Friday, October 28, 2011

Raising Your Words, Raising a Man

Raise your words, not voice.
 It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.
-- Rumi

This week has been marked by angry voices, voices raised in frustration, and tinged with drug induced rage and anger. Perhaps it is the time of year, the onset of the fall rains of the Oregon Coast, the shorter days of sunlight, and the realization that winter and its wetness and grayness is coming.

Yet, in all that, there has been bits of gold.

A quick trip to the beach with a good friend, to share a bottle of rare wine, as we enjoy a sunny, almost warm afternoon, and the occasional whiff of a slash burn in the forest, and heart to heart conversation about life and this time in our lives. We work in the same building, yet it has been nearly two years since the last peaceful afternoon at the beach and sharing a bottle of good wine.

Today, I attended the retirement party of a good friend, and spent time with old friends, and celebrated a solid career, marked with decency, professionalism, and a celebration of treating others with respect and support.

And, I visited a new friend in jail, watching him glow with pride in becoming a trustee, and reducing his jail sentence, and starting to feel good about himself and who he is. More importantly, we talked about who he is becoming, and where he wants to go. We worked on our relationship, and finding out a bit about each other.

In that dance, I saw a young man begin to honor the flicker of hope and self respect that lies inside of him, and watched him start to feed that weak flame, savoring the heat and the light that comes from taking care of one’s soul, and nourishing one’s dreams.

All that is a start, a beginning. He’s twenty, but really fifteen, and ready to grow and become the man he wants to be.

In that conversation, the negativity and anger of the week fell away, and I found new hope for the future, new dreams, and the twinkle in his eyes gladdened my heart and gave me hope, and joy. There is work to be done, but we have started down his path, and the next steps will be easier than the ones he has struggled to make.

Good work was done this week, and, as always, that good work comes from simple things, and going back to the basics. Respect, patience, listening. Being present. And, taking the time to simply reach out to someone and telling them that you care.

In such simplicity, great change will come. I am simply the gardener, throwing out a few seeds on ground that is ready for what will surely come.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Letter to a Young Man in Prison

We had a good conversation last night. You demonstrated insight, and courage. And, you do that a lot.

We all need to understand our yesterdays. They are our history, our experience, and affect how we live our lives today.

We cannot change yesterday, but we can understand yesterday, and we can gain power over yesterday.

Yesterday has as much influence and power over us as we allow it. We are in charge of what yesterday means to us and how it impacts our lives today.

We live in today. We are masters of today. We control today. The things we do today are the things that can change our lives. We have our feelings, yet we can change how we feel and how we react to feelings. We are in charge of our thoughts and our thinking patterns.

The past is a teacher, but we are the students, and we get to choose what to learn and how to apply the lessons from the teachers in our lives. We are in charge of the direction of our lives and the choices we make today.

This is not only your task. It is also the task of all people. It is my task.

Every moment is a choice. And, we are each in charge of that moment. This moment is really all I have. I try to make the best of it.

I think it is important to understand my past. And, some events in my past still need to be called out and named for what they were. The secrets need to become known and given names. And, some events in the past need to be told that they no longer will run my life and will no longer have power. I can choose to understand those events, and to understand myself when I was in those situations. All that is good work.

Learning about myself is always productive work. But, I also need to choose to remember my lessons, and to give myself ownership of my feelings and ownership of my own power to choose my own path today.

I can choose to spend my energy on revenge and anger and rage. I could crawl into a hole, and pout and rant, and feel sorry for myself. I choose not to.

As those are feelings I have, I can respect those feelings and emotions. But, I do not have to let those feelings and emotions run my life today.

Instead, I get to choose how I feel, and how I act, and where I am going. I have that power. I have that right. I am a man and I have a right to be free, and healthy, and in control of my life. No one can make me a slave, unless I let them.

I need to understand victimization, and abuse, and slavery. And, with that knowledge, I gain power over those who have victimized me, abused me, and enslaved me. I can break those chains. I can be free, and I will be free. I am free. I have that choice, and I have that right.

I can change my life today. I am in control. I have the power. I have the right.

I can choose my friends and my attitude, and I can choose the subjects and skills I need to learn today. I can choose my direction. I am free to do that.

Yes, I have feelings of shame and guilt and being the victim and being abused and neglected and unloved. I honor those feelings, as those are my feelings. But, I get to choose how I respond to those, and where I go with that knowledge and that experience.

I am in charge. This is my life.

I can also respond to and seek out loving situations, and loving relationships, and healthy attitudes within myself. I can choose wellness and getting myself in healthy emotional shape.

I have a right to my righteous anger and my feelings. And, I also have the right to not muck around in that swamp, and to move on, and live a life of health, and goodness, and being productive. I have a right to be happy. Happiness is within me to grab onto and achieve.

You know all this. I hear all this from you, all the time. You have the key to your chains. You are in charge of your life. You are the man here. This is all good work. You know that. I’m just repeating to you what I hear from you. You are smarter than you give yourself credit for.

Oh, this is hard work. Lots of sweat, doubt, and sometimes, a bunch of gut wrenching emotional pain. But, as you know, the real accomplishments of life are the result of hard work and determination, and sometimes, sweat and pain.

You are worthy of this good, hard, sweaty work. And, I call you to that work. You have the job. You’re hired. You’re the most qualified for the job.

Everything in this letter is nothing new to you. And, it is not news to your Team. Your Team is behind you and along side of you.

We offer tools and support. And, there is no obligation we impose on you, except the expectation that you want to change and grow and get healthier.

You want to be a healthier man. So do I. And, I work at that job every day. We are all on this journey.

I don’t ask more of you than I ask of myself.

And, you are farther along than you give yourself credit for.

You are WAY ahead of other young men who need to do this work. I hope you see this and recognize this in you. You are being brave and courageous, and also loving and caring of yourself. Honor that. Respect that about you.

A lot of men don’t do this work. Their lives are painful and much poorer, emotionally. This work needs to be done. You know that. And, that is power.

I remain at your service, and I remain a member of your team.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Least Among Us

(Sermon, Tillamook United Methodist Church, October 9, 2011)

The relationships between spirituality and the law is an ever present intertwining relationship with me. Two seemingly separate worlds often collide, but more often unite into an amazing life changing force.

As a lawyer, and as a judge, and also as a man who has a continuing and deeply evolving relationship with God, I am continually in the trenches wrestling with the role of the rule of law and the ever present complexity of the Spirit.
Our republic values the Rule of Law, and the ideals of an equitable and compassionate judicial system is a cornerstone of the freedoms and responsibilities we all have as Americans. In the controversies of our age, we often forget how crucial the Rule of Law is to an orderly government. In the history of humankind, peaceful resolutions of disputes based on democratic principles is a fairly recent concept, and not always commonplace. With all of its flaws, our legal system remains protective of individual rights and has proven flexible in times of great social change.

So, let me share some of my own thoughts and observations about the work I do, and how that work might fit into one’s faith and spiritual life.

One may imagine that the role of a judge is primarily a task of learning the law and applying the law to the facts of a particular case. My work on the bench is sometimes that, and some of the questions I face and must decide can be quickly resolved with a reading of the statute books, or finding a particular case law precedent from an appellate court.

Yet, there is the letter of the law and there is the spirit of the law, and there is the everpresent demand to seek justice and to apply justice.

And, there are the lives and realities of the people standing before you in the courtroom. These are often different rows to hoe in the gardens and weed patches of our legal system.

Theologically, one may think of the role of a judge in the context of Solomon, deciding who will have custody of a baby, and who chose between two women both claiming to be the child’s mother. Solomon suggested cutting the child in two with his sword, until the true mother cried out that the other woman should have the child, rather than have her own baby put to death.
Yet, the point of that story is not to define justice in terms of killing a child, but the deep love of a mother for her child. She loved her child so much that she would give up her child to another, so that her child could live.

Perhaps it is a good example of judicial wisdom, but this story is more a story of altruism, and self-sacrifice.

When a lawsuit is coming to a head in court, those ideals and aspirations are usually pretty scarce. Greed, avarice, and revenge are more common among the parties, and often, neither party is after true justice.

In Luke 9:46-48, Christ tells us this story:

An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he is the least among you all – he is the greatest.”

And, the child standing besides Christ is the metaphor for the sadness, the misery, the poverty, the addictions, the violence, the greed, and the chaos of our society. When these agonies are too much for us to bear as individuals, or, often, as a community, these agonies find their ways to the jail and to the courts.

In my work, and in my own spiritual journey, I keep coming back to this passage. For me, Christ is speaking very directly, very plainly. The greatest one among us is not the greatest one, Instead, the greatest one is the least among us all.

Some theologians see the child in these words as a metaphor for those young in faith, and this passage as an example of Christ discouraging the very human debate among the Disciples of who is greater than the other in terms of religious politics.

To me, the Scripture is not so complex, not so politically sophisticated. To me, it is a plain, a direct message, right to my heart, here and now. And that message is this: we need to take care of those who are the least fortunate, the least able.

I’m a student of the Constitution, and of history. And, when I study what the Founding Fathers were trying to do, I know that they did their work mindful of these simple words of Christ. They lived in an imperfect, often unjust society. They were all white men, owners of land taken from Native Americans, and, often, slave owners. They lived in a time when the right to vote was limited to only a select few, those who owned land, and could afford to pay the poll tax on election day. No women, no people of color, no poor people could have a say in their government.

And, yet, the words they crafted, the principles they expressed, carry the spirit of those words of Christ.

In looking to find justice, and in looking to find the right thing to do, the right way to make the right thing happen, He tells us to look at the greatness within the least fortunate, the least loved, the least popular, the least able. And, in that person, there is the greatest goodness.

He calls upon us to put our perspective of things upside down, to look at our world from the opposite point of view.

When I take those principles, those teachings, those words, and hold them in my heart, only then do I find the embers of the fires of justice begin to rise, and when I begin to sense, I begin to know, what is the right result.

I see a lot of lost people. People who are adrift, wandering in the wilderness of our society. Not having a purpose, and not knowing where they are going. And, even worse, feeling that no one cares about them. And when people are in spiritual crisis, when they are starving for a spiritual meaning, they often self-medicate their pain, their emptiness with violence, with alcohol, and with drugs.

And, when that first dose of self-medication doesn’t work very well, they self-medicate again, and the cycle deepens and spirals downward. The hunger, the longing doesn’t go away.
One young man, I’ll call him John, came into my courtroom last winter. It was one of those especially nasty days, sleet and snow falling, the day raw and bleak. We dealt with his drug case and his long list of unpaid traffic tickets, and his suspended driver’s license.
We got to talking and I learned he had spent the night on a couch in a drug house. His car had been repossessed. John hadn’t had a real meal in four days.

I took him out to breakfast and, as he gulped down his meal, he told me the story of his life. His father left when he was six. His mother had been in and out of jail, and he’s spent a few weeks there recently himself. He dropped out of high school, and could only find an odd job here or there.

Yet, John was a talented mechanic, and dreamed of becoming a diesel mechanic. He was good at that work. It was his passion. And, he was wise enough to recognize his passion.

I put him in touch with the Job Corps, and a local trucking company I had heard was looking for a good apprentice, and dropped him off at the Salvation Army, so he could find a real place to stay and get some food.

To look at John, you would think he had been living on the streets for weeks, which was true. Yet, inside of him was a young man with a big heart, and a driving ambition to make something out of his life. What he lacked was having people around him who believed in him.

Two days later, he stopped by. He’d gotten that job at the trucking company, and had called the Job Corps. He was going to enlist in that program. He knew he wanted to be a success and he was excited.

We kept in touch, and I’d send him a note of encouragement once in a while. He’d send me his grades from each semester, and a great note from one of his teachers. He was in the top of his class.

And, a year later, John stopped by to show me his diploma. The Job Corps was good to him. Even his mom was proud of him now. But, he was finally proud of himself.

Another young man I’ve met, Bill, was usually on the jail list for court. He was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I’ve been dealing with his family for several decades, and he was certainly no stranger to domestic violence and family members in and out of jail, and in and out of treatment programs.

To look at Bill’s record, and how he lived, you might think he had no future. In not too many years, you wouldn’t be surprised to know that he’d been to prison, or died of alcoholism, or from an overdose.

Yet, Bill has a spark of decency and ambition in him. I could see it when you got to talking to him about his kids. He really loved his kids, and he wanted them to have a life much different than his own. Yet, you could see the pattern of his childhood start to repeat in their young lives.

One day, Bill and I finally had a heart to heart talk. He couldn’t figure out why I was so concerned about him and how he lived.

I told him about the spark in him that I saw, every time he talked about his kids.
“You’re one of my kids, Bill,” I told him. “I care about you as much as you care about your own kids. And, I know you can live a better life, Bill. But, you need to decide you are worthy of your own love, and the love of God.”

I’ve grown up knowing that I was loved --- loved by family, by friends, by the community, and by God. Love was always in my life, and, I often just assumed that so much love is just a given in life. Everyone is loved, right?

But, for Bill, this was a new idea. He’d somehow never knew that other people might love him, and that he was worthy of love.

And, that is Christ’s message to us in this Scripture.

“For he is the least among you – he is the greatest.”

It turns our popular, 21st Century, view of our society upside down. After all, we Americans are supposed to aim to be the richest, the most powerful, the most influential. All of that is supposed to be great. It is the American Way.

And, as we deal with this economic recession, the inherent fallacy of that thinking becomes so very obvious. That is not what we are about. And, we are now beginning again to explore, in our hearts, where we need to be going as a country. The issues confronting us are literally standing at the side of Christ. He is standing in the midst of these issues, and calls upon us to deal with them, with compassion, with love, and with the love of God.

That work, my friends, is real spiritual work. And Christ is calling us to come to grips with what he is saying. “ For he is the least among you – he is the greatest.”

It is a great privilege to be here among you this morning. I thank you for your time. May God bless each and every one of you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Ice Cave of Long Ago

The deep blue, the light coming through the end of the tunnel, turning the years of compressed snow into solid ice, filled my head with its wonders.

We could hear the rumble of the glacier above us, as it inched its way down the steep mountain, torrents of milky glacial melt roaring across the ice and dirty snowpack. My tennis shoed feet were soaked, and my sweatshirt barely kept me warm, as we trudged up the rocky path and onto the hard packed snow and ice.

Soon, my dad hoisted me on his shoulders, so I could keep up with everyone else, and thaw out my feet, as we climbed the mountain a bit, above the lodge, headed for the ice caves. Bright sunlight reflected off the white snow and ice, making me squint. I shivered in the cold wind coming down the mountain, chilled by the mountain of ice and snow, and the thin air of this barren land above timberline.

We soon reached the entrance to the deep caves, icy water dripping and flowing down its solid walls, turned blue by the early summer sunlight, penetrating the clear ice, giving an eerie light to this opening into the glacier. Out of the wind, it was surprisingly warm, my ears filled with the dripping and gushing of freshly melted water. The rivulets of water under my dad’s feet were milky white with rock flour from the glacier’s slow scraping and grinding of the mountain rock.

When we were all inside, Dad lowered me down to the ground, and I put my hand into the icy glacier melt, and touched the blue ice of the cave walls. The deep blue light colored everything here, and I felt the smoothness of the pebbles, and the deep cold of the water flowing over my hands.

I remember our guide talking about glaciers and how the winter snows packed the snow crystals tighter and tighter, squeezing out the air and the space between the molecules, until the weight of years of winter snow created the walls of blue that surrounded us, inside the mountain. He talked about how the sunlight became bent as it entered the ice, filtering out some of the colors of the sunlight, and bending different frequencies of the light, until our eyes could only notice the blue.

And, he talked about how the sky does the same thing, so that our eyes think that the sky is blue, when it really is white, and has all the spectrum of all the wavelengths. It all made sense to me that day, how we see light, and how the weight of snow pushes out the air, and makes clear ice out of fluffy snow that had fallen ten, twenty, a hundred years before. And, how the mountain would spew out lava and ash, and then the snow would fall, and how the glaciers would gouge and erode the hard rock, turning it into milky sediment, flowing down to the rivers and forests below the mountain, all the way to the sea.

I was three years old, but I remember the guide talking about this and how I knew all that he was saying made so much sense, and how amazing the world was. This mountain of hot lava and ash, and then long dark winters of snow and ice making, and the melting of summer, and the seasons of the rivers, and the salmon that swam in them, and came up the rivers to spawn, in the same place that they started life, all made sense to me.

We came out of that cave, back into the bright sunlight of that June day, so many years ago, and sat down on the snow and slid back down to the mountain lodge, our butts getting soaking wet and frozen from the ice and the snow.

The guide had brought some squares of canvas, so we could sit on them and slide down the mountain. And, I laughed, thinking of how that sounded like so much fun, and it was funny that the adults would think so, too. I laughed when I saw my mom and my dad and my brother sit down on the canvas and slide, and watched them play, just like kids.

And, I laughed and laughed as we slid, enjoying the cold and the wet and the sunlight on the bright white of the snow, and watched the big logs and rough shingles of the lodge getting closer and closer to us, as we slid down the mountain, the guide holding me in front of him, as we slid down the mountain together, his deep voice laughing into the cold air.

That night, as I snuggled deep into my sleeping bag, after we had roasted some marshmallows around the campfire, I dreamed of that big blue cave, and the cycle of how the mountain came to be and how the snow and the ice were changing things, and how the salmon would find their way back home every year. And, it all made sense to me, and everything was in order.

Years later, I’d tell my mom and my dad and my brother about that day, and they all shook their heads.

“You were too young to remember,” they’d say.

But, I did remember, and I wasn’t too young. And, when I go back there and walk up the trails, some fifty plus years later, I can still see that guide and hear him tell his stories, as we walked up that big, cold mountain. I can still feel the cold and see the clearness of that glacial ice, and how the sunlight got bent a bit, turning blue.

And I am amazed at the wonder of the snow, and the salmon, and the ice and the light in that blue cave, and the wonders of the world, seen through the eyes of a three year old boy.
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