Set for LIfe
Set for Life
December 31, 2017
As we sit together on New Year’s Eve morning, we need to look back at the year that ends today. We have spent the year as a society dividing over health care, over immigration and the fate of the “Dreamers,” over football players kneeling, over tax policies. Underneath those debates have been even more troubling questions of who is American and who is not, of what is true and what are alternative facts, over a nuclear North Korea and whether an American nuclear first strike could be a moral choice. In short, no matter where you fall on any of those issues, 2017 has been a year of seismic conflict, the likes of which I have not seen since I was a child in the 1960’s.
This was the year in which Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose’ were no longer the elderly group having coffee uptown but four of the ten major hurricanes of the year, leaving hundreds of billions of dollars of damage in their wake, including leaving so many of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico still without power. At the Union Church, 2017 was the year of buying underwear and sending it to Houston in the “Undies for Everyone” program which distributed over a million pairs of underwear to those in need—which may not sound all that important unless you’ve ever been in a situation when you’ve had no clean underwear, in which case it is about the most pressing concern around.
2017 was also another year of huge fires. In the Thomas fire alone, in Southern California, 440 square miles and 1000 structures have burned. Across the West, we have witnessed incredible destruction but we have also seen unbelievable courage. Etched in my mind are the photos of firefighters standing their ground in the face of vast landscapes that are ablaze. Some of the most poignant stories have been of firefighters who fought to save homes only to discover that their own homes had burned at the same time.
The vast majority of scientists and of leaders in the world seem convinced that the hurricanes and the fires are features of a pattern of climate change that is not so much simply about warming as it is about extremes. At the same time, we seem to have moved as a country out of the conversation that the rest of the world is having about such changes. However, whether we are a part of the discussion or not, these changes will lead to more frequent extreme events which will cause mass migrations that will shape the world landscape and challenge every nation.
As a society, we face additional hard questions. The “Me Too” movement has given voice to those who have been victims of male aggression, sexual harassment and sexual assault. A year ago, if I had told you that Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor and Al Franken would all be gone, would you have believed me? Yet, even more than being called to watch the celebrities fall, we are being called to come to grips with the costs of sexual aggression and harassment at every level. How many women’s contributions have been limited simply by having to watch out for and head off such potential aggression at the pass? What kind of men are we?
As a society, we also are looking once again at racial issues. White Supremacist groups of various names are crawling out of the shadows of the internet and marching in public places. Questions of differences in treatment by the police have given rise to calls for body cams and have challenged thoughtful, caring people to see just how challenging of a job our police officers face, how the power of that job can be a corrupting force at times, and how, at times, the whole justice system can treat people of color unfairly. Beyond policing, we will continue to face questions about immigration. Millions of people are living in this country without legal status or legal protections. Are they “the overlooked and oppressed” or are they suspects who need to be deported?
Underneath all of these issues, again, is this division. Some people are doing phenomenally well in our economy. Most people are caught in a relatively stagnant position. Some people are completely left out. Our rural areas and our urban areas have never been more separated in their world views and their understanding of what is right and what is wrong with our nation. Generationally, there seems to be a level of opportunity that older folks have enjoyed that does not seem to be present for the younger generation. It is hard to imagine that if we don’t come to grips with such economic disparities and the geographical divisions then we will be faced with desperate people who eventually just get fed up.
In Lake Bluff, we have faced our own challenges. Folks in Lake Bluff have always been characters and always had strong opinions. However, 2017 included racist graffiti being painted in front of people’s homes. It included not just discussions about how people should be able to use their homes and what animals people should be able to have on their property but public comments and signage that seemed to imply that our neighbors were willing to put our children at risk. We will continue to face hard issues. We will disagree. There are real challenges ahead like infrastructure needs—who can forget the flooding that occurred last summer? However, the intensity of the divisions in our little village and the potential for deep divisions are very real. We can and should disagree with each other. We also have to live with one another. How can we do both of those things?
What I would like us all to remember this morning is that the best way to enter 2018 may be with an awareness of all of these issues but, even more importantly, with a renewed sense of our own individual responsibility. It is so easy to get information about just about everything that is happening in the world. However, it is a challenge to know whether the information we are getting is reliable. Before we pass that information on, we have to ask that question, whether the information is about something happening in North Korea or about something happening in Lake Bluff. Check your sources. Ask the hard questions. If you are not sure, don’t spread gossip.
Part of taking responsibility is asking ourselves, “What am I going to do about this?” We can get information about just about everything. We can’t respond to everything. Some things we care about are going to be most appropriately responded to by folks who are closer to the issue. “Undies for Everyone” was generated by people in Houston who saw what was needed. The right response wasn’t to run to Houston. The right response was to buy some underwear and send it to them. Most often, we should feel most compelled to respond to what is most local. Here’s the thing, though…North Chicago is local. Chicago, itself, is local. There is a world of hurt right around us. We are already working to help with PADS, with contributions into the schools and the community from the Charitable Trust, and with food contributions to the COOL Food Pantry. What more should we be doing in 2018? How should our commitment grow to share not just our money but our precious time and sweat on behalf of those in need in the year ahead?
Even as big issues loom—the potential for war, the potential for major discussions about Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the potential for even deeper divisions, the real core response that most of us can and should make is to do what it takes to not simply grow overwhelmed and cynical and discouraged. That is my commitment to you as your pastor—to be a voice for staying awake and aware and engaged. And, as always, I want to do that not by promoting a particular partisan position but by calling on you to feed yourselves spiritually and to make that spiritual dimension the foundation for what you choose to do. You will win and lose on issues that you care about. You will see things that you never thought you would see. In a narcissistic, win-at-all-costs, destroy those who disagree with you world, I want to challenge you to be better than that.
All of this brings us to our Psalm. I’ve chosen to use Eugene Peterson’s translation of Psalm 62. In his usual way, Peterson adds a contemporary power to the Psalm that we need to hear. Are you looking for solid ground on which you can stand in an otherwise shaky world? Good! The Psalmist suggests that the real solid ground is not your opinion or your power or your ability to manipulate people. The real solid ground is God’s presence: “God, the one and only…He’s solid rock under my feet, breathing room for my soul.”
For me, in the past year, Open Lands has felt like my “solid rock.” The hawks don’t care about the latest issues. The coyotes aren’t fretting about things. Here is a place that is untouched—except for those Starbucks cups that people seem to just toss on the ground. I can do something about that, though. There’s a mess I can clean up.
The Psalmist is inviting us to discover God in that way. It is not that God doesn’t care about the issues of the day. God is calling us every day to respond. Yet, God’s presence is not subject to a vote. To make the most important truth about myself be that I am a child of a loving God, to extend that truth to everyone around me, and to make that the basis for whatever else I do—well, that changes everything. It provides for one of the most sorely missing things in our present world—perspective. It gives us the spiritual breathing room that we need in order to stop hyperventilating and respond.
The New Years question that the Psalmist puts in front of us is not what are you going to get in the next year. It is not how are you going to win or achieve any other goal. The question is how are you going to live in this world? If you are God’s child, then don’t trust your party or the party line or your power. Trust God. Lay your life on the line for what matters to God. (Loving God. Loving our neighbors. Loving ourselves. That’s always a good place to start!) Realize this: if you have a God who loves you no matter what and nothing can separate you from that love, then you have it made! If what you choose to do doesn’t have to be about proving anything about yourself, if your worth as a person rests in God’s love, not in other people’s opinions of you, imagine what you could do? If you’re set, then what might that set you free to do?