Of Men and Statues

There is a bewildering confusion plaguing my social media and news streams. It’s a perplexity of mistaken ideas about what constitutes history, legacy, and the difference between a person and a cause. In short, there seem to be a lot of people – far too many people – who cannot tell the difference between a human being and a statue.

As a public service, I will attempt to clarify this issue, explain the difference between a person and a public monument. The example of Robert E. Lee is timely – let’s take a look at this historical person who is also depicted in statues. Now, Robert E. lee was a real person who lived and died. Like all human beings he had characteristics that were both worthy and unworthy, lovable and disgraceful. I am sure he loved his children. He also owned human beings as property, like many other people in his time and place.

There are statues of Robert E. Lee throughout the United States, not just in the South. They depict the man, but (and this is a key point) they are NOT the man. These statues are public monuments placed in carefully selected sites to make a public statement. The purpose of statues of Robert E. Lee is to honor and represent not merely the individual portrayed, it is to hold up the cause and values for which that person stood.

A statue  of Robert E. Lee is a public monument to the cause in which he was a leader -  the Confederate States of America – and the values of that cause, two of which  are separation from the United States of America and protection of the  institution of slavery.   In other words, public monuments to the Confederacy honor treason and racism.

This point seems achingly obvious to most people, but completely opaque to far too many. “The statues are historical markers,” they claim, “if we don’t have them we will forget our history.” Or, “if we get rid of Lee statues because he owned slaves where will it end?! Will we have to tear down statues of all slaveholders?”

If you understand a public monument as a tribute to a cause and to shared values, these questions are irrelevant. For clarity, look to the purpose that public monuments serve in the life of a community or nation. For instance, most Confederate monuments were erected well after the Civil War and many in locations and at points in time that reinforced racist ideology. For instance, the statue of Lee in Lexington, Ky is located in a former slave auction site. The location of the statue sends a clear message to the community that the Confederate cause has more value than the lives bought and sold there.

When New Orleans began removing public monuments to the Confederacy, Mayor Landrieu give an succinct and eloquent explanation of why it was the right and patriotic thing to do. About the statues he said,

“They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a report showing the history and location of America’s Confederate monuments – statues, schools, parks, roadways, etc. Of the more than 1,500 such monuments and tributes, a significant number were dedicated around the time Jim Crow laws were put in place to disenfranchise African Americans (from about 1900 to the late 1920s) or as a response to the Civil Rights movement starting in the 1950s. The dedication of 20th century Confederate monuments was intended to reinforce white supremacist laws and principles.
Still, you may say, if you take down a statue of one slaveholder, why not all the others? Where will you stop? Don’t be silly.
Let’s consider some of those statues. George Washington owned slaves, it is true. However, the statues and other monuments that depict Washington honor the cause – the founding of the United States – and values – freedom and democracy – for which he was a leader.
When people gather at monuments of Washington they remember and celebrate the foundational principles that unite the nation. In fact, the cause for which Washington fought ended up being the vehicle by which slavery was eventually ended.
What community or national purpose do Confederate monuments, particularly statues to Confederate leaders, serve today? They are rallying points for racist ideology, sites where white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis gather to promote their cause and values: racial homogeneity and obliteration of their opponents.
A public monument should enshrine the common cause of a nation and the values that build up community. Tributes to the Confederacy do not meet this standard; they rend rather than mend the fabric of our country and our common life.

Holy Saturday

So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. Matt. 27: 59-61

There is a wall in the garden at my church that has dozens of new tombs. Outside in the garden, modern-day Marys visit the tombs where their loved ones rest. There is a clear demarcation between the living on one side of the wall, the dead on the other. These are tiny versions of the tomb in which Jesus was laid, each with a little door instead of stones to close them.

There is a chance that we don’t know what goes on behind those little doors, or what went on behind the great stone that enclosed Jesus’ body. The Collect for Holy Saturday says that on this day Jesus observed a Sabbath rest. While most Sabbaths begin with a convivial family meal, this one seems lonely, dark, and quiet.

When I first learned about this type of burial place, a columbarium, I was fascinated by the name. It comes from the Latin word columba, which means dove or pigeon. So this place where we lay our loved ones is a nesting place, not just a resting place. I loved imagining the  remains of a loved one as one of those birds, symbols of spirit.

Recently, I was at a neighbor’s house to pick up my daughter. When no one answered the front door, I walked to the back and came upon a dovecote. A columbarium full of columbas.

It was as unlike the columbarium at my church as you could imagine. The birds were on one side, I on the other, but they were not still and silent at all. They were not isolated in niches with doors. These birds were cooing and flying, socializing and preening.

Seeing those birds, those lively spirits, allowed me to think of a columbarium – and indeed of Jesus’ tomb – in a different way. I am still like those Marys on the living side of the wall, yet behind the stone or the little doors I can now imagine there is something going on. It isn’t dead space, it isn’t dead time.

Today, we associate a columbarium with death, but it also means dovecote. It is a place where doves and pigeons, symbols of spirit, can rest. Resting is not the same as doing nothing! The birds in my neighbor’s columbarium are not still. They are constantly on the move and socializing. These birds are having continual Sabbath on their side of the wall.

This is what I like to think happens behind the closed doors of the columbarium niches and behind the stone covering Jesus’ tomb. The body rests and the soul finds its kin. While we gather and prepare on one side of the wall, they gather and commune on the other. It is what I imagine Jesus’ Sabbath after Good Friday might have been like, resting from the week that passed and resting for the resurrection to come.

 

 

Gravity

I have been stewing over an idea for a very long time. It is an image that has been building over the years. The past few days has brought it to the surface again.

I have to start by saying that images from nature and concepts from science have always been powerful sources of metaphor for me. In addition to being intrinsically wonderful and true all by themselves, they have always contained, at least for me, seeds of insight about creation, human nature, and the divine. Sometimes even the most mundane or ridiculous images…well read for yourself.

A little over 20 years ago, a friend wondered aloud if perhaps gravity was love, or love was gravity. What would that mean? Do heavier objects have more love? Does weight – the pull between two objects – indicate more love? Do atoms have less love than Jupiter and Saturn? It was a fun thought experiment for non-scientists and we took it to extremes. There was something more to it for me, though, just the tiniest idea that love might be the invisible force between things. The thing you can’t see, but which causes everything you see to happen.

Then, more recently – but not too – I was with my son at a summer camp. All week, the boys had been studying space exploration and using those ideas as themes for all their activities. As a volunteer for his group of campers, I headed over to a slip-and-slide and nearly tripped over a basketball labeled SUN. As the boys splashed, I stepped back and saw something about 12 yards away – a stick with a white card on it. When I got closer, I saw a miniscule poppy seed and the word MERCURY. I was in the middle of a scale model of the Solar System.

Another 10 yards away was VENUS, and EARTH 10 yards past that. Each no bigger than the head of a pin. A tiny speck 3 inches from EARTH was the MOON. Sixteen yards from EARTH was MARS, then an asteroid belt.

The scouts were ready for another activity and so we walked through the camp. It was another half hour before I saw a small ball labeled JUPITER. It was more than a football field away from EARTH. As the day progressed, I saw SATURN and URANUS but there was no room for the rest – we were at the edge of the property. URANUS was a third of a mile from the basketball sun and the size of a large marble. This model solar system would not have fit inside a university football stadium.

Standing there in the camp, it was hard to imagine that the basketball more than two football fields away could have an effect on the specks and marbles I had passed. I couldn’t even see the sun at the end point. I began to wonder how things that are so far apart – and some of them nearly invisible – could be related to each other. How could they hang together? And yet they did.

It was at this point in the Solar System stroll that the long-ago conversation about gravity surfaced – the invisible force keeping planets in their orbits, causing tides to rise and fall, and keeping my feet on the ground. For someone like me who believes God is love, the idea of this invisible force is analogous to love, the force that holds everything together…well that seems to be the kind of thing so utterly true it could only be expressed through metaphor. It is the only way I have of grasping the Divine. Or Love.

I don’t know about you, but a lot of the time, I feel like I am as small as the tiny seed representing MERCURY. (Sometimes as small as an asteroid.) There are times I feel as isolated and distant as JUPITER. How can anything I do or say affect those other beings out there? How does any of it matter? In real life, all the space between the planets and the sun looks empty, but it isn’t. Just like the space between people, between nations, between even the electrons in atoms – what looks empty is filled with force. The force of words and actions, the force of compassion, of shared vision, of shared orientation around…a sun? A source of light.

Shared humanity and created-ness is a force of connection. For humans, a lack of love – of gravity – sends us spinning off into darkness. But knowing that you are connected, however invisibly, to those other parts of creation can be enough to help you act on that connection, to honor the pull of gravity and love.

 

Baptism

Immersion in water is entry to a promise
Yet
Like learning a language
Daily ablution
Allows the grammar of that promise
To soak in
Immersion in fellowship and breaking bread
Submersion in service and love
Enveloped by the longing
for justice and peace
Communal, not personal
Continuous, not a moment

 

 

Theophany

The burning bush. Was it supernatural vandalism? Or holy art?
The bush was green again in the end.
But once you’ve seen those flames,
Your attention cannot be un-grabbed.
It makes you wonder about the way things ought to be and look and feel.
You will keep looking for beauty in unexpected places.
And the unexpected in beautiful places.

 

The 99

Today, the Gospel reading was the parable of the lost sheep. Of course, it is also the parable of the 99 left behind. Poor sheep. Either lost of left.

Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
Luke 15:4

Or maybe there is another way to see it.

Sheep are meant to be in flocks, not alone. When one goes wandering, it needs finding and a shepherd will go looking. But a lost sheep isn’t home until it is back with its flock. Back with the 99 who stayed. They weren’t left, they were being the flock so the lost one would know where home was.

I was with my flock today. My tribe, my peeps. I hope if I ever go wandering, I’ll know I am found when I am back with them again. And I also hope when anyone else wanders in, they will know they are home. No matter which sheep you are in this tale, you are essential to the whole, made to be with your flock, your tribe, your community. It’s not the same without you.

Shadows and soil

Some of the stones in this old cemetery have names and dates,
others are rendered anonymous by time.
Anonymous to me, but not to those who placed them
or to the oaks and vines that grow from the soil enriched by the stories buried there.
Walking along the weedy paths
we cast shadows on the stones and earth,
on the wood and grass.
Those buried here can tell just as much about us from our shadows
as we can tell about them from the life that springs from their graves.
Together, we make a full story of beginnings and endings, life and death
and all that connects us to each other.

Grounded

This morning, my daughter and I went on a morning hike. It was glorious. Several women, a couple of girls, and the best dog in the world (sorry Max) walked on a portion of the greenbelt that snakes its way through the western side of our city. Water was coursing through what had been a dry creek bed last summer.

Those of us over…well, let’s say over 5 feet tall…reminded ourselves to breath deeply and be mindful. Halfway down the trail, we stopped for some meditation that helped us feel connected to the earth beneath our feet, to feel supported and grounded in nature, to let the air cleanse us. The lush green trees and flowing water called our attention away from cell phones and the sounds of traffic just a few feet away.

During the hike itself, my daughter was mostly engaged and excited, but she rolled her eyes each time one of us reminded the others to breathe. Our mid-hike, mountain-pose breathing meditations were too still for her. I started to get frustrated…

But you know what, my daughter didn’t need these reminders to connect with nature. She is literally closer to the earth than I – by about 12 inches. At the start of our adventure, she made friends with a millipede, put it on a stick and brought it along on the hike. She is the one who encouraged us to wade in the creek, to feel the cool water and the stones under our feet, to let the minnows tickle our toes.

Legs the Millipede, our hiking companion

We are made from earth, every cell and the space between them. At every age we have ways of remembering that connection. For those of us with busy, indoor lives and lots of lists, it takes a hike and a reminder to breathe. Some see nature as a place filled with friends like millipedes, others see it as a wonder of mathematical beauty or principles. Farmers and gardeners have a different relationship to the earth than pilots and sailors. We  each help the others see a different facet of our earthiness. One day, my daughter will need a reminder to breathe, and a child will remind her to make friends with a millipede.

Learning to take things more personally

My daughter is in the 3rd grade so I know a lot of 8 and 9-year-olds. They are silly and creative, loving and infuriating. They take in the world around them and make it all personal. Sometimes we call this tendency self-centeredness, but it is the age-appropriate way children experience and relate to the world around them. The weather is personal because it can cancel a field trip. (It did.) Traffic is personal because it makes a commute long and boring. (All the time.) Chocolate milk is amazing because it is delicious…and also stupid for sloshing onto a shirt. (Yep. Stupid.) My daughter has a love-hate relationship with water that is directly proportional to whether I am asking her to take a shower. The tendency of water to make a person wet is very personal.
Kids this age convey heartbreak more clearly and dramatically than adults. Sometimes it comes across as a tantrum that needs calming, but sometimes it comes across as a wake-up call. Their reactions can tell us that the things we take for granted as background noise are deeply personal.
Yesterday, my daughter told me this: “Mommy, don’t vote for Trump. My friend said if he is president she will have to leave because she is not the right religion, her religion is from another country.”
The xenophobic rhetoric of this election season has become so heated and so infused into everyday conversation that this child’s life is in suspension.
We are better than this.
It is a tribute to this girl’s parents that she feels acceptable and loved by her community. But that doesn’t make it better.
Here is the kicker: this girl’s parents are legal immigrants and the family is not Muslim. Messages aimed at illegal immigrants from Mexico and adherents to Islam have now bled beyond those targets to all those who are “other” in our communities. This girl is not wrong to think she is the target of the fear and hatred she overhears in everyday political discourse – the target has grown to envelope her. And now, it has grown to include my white, Christian daughter as well.
That is what fear and hatred do, they are contagious. We can’t just blame them on a few narrow-minded people, because if fear and hatred are not checked they spread. I’m taking a cue from my favorite 3rd graders. I am taking this personally. Fear and hatred are not background noise; they target and harm real people that I know and love.
Calling out fear and hatred is age-appropriate for everyone. Make it personal, y’all.