Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spring is a-Coming: Meditations on Holy Week by a Cold New Yorker


This blog post was also featured by Day1.org.  

This weekend, I did a quick one-day turnaround trip to North Carolina.  At JFK at 7:30am, it was 33 degrees, grey, dark and yes, say it with me, snowing – again.

Even the faces of the people I encountered at JFK reflected the weather. Everyone’s eyes seemed a little grey, some very dark – at least those that were open. Many were closed, I guess for sleep, but perhaps simply to close out the world. A world that itself, has become grey, cold and bleak.And what better microcosm of the world is there than JFK.

I saw an elderly man being wheeled to a gate, going who knows where, slumped over in his chair, wincing in pain, like he had given up all hope.

I saw a young mother with three small children. There was no one around to help, and she was carrying one in a snuggy and pushing two in a carriage. Her face showed her long road of sleeplessness and her dread of the exhausting trip ahead.

I watched an oblivious white businessman break in line in front of a young black airport worker who was waiting for coffee like everyone else.

I heard a guy screaming in his cell phone at a customer service rep because his flight had been cancelled.

I saw a middle-aged woman who was blind sitting quietly in a corner by herself with a service dog.

I saw several exhausted young people hibernating on backpacks with European stickers.

I watched an obese man shyly try to wedge into a narrow seat at the gate, all the while other customers eyed him with distain.

I saw two Muslim women in burkas in the ladies room and watched as the other Western women gave them a wide berth.

Finally the plane took off from our winter prison … and an hour and a half later we landed in Charlotte, NC. As the plane taxied to the gate, the little boy sitting in front of me, looked out the window, gasped and announced to everyone on the plane, “It’s so green!” And he was right.

In 90 short minutes, we had arrived on another planet, just four states away: a sunny planet, a planet whose atmosphere was close to 60 degrees, a planet that was bright green with explosions of every other imaginable color because everything was in bloom: the cherry blossoms, the dogwoods, tulips, azaleas.

Then it struck me: this trip was such a perfect metaphor for Holy week. The Passion story can feel like a spiritual winter: a grey, dark, cold week full of pain, suffering, denial, treachery and death.

Jesus traveled it, just like we travel it. Just like those passengers at JFK were traveling it.  Life can be a rugged journey full of pain and suffering;  a journey where sometimes it’s hard to remember what hope looks like; a journey where sometimes it’s hard to believe relief will ever come. 

But it will.

Now I understand that you may not see or feel it right now. Many of us may be surrounded by pain, or darkness, or hopelessness like a New York City winter, but even the toughest winters can’t overcome the power of life just waiting to burst through. Even the most difficult of days can’t overcome the power of hope. It’s just as author Anne Lamott explained, “Grace bats last.”    

Winter is not the last word.

Pain and suffering are not the end game.

Good Friday is not the end of the story.

If this Holy Week does nothing else, let it remind us that even in the midst of this brutal, never-ending winter … that Spring, glorious Spring is a-coming. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Female Jet Pilot? Sure. Preacher? No.

Here it is 2105 and we are still fighting about the ordination of women within the Southern Baptist Church. Read more in my earlier Huffington Post article "Female Jet.Pilot? Sure. Preacher? No."   

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Seeing is Believing. Or Is It? A View on Aging.

A sermon by Toby Solberg at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, March 8, 2015.

Many years ago, riding my first motorcycle, I learned an important lesson: I was riding along a two-lane road when I saw a car stopped at an intersection ahead of me, waiting to pull onto my road.  It looked as if the car was waiting for me to go by, but as I entered the intersection, it suddenly pulled out ahead of me, nearly hitting me.  I slammed on the brakes, fishtailed around the road, and came to a shaky stop at roadside as the offending car disappeared into the distance.   

The driver of the car had simply not seen me, even though I saw him looking at me.  Since that day I’ve heard similar tales from other motorcycle riders.  Drivers of cars often just don’t see motorcycles – even when they’re looking right at them.  For that reason, motorcycle headlights cannot be turned off while the engine is running.   

We rely on our eyesight for almost all our information.  We believe in our eyes.   Even when we say, “I couldn’t believe my eyes,”, we mean, we believe our eyes.  It is a commonplace in the world of law, TV law anyway, that the most convincing evidence is eyewitness testimony.  “I saw that man sitting right there commit the crime.” 

But eyewitness evidence can be unreliable.  As a law student in 1970, I was in a class on criminal law when the door to the lecture hall was flung open; an intruder rushed in, shouted something, and rushed out.  The professor quieted the resulting clamor, explaining that he had set up the whole thing.  He then went around the room, asking people what they had seen and heard.  Some said the intruder was a man, some a woman.  One said the intruder had fired a gunshot.  Everyone disagreed on what the intruder had shouted.  The professor had made his point: beware of eyewitnesses.

Years later, I tried a case in federal court here in New York, arising out of an incident involving a gunshot fired at the intersection of Park Avenue and 61st Street.  A total of 21 eyewitnesses testified that they had seen the whole thing, looking down from the hundreds of apartments that overlook that intersection.  The variety of recollections was astonishing. The shooter had testified to one shot; several swore to two, one to five.  Two said the shooting had taken place at 60th Street, not 61st. 

How do we account for this?  I’ve come to the conclusion that we see what we expect to see; what we’ve been conditioned to see; what we are interested in seeing.  Remember the words of the late, great Richard Pryor: are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

One of the things we don’t see – that we don’t expect to see – that we aren’t particularly interested in seeing – is other people.  Not all other people: we see the people we’re interested in.   And the ones we’re not interested in – well, they might as well be invisible, like motorcycles to auto drivers.

One of the invisible groups, I’ve discovered in recent years, is the aging.  As I’ve walked around NY and ridden the subway in the last few years, it has slowly dawned on me that other people don’t see me anymore, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this has come with aging.  Let me thank you right now for what I know you’re thinking: he’s not aging.  He’s in his prime.  I’d like to agree with you – though the mirror tells me different. As a doctor recently told one of my brothers when he complained of some ailment: too many birthdays!

I don’t mean that I expect people I encounter to make direct eye contact.  As NY pedestrians, we’ve all learned it’s safest not to make direct eye contact with people we encounter on the street.  But we do see people if only out of the corners of our eyes.  And then there are the people who to us are invisible – we don’t see them at all.  The elderly aren’t the only ones – beggars come to mind, sitting on the sidewalk with their hands out – but I believe we see beggars, and ignore them as a matter of choice (and we’ll reserve for another time a discussion of what Christ might have to say about how we treat beggars – the Good Samaritan coming powerfully to mind). 

Why do we find the elderly and the aging invisible?  We could start by asking ourselves what we are conditioned to find visually interesting.   I submit to you that we are conditioned – by TV, movies, magazines, catalogs, other media – to look for, to want to see, to value – youth and physical beauty.  The average American child watches 167 hours of TV commercials per year.  By age 65, the average American has seen 2 million TV commercials.  We certainly are not conditioned, or taught in any way, to want to spend time looking at the aging and the elderly.

Don’t get me wrong: we love our parents, our grandparents, our personal elders like those we get to know in a church congregation.  We want to spend time with them, listen to them, learn from them.  But elderly strangers?  We’re not interested.   Many Americans spend their final years living with and among other elderly people to whom they’re not related – or worse yet, alone.  Despite Susan’s best efforts – and yours – not everyone gets to be a member of MABC, and gets to know and value our seniors.

Ignoring our elders is a relatively recent development.  Certainly it was not true in Jesus’s time.   Elders in Biblical times played a very important role in their communities.  The Old Testament is full of references to elders whose wisdom and experience were valued.  The principal advisers to Moses, David and Solomon were the elders of Israel.  In fact, it was the elders who appointed David king of Israel.  Virtually every important decision recounted in the Old Testament was taken on the advice of the elders of Israel, Gilead, Jerusalem.  And in the New Testament, of course, the architects of Jesus’s terminal suffering were the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, in what was certainly not their most admirable advisory role.  Mark 8:31: “and he had begun to teach them, that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after 3 days rise again.”  The elders weren’t always right.

Even in the Biblical version of the afterlife, elders hold an honored place: Revelation 4:4:  Around the throne of God were “4 and 20 seats, and upon the seats I saw 4 and 20 elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. “

Throughout human history our societies, not just that of first-century Judea, have prized the wisdom, the experience, the perspective of our elders, according them a leading voice in our communal decisions, and a place of honor in our homes.  Even today we can see this in the tribal hierarchies of Native Americans, and other primitive societies.

And the key word there is “primitive”.  Our more advanced, sophisticated, modern societies have moved on.  Perhaps we think – to the extent that we do think about it – that there’s plenty of wisdom, experience and perspective in books.  And maybe not even in books, which are being replaced by the cloud, the ether, and wherever else it is that the internet and tweets and texts and streaming images exist.  Of course, I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I looked up from a TV show, or a text, or an e-mail, and thought, now there’s some real wisdom!    

And doesn’t the transmission of wisdom really call for a give and take, rather than just a give?  Reading books has always left me with follow-up questions.  Mr. Shakespeare, who was the model for Lady MacBeth?  Mr. Mozart, what were you smoking when you wrote the Magic Flute?  And I have a few questions for those scribes who left us the texts we call the Holy Bible.  But I’m not going to get to ask those questions and get answers, any more than I’m going to get answers to the many questions I have for my late parents.  The older I get, the more respect I have for the wisdom I now realize they had – and the more questions I have. 

 Up until only a couple of generations ago, we respected our elders, and took care of them ourselves.  Children grew up knowing, loving and valuing their grandparents who were a constant presence in their lives, not just occasional visitors.  The nursing home is a modern invention – sometimes a blessing for the residents, but more often a convenience for the rest of us.   And out of sight is out of mind, particularly when we’re distracted by our busy careers, family lives, and cell phones, ever demanding of our attention.

Let us heed the prayer in Psalms 71:9 – “Cast me not off in time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth.”  And heed the – well, lament – in Lamentations 4:16: “The anger of the Lord hath divided them; He will no longer regard them; they respected not the persons of the priests, they favored not the elders.”

So let’s favor the elders; grant them the respect, the notice and the attention they deserve; let’s ask them questions, and listen to the answers.  Let’s stand up and give them a seat on the subway, an admirable courtesy that has fallen into disuse with the advent of attention-grabbing cell phones.  And let’s look them  in the eye, recognize their beauty, and honor their long lives and the wisdom they can share with us, if we only listen.

And for those of us who are aging, I offer some words from the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as poet laureate of England an elder of sorts himself.  Speaking through Ulysses, the Homeric hero who fought for the city of Troy for ten years and spent another ten years sailing to his home island of Ithaca, Tennyson entreated Ulysses’ equally aging comrades to meet their golden years:

Come, my friends,

'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.