced people” or “IDP’s” in international relief jargon. But they are just as deserving of our compassion as those Syrians who have fled their country, perhaps more so because those who stay are trying to live in the midst of the war.

[3] A prior post described Vânskä’s playing the clarinet in a Havana music club after the Orchestra’s second concert in Cuba last May. Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba trip Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minneapolis Clergy Call for Compassion for All People

This December a group of 17 Minneapolis senior clergy published a half-page advertisement entitled “A Call for Compassion” in the city’s leading newspaper, The StarTribune. These Christian, Unitarian, Universalist, Jewish and Muslim clergy asserted the following propositions (with explanations):

  • We “abhor and condemn violence perpetrated in the name of religion. No faith tradition, including Islam, condones hatred and injury toward others, except as distorted by extremists.”
  • “We are compelled to stand up and speak out.”
  • “Interfaith dialogue is the antidote to religious violence.”

An image of the complete advertisement is available online; it includes a photograph of some of the clergy at this Thanksgiving Day’s Interfaith Worship Service at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which was the subject of a prior post. I urge all to read this important proclamation.

This Call for Compassion is addressed to all people of good will, and as a Christian and member of Westminster, I urge others and myself to do at least the following:

  1. Never utter comments of hate or derision at another person or his or her religious faith..
  2. If someone else makes such utterances, say: “Your comment is hurtful and objectionable. You should immediately apologize and never say such things again to anyone.”
  3. Greet strangers with a smile and a “Hello” or “ Good morning.”
  4. During Ramadan, when you see someone in what appears to be Muslim attire, say, “Hello, have a meaningful Ramadan.”
  5. Learn more about religious faiths.
  6. Learn more about the history and law regarding refugees.[1]
  7. Learn more about the current plight in 123 countries of 32.2 million refugees and other persons of interest to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.[2]
  8. Get to know the refugees and Muslims in our midst and their concerns.[3]
  9. Object to proposals to restrict U.S. receptivity to refugees.
  10. Let your elected officials know your thoughts on these issues.
  11. Make financial contributions to organizations that seek to protect refugees, including Minneapolis’ own Advocates for Human Rights and the American Refugee Committee.

================================================

[1] This blog has discussed that history: Refugee and Asylum Law: The Pre-Modern Era (July 7, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: The Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011); U.S. Process for Screening Refugees (Nov. 24, 2015).

[2] A World of Refugees (March 30, 2012); Global Forced-Displacement Tops 50 Million (June 22, 2014); UNHCR, Global Report 2014 (June 2015); UNHCR, Global Appeal 2016-2017; António Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Remarks to U.N. General Assembly (Nov. 20, 2015).

[3] Smith, Minnesota Muslims talk of backlash against them, StarTribune (Dec. 15, 2015).

A World of Refugees

As discussed in a prior post, a “refugee” under international law is “any person who owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The principal U.N. agency concerned with such refugees is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was established by a December 1950 resolution of the U.N. General Assembly. Its purpose is to safeguard and protect the rights and well-being of refugees and the right to seek asylum. Over time its mandate has broadened to include internally displaced people (IDP) and stateless people. Every year it publishes detailed statistics on all of these people of concern to UNHCR.

For 2010 there were 33,924,000 people of concern to UNHCR in the following categories:

Category Number
Refugees 10,550,000
Asylum-seekers       837,000
IDP’s 17,621,000
Other   4,916,000
TOTAL 33,924,000

Nearly 80 % of these people were hosted in developing countries, including some of the poorest countries in the world while the U.S. had 271,000. The major sources of these people in 2010 were the following countries:

Country Number
Afghanistan   4,404,000
Colombia   4,128,000
Iraq   3,387,000
Democratic Repub. Congo   2,719,000
Somalia   2,257,000
Pakistan   2,199,000
Sudan   2,185,000
Other 12,645,000
TOTAL 33,924,000

The overall statistics for 2011 should be published by UNHCR in June 2012. Just recently it published its report on one part of this new set of statistics–asylum applications in 2011 in 44 industrialized countries, including the U.S. The total of new applications was 441,300, which was 20 % more than in 2010 (368,000). The 2011 level is the highest since 2003 when 505,000 asylum applications were lodged in the industrialized countries.  With an estimated 74,000 asylum applications, the U.S. was the largest single recipient of new asylum claims among the 44 industrialized countries. France was second with 51,900, followed by Germany (45,700), Italy (34,100), and Sweden (29,600).

There are many ways one may make U.S.-tax deductible financial contributions to organizations that help these people. These organizations include the following:

  • USA for UNHCR, which supports UNHCR’s humanitarian work to assist refugees around the world;
  • U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which seeks to protect the rights and address the needs of persons in forced or voluntary migration worldwide by advancing fair and humane public policy, facilitating and providing direct professional services, and promoting the full participation of migrants in community life;
  • International Rescue Committee, which was founded at the request of Albert Einstein to offer care and assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster;
  • American Refugee Committee (Minneapolis, Minnesota), which works to provide opportunities and expertise to refugees, displaced people and host communities around the world;
  • Center for Victims of Torture (Minneapolis, Minnesota), which helps torture-survivors from around the world heal and rebuild their lives;
  • Advocates for Human Rights (Minneapolis, Minnesota), which, among other things, provides pro bono attorneys for asylum-seekers;
  • Immigrant Law Center of [St. Paul] Minnesota, which provides quality immigration legal services, law-related education, and advocacy to meet the steadily increasing needs of Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities;