Spiritual remediation for a summer of discord

I was preaching in June after the Orlando event about the new normal and how we are all beginners. I was going to speak about summer beach reading and instead I was (again) talking about public violence. As I arrived at my main point -- life is going to be a lot about interruption for a while to come -- that’s when someone’s cell phone went off, unprogrammed. It gave us the good laugh we needed. 

I have heard people in the media describe this summer moment as the “near apocalypse.” Whether it is record breaking heat or Louisiana under water again or wild fires in the West or public violence and shootings out of nowhere, just about every week, we have been filled with bad news, not beach reading.

Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Too many people in too many different places have been killed. There is a sense that things have gone haywire. And that we are walking a high wire. While many of us just want to get off the merry-go-round and lick the bowl out of summer, we don’t seem to know how to put the cell phone down, so interested are we in what happens next or is happening now.

We are walking a haywire high wire. We don’t know whether to turn on the news or not. We don’t know if we are at the beginning, the middle or the end of the nutty period. My sense is we’re at the beginning.

I think this sense of conglomerated catastrophe, with the environment continuing to be neglected while no one has the time to attend it, is just at the beginning. At both the Democratic and Republican national conventions, the environment did not have the lead it deserved in the great dramas. Sure, there is stuff in the platforms. But you’d think the end of the world, as we know it, would be important enough to merit stronger attention.

I remember author and climate activist Naomi Klein at the COP21 United Nations climate talks in Paris saying, “The problem is that everything is going wrong at once.” Yup. 

The ozone layer is being slowly penetrated at the same time that we humans have decided to have a big fat fuss. Not a big fat Greek wedding but a big fat fuss. There is not a leader in sight who can possibly point us to the exits from our fussing and our earth’s travail.

By deciding we are at the beginning and not even the middle or close to the “end,” I find myself calming down. I begin to learn what I need to know, which is how to learn. Jane Jacobs, the extraordinary community organizer in Greenwich Village, who kept it in her generation from gentrification and who would have turned 100 this year, often talked about our false faith in the credentialed leaders. We are now the great uncredentialed, with no one to help us but ourselves.

If this long hot ongoing summer teaches us anything, it teaches that we need spiritual remediation -- to go back to school for a special education class for people who don’t know what we are supposed to know, which is how to get along in nearly constant trouble. We need a refresher course in interruptions and how much life is going to be interrupted.

Famed television writer and producer Norman Lear, who turned 94 in July, was asked once how he managed to live so long and so well. He responded, “By knowing the difference between what is over and what is next.” Is the season of our discontent over? Can we go to church Bible study or school or a nightclub or a parade safely? What great new surprise will gun down Latino queers or black men, perpetually targeted, or children whose lunch boxes remain uneaten? Don’t these kind of events give new meaning to the words “near apocalypse,” especially when there is no end in sight?

What’s next is probably more of the same. To repeat, we are at the beginning of something, not the end. Apologies to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who implores us not to let gun violence become the new normal. Public violence is the new normal.

As beginners here, as people in need of spiritual remediation, we need to remember first and then hope secondly. Spiritual remediation sends you back to school in spiritual matters. What is our hope when the phrase “active shooter” is almost a cliché? What is our faith when we know that many people are experiencing the uncanny loss of their loved ones in various places all over the country? What must we love? What needs our mercy? Can we forgive ourselves for being numb?

We are like college freshman who took all the wrong courses in the first year, only to discover that for our major we need lots of other required ones. Like doing justice, while loving mercy and being humble about both. Like not putting down the people who are so mentally ill that they kill others or say overt and covert racist things. Mercy for murderers? Active and passive ones? Yes. Without pride about being so good. Getting close to our antagonists, close enough to say we are going to do something different. Yup.

I want to deepen my awareness of what I don’t know, about where people are going or when they are coming back. To do that will require signing up for my real major, which is clearly spiritual remediation.

I need to learn what it means that a cell phone is going off all the time somewhere right now, making me realize I didn’t have an ordinary summer of beach reading, that I had a hard summer. 

Why not admit it? And prepare for interruptions and renewed faith. 

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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