Category Archives: Spiritual musings

Partial Truth

Partial Truth

I joyously affirm that I
Will tell the part of the truth
I can discern at this moment,
Not trusting solely
In my own instincts,
But drawing wisdom, too,
From my fellow humans
And other creatures, also,
As we strive to move closer
To the wholeness that nature
Reestablishes again and again
Now and forever.  

Is It Possible?

Is It Possible   –by Jinny Batterson

Is it possible
it’s not power
that corrupts, but
merely our surface illusions
of power, and that love,
deep, abiding love,
is absolutely
incorruptible?

The Doors of the Church are Open

The Doors of the Church are Open  —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood and adolescence, I attended Sunday school. As a young adult, I took a multi-year sabbatical from organized religion, then resumed attending a small congregation—a chance to sing in the choir, I told myself. I liked being an alto. For the past several years, I’ve attended two different congregations. One is mostly white, generally affluent, with a mix of children and adults, trending toward the older end of the age continuum. The other is mostly black, less affluent, with a similar age distribution. The Unitarian-Universalist congregation has slightly more college professors than the African Methodist Episcopal congregation; A.M.E. worshippers include slightly more former college football players and basketball stars. Both groups have several hundred members on their rolls, some of whom show up most Sundays. As older members die off, our numbers dwindle.

The fastest growing religious segment of the overall American population are the “unchurched.” A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of more than 35,000 Americans found that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians had dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% just seven years later. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%. 

Many younger adults have little use for Sunday worship. Partly, this is because Sunday morning can be the only unscheduled interval in their increasingly busy lives. Another partial answer may lie in incidents of mass violence, like a 2008 shooting at a UU worship service near Knoxville, Tennessee or the 2015 assault on an evening prayer service at an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. These two horrendous incidents are part of a series of mass shootings in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples that can badly damage our sense of safety. The congregations I attend have trained our ushers to be alert to potential violence, defusing it if at all possible, otherwise sounding the alarm and limiting the damage.

In both congregations I attend, we wrestle with questions of how to affirm each other’s dignity, how to forgive each other and ourselves, how to help each other grow spiritually. Both congregations also grapple with hateful rhetoric coming from the highest levels of our government. The U.S. constitution forbids church statements in support of or opposition to specific political figures or groups. However, we allow support of or opposition to specific policies and behaviors. Right now, churches are often centers of opposition to inhumane treatment of immigrants or “others.” 

Despite many similarities, both of the congregations I attend feel incomplete to me. I wonder if it’s partly because they continue to reflect a situation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in a 1960 speech: eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning is among the most segregated hours in Christian America. In a religion whose basic tenets include “love one another,” such segregation of “white” and “black” (or any other group identity) is hypocritical at best. Is how poorly we walk our talk one important explanation of formal Christianity’s dwindling numbers?

Given its recent decline, it’s tempting to conclude that Christianity, even religion more generally, may not survive in 21st century America. I think it can both survive and thrive, but rejuvenating our faiths will take a lot more than one older woman crossing a racial divide to attend two churches.

After both the Knoxville and the Charleston incidents, church leaders reassured and challenged us: whatever losses we’d suffered, “the doors of the church are still open.”  Often I imagine church doors as fully hinged swinging doors—capable of swinging out as well as in, like the doors sometimes found between restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, or fronting saloons in old cowboy movies. 

Many church activities have little doctrine associated with them. They can happen outside the confines of church buildings. They’re not limited to a single day per week. They are just something we can do as Christians, as humans—social outreach, social justice, social uplift. Our faith encourages us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, comfort the bereaved.

From what I know of church history, the earliest Christians had no special buildings, very little liturgy, no delineated creeds. They just wanted to share the love of God with their fellow humans and with the rest of creation. Such sharing is not limited to Sunday mornings. It recognizes no artificial boundaries. The “doors of the church” in each one of us need to swing both ways. Maybe then the doors of our various denominations will be easier to keep open.      

Choosing Your Starfish

Choosing Your Starfish  —by Jinny Batterson

One of the years when I taught English in China, my students were fascinated by a story about an old man, a young boy, and a beach filled with stranded starfish. Many variants of the story have appeared. The one my students were most familiar with went something like this: 

  One morning after a storm, an older man went out for his customary walk along a gently curving stretch of beach. The weather had cleared. As he looked ahead, the man could see in the distance a small figure, also walking along, sometimes bending down, then throwing something into the waves. As the older man got closer, he saw that the other person was a young boy, perhaps twelve years old. The stretch of beach nearest them was littered with stranded starfish. Once in a while, the boy leaned over, picked up a starfish, and tossed it back into the sea.

“You’ll never succeed in making a difference for every living starfish,” the old man cautioned. “There are too many of them, and they can’t live very long on the beach.”

“That’s not the point,” replied the boy as he tossed another starfish back into the waves. “I made a difference for that one.”  

I didn’t remember having heard the story before. When I recently checked online for the story’s origin, I found it had appeared in slightly different form in 1969 as part of an essay titled “Star Thrower” by philosopher Loren Eiseley. A number of charitable organizations have since taken up the image of a rescued starfish as part of their name or marketing—groups for ex-offenders, for poverty-stricken children, for survivors of childhood abuse, for injured veterans, and so on. A variation of the story’s theme has been made into a children’s film, “Sara and the Starfish.”

The fable is both challenging and reassuring to me in these unsettled times. As someone with a tendency to obsess about all the actual and potential “starfish” I may encounter, I find the story helps me maintain or regain perspective. Of course I can never save all possible starfish. It’s important, though, that I pay attention to the starfish who get stranded on “my” beach with problems that match my resources and the solution skills I’ve developed. 

Who/what is your starfish?  

Building Lop-Sided Bridges

Building Lop-Sided Bridges    —by Jinny Batterson

About this time of year in 1997, I got a nasty shock. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A set of cells had gone malignant and might soon invade the rest of my body. Several months earlier, I’d had my annual mammogram and was told it was normal. So at first, I wrote off the lump that showed up around Hallowe’en as just another annoying symptom of menopause. I was a healthy, middle-aged white woman. I ate well, exercised regularly, had gotten all my prescribed screenings. I made a comfortable living as a consultant, had two college-age sons, a husband who loved me, and no family history of breast cancer. The lump would go away on its own. It didn’t. Further tests showed an aggressive tumor. By early December, I’d had a modified radical mastectomy without reconstruction. I was pretty shaky both physically and mentally. 

As I began to heal, I tried to use my experiences as a teaching tool. Our Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Richmond, Virginia had long engaged in efforts to help promote racial healing. Each year about the time of the MLK holiday, we had a special service with a racial justice theme. This particular year, I’d been working for several months before my diagnosis on the planning committee for the service. As I began to regain strength after surgery, I asked if I could do a short talk about my “lop-sidedness,” using my body as a metaphor for the way our entire society was lop-sided and hampered by our history of individual prejudice and systemic racism. We all needed healing. I composed and rehearsed my talk. By early January I was confident that I’d have the physical stamina and the psychological strength to deliver a 10-minute talk, even with the prospect of six months of chemotherapy looming. 

Then I went to choir rehearsal. Our young choir director wanted to use spirituals to accompany the service. He’d chosen “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, goin’ home to live with God…” as the meditation hymn. I flinched. Jamie was a wonderful musician, but I really didn’t want to identify with that particular song at that particular time in my life. Privately, I asked if we could substitute something more upbeat. I got a reprieve. We wound up singing “I’m so busy servin’ my Master, ain’t got time to die…”  Both the congregation and I survived to continue our work. 

A decade later, I learned that my favorite college roommate had developed breast cancer. Beth had grown up near Richmond, graduated from our small liberal arts school, then gotten an advanced degree in library science. She’d moved to different parts of the country. She spent much of her career administering college libraries—first in Ohio, then South Dakota, then Florida. We kept up via holiday cards and occasional phone calls. In her 50’s, Beth had changed focus slightly and taken a post as director of a set of public libraries in an economically depressed part of lowland South Carolina. Beth had been in her new job only a year or so when the cancer hit. Her family and friends rallied to her support. Once her most intensive treatments were over, I went down for a weekend visit. We traded survivor stories. When she passed the five year mark without a recurrence, I sent hearty congratulations. Then, a couple of years later, a non-cancerous illness destroyed her kidneys and took her life with little warning. That April, I drove south through timber plantations, palmetto swamps, and railroad cuts festooned with blooming wisteria vines to get to South Carolina for Beth’s memorial service. I didn’t know much about her town, but suspected it would be as highly segregated racially as much of the South I’d previously been exposed to.

The small Methodist church was nearly full. Some of the mourners were family members I recognized, but I was surprised to see half a dozen older black women among the mostly white worshippers. I guessed at first that perhaps the women were maintenance workers at some of the libraries Beth supervised, then chided myself for stereotyping. At the reception after the service, I had a chance to talk with one of the women.

“How did you know Beth?” I asked.

“We were part of a local support group called ‘Bosom Buddies’,” the woman explained, pointing to the discrete pink lapel pin she wore. 

I never learned much about the group. Beth may have had a hand in creating this cross-racial sisters-beneath-the-skin effort in the area she’d made her home. Whatever her role, she’d reached out across any racial divide, creating enough of a bond so that six women had taken the time to attend her memorial service.

Our country remains in need of healing. Pundits of many political leanings expound on all the ways we are polarized— economically, racially, politically, spiritually. Income disparities persist; wealth gaps have gotten worse. Gun violence takes too many lives; “stop and frisk” procedures and mass incarceration further divide us. Health outcomes vary tremendously, based partly on income and ethnicity. We’re still lop-sided. We all need healing. Perhaps those of us who are physically lop-sided can continue to build lop-sided bridges.

 

 

    

 

 

The PRC at 70

The PRC at 70  —by Jinny Batterson

She’s an impressive dowager,
A real rags to riches story–
Rising from the ashes of
A brutal civil war,
After a century of quasi-colonial
Oppression, she turned inward
And recreated herself.

A few convulsions temporarily
Sidelined her progress,
But now she stands proud–
The world’s greatest factory floor,
Flooding our shelves with goods
We couldn’t have imagined
A scant generation ago.

Of course she suffers from arthritis—
Twinges in her toes.
At her other extremity,
A bowl shaped desert
That refuses to be reeducated.

No pigeons or kites flock or weave
Above the scrubbed multitudes
As tanks again roll down Chang An
Avenue. Onlookers wave
Well-choreographed flags.

May she be wise and gracious
In old age. May her poets
Sleep securely in well-thatched
Cottages. Happy Birthday!
People’s Republic. 
 

The Ripple Effects of Gratitude

The Ripple Effects of Gratitude  —by Jinny Batterson

Lately I’ve been more aware than usual of how much I enjoy being on the receiving end of a “thank you.”  Having been raised partly by an old-fashioned Southern grandmother, I got childhood exposure to the notion that you should do stealthy good deeds for which thanks were a surprise you could then disarmingly dismiss. 

“Oh, it was nothing,” you could say with a shy smile, inwardly puffed up but too “refined” to openly accept the thanks offered.   

Most of my current friends and acquaintances are wise to this blushing maiden/aw-shucks approach, so I’ve gradually gotten better at replying with a simple “you’re welcome.”  

Perhaps it’s the somewhat brusque and derogatory tone of much of our public discourse these days, or the proliferation of mechanistic responses (the “press 1” phenomenon is often just the tip of the iceberg). Perhaps it’s a feature of aging. Whatever, I really thrill to a simple “thank you” after I’ve attempted to do something nice for someone.  

I’ve also tried to get better at thanking others who do nice things for me, from the shop clerk who spends a little extra time explaining the features of the new gadget I’m not very good at using, to the husband who takes out the trash without being asked, to the bus driver who lets me know the closest stop to my downtown Raleigh appointment. The most recent time I rode the bus, I noticed that passengers who got off before me often thanked the driver, so I did, too. It felt nearly as good as being on the receiving end of gratitude.  

Where I’ve noticed others’ gratitude the most is at a mostly African-American church I’ve attended intermittently for the past several years, trying to be inoffensive as a paler pew-sitter than the other church goers.  One of the older men often starts the service with a litany of all the ways the Lord has blessed him, starting with awakening him that morning. Usually I’m not part of the “thank you, Jesus” crowd, but I know this guy’s material circumstances and medical conditions are likely a lot more difficult than mine. If he can start his day with a “thank you,” then maybe I can, too.      

Uncle John

Uncle John   –by Jinny Batterson

Uncle John in military uniform, 1941

It’s been so long ago now that I barely remember
The annual childhood visits to Arlington’s cemetery,
To put flowers on the gravesite where your family
Eventually had you re-interred after you’d fallen
In Germany near the end of World War II.

Once I’d grown older, I asked for pictures of
What you’d looked like in life–you were blond, like
The stern dad whose name is included in yours.
You’d volunteered early for the military, convinced
That the Third Reich posed a grave danger to
Global civilization, though equally so, you thought,
Did rampant nationalism and materialism. In one of the
Pamphlets that your middle sister had printed in your
Honor and memory, you opined, “Would you die for
Your bathtub?” Perhaps somewhat germane, as I sit
In air-conditioned comfort while soldiers in distant deserts
Sweat out yet another year of armed conflict.

You were an inveterate scribbler, like this niece
You never met in life. An eldest son, one of just two
To survive to adulthood, you died in Europe a month
Shy of your thirty-fourth birthday, at about the same
Time your younger brother was among those not killed
When a kamikaze pilot damaged the aircraft carrier
Where he served in the Pacific. Dad came home and
Rarely talked about his service. He sired four children of the
Family’s next generation. In life, the two of you had argued
Passionately about politics, about human nature, but had
Worked and traveled together before war sent you to opposite
Ends of the earth. Dad had the longer physical life, and
He passed along some of your ideals along with the family genes.

You loved the outdoors, spent time on the family farm,
Went camping with friends–an heirloom snapshot shows you
Holding a coffee pot, with an improvised clothes line
Tied to a tent in the background. It’s somewhat fitting
That what physically remains of you lies among many others
On a grassy incline, partially shaded by trees, in a large area
Of “section 12” between Grant and Eisenhower Drives.

This year I won’t make it physically to your gravesite.
My worsening eyesight cannot totally decipher the
Inscription on the virtual image of your headstone
That I now can pull up thanks to a website and the
Volunteers who maintain it. Our country and others
Still engage far too often in “shooting wars,” both foreign
And domestic. Our technology now allows us to engage also
In vicious foreign and domestic cyber wars, equally dangerous.
Please rest well, Uncle John. Know that your survivors
Are doing our best to continue your legacy of service.

Labor

Labor     —by Jinny Batterson

Not to belabor the point,
But for many of us, labor has gotten
Pretty thoroughly detached from bodily work. 

The fruits of our labors these days
May often involve spreadsheets rather
Than hand-washed sheets spread in the sun
To dry, or fruitful virtual deals rather
Than fruit freshly picked from actual trees.

Fuels laid down in prior geological
Time substitute for much manual labor these days.
Gas, oil, coal, electricity can help make our lives
Comfortable, if not especially productive or fulfilling.
We yearn for connection, but rarely find it.

We may experience nature at a distance,
Or not at all. Sweat, strain, exertion, groans
Happen at the fitness center, washed away
When we shower and change into “street clothes.” 

Physical labor, when done well, has its own inherent dignity.
Might this day, established in the nineteenth century
To honor laborers, remind us in the twenty-first
To take a break from the gym? Instead,
To go outside, to find a patch of earth, however small,
To heft a trowel, hoe, or shovel, then to burrow
Into a bit of the foundational soil that has for
Eons fed both our bodies and our souls. 

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease    —by Jinny Batterson

The mostly “white” religious congregation I’m part of in Raleigh, North Carolina has lately become more visibly concerned with reducing racism. Our local intensification started amid a national denominational crisis about discrimination in hiring practices. It increased after a 2017 murder at a Charlottesville, Virginia “unite the right” rally.  Our renewed efforts to grapple with racism (and other related isms) is a positive step. During 2018-2019, we’ve slightly adapted the workshop curriculum “Living the Pledge” and held multiple sessions for congregational leaders and members. Over the course of these workshops, those of us privileged to be “white” have gotten a more complete understanding of our unfair advantages, based on centuries of overt chattel slavery and then at least another century’s add-on of explicit and implicit discrimination against “non-whites.”  During a particularly intense role play, it dawned on me how unlikely it would be for me to fully shed my “whiteness.” Despite my best efforts, my earlier conditioning, sometimes unconscious, could continue to trip me up sometimes. Racism, I came to believe, was not an acute condition that could be cured with a good dose of anti-racism training. Rather it was a chronic spiritual illness requiring lifetimes of work to reduce and eventually eliminate its damage. 

In addition to the workshop materials, I studied on my own—a frequent recourse among highly formally educated Unitarian-Universalists. By the time I tiptoed into it, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me had spent over a year and a half on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. His epistolary account of growing up as a “black” male in Baltimore reminded me of 1950’s childhood outings to eat and shop in what was then predominantly “white” West Baltimore, before fear-based real estate block-busting changed the complexion and economic resources of the neighborhood. I immersed myself in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, getting a “black” woman’s perspective on similar changes in the southside Chicago neighborhood that helped form her. I read a confessional analysis of the holdovers of “slaveholder religion” by “white” North Carolina-based pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In his 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel, Wilson-Hartgrove explains how a skewed interpretation of the Christian gospels can continue to favor “whiteness.”

During an early spring 2019 trip, I had a chance to visit the museum and monument in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Equal Justice Initiative to dramatize the connecting threads of racial violence through slavery and the period of terror-based lynchings to current mass incarceration. Recently I viewed the film The Best of Enemies, chronicling a cross-racial friendship forged during a two-week period of skillfully facilitated community discussions and soul-searching about school integration in neighboring Durham, North Carolina in 1971.    

Once we’ve studied, though, what do we do differently from what has come before? How do we learn to treat each person as an individual with “inherent worth and dignity,” as stated in our denomination’s basic documents?  How do we work toward dismantling institutional racism? How do us “whites” get beyond “white guilt” to become more effective in the struggle?  A clue came from a “white” woman activist who’s become a late-life hero of mine, “subversive Southerner” Anne Braden.  In an interview at her namesake education center in Louisville, Kentucky when she was in her late 70’s, Braden was clear and succinct: 

“I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. Now there’s plenty for white people to feel guilty about but they’ll sit around and they’ll feel guilty then they’ll go hear a real militant black speaker beat them over the head for an hour and go home and think they’ve done something and not do anything for a year. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in. The meaning of life is in that struggle, that human beings have always been able to envision something better.”

Racism is a chronic spiritual waste. Part of the work of  religious community is to harness the spirit to work persistently to reduce such waste, helping build the beloved community.