One way to respond to the demonization of political opponents

I took a phone call from a reporter for a Madison media outlet a couple of weeks ago. He had recently returned to Madison after several years abroad and was shocked by the breakdown of community in Madison since he had left. Because of the developments in state government and the protests, deep fissures have arisen in Madison. Debate has given way to name-calling, and as he put it, everything seems black or white. I could do no more than concur with his assessment, having experienced myself that any attempt at nuance is often perceived as betrayal or attack.

For this, both sides share responsibility. The effects on our civic life will be felt for a very long time and our community may never be the same. But in the midst of this polarized and polarizing situation, there are signs of an alternative.

During the height of the protest, talk show hosts and others were quick to spew forth epithets. When one radio personality called police and firefighters who were protesting, “lousy, rotten people,” who used violence and intimidation, Lt. Laura Laurenzi of the Madison Fire Department challenged her to provide video proof of such behavior, or to make a substantial donation to a local charity. No proof was forthcoming.

Lt. Laurenzi wanted to make something good out of this, so she challenged members of Firefighters Local 311 to make a donation and promised that she would match their generosity. The firefighters donated $1000 to Porchlight. In return, Lt. Laurenzi wrote a check for $1000 to Grace’s Food Pantry. Her donation will help purchase food and other supplies for people suffering during these difficult economic times.

Lt. Laurenzi did something quite interesting. She demanded that her opponent examine the language she used; she attempted to open up a conversation with her opponent, and she demanded that she be treated as a human being. That her opponent didn’t respond is not suprising. What is surprising is that Lt. Laurenzi made something good out of a dehumanizing situation.

As the dust has settled on the budget, and the protests have diminished, we are left in a community and in a state that seems to be at war with itself. The hard work of reconciliation lies ahead. I wonder who will take the lead.

I am poured out like water

For some reason Psalm 22:14 has been running through my head since last evening. The full verse reads:

I am poured out like water;

all my bones are out of joint; *

my heart within my breast is melting wax.

Psalm 22 begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Psalmist’s cry is repeated by Jesus on the cross in Matthew and Mark. The Psalm is a profound reflection on personal pain and suffering that ends in a triumphant expression of praise of God. It probably served as the template for the shaping of the passion narrative in Mark and is used liturgically by many churches during the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday and is designated for use on Good Friday.

No doubt, my memory called it up because of Ash Wednesday and thinking ahead to Lent. I find much of the imagery problematic when used as personal devotion, however powerful it is in the context of communal worship during Holy Week.

But v. 14 speaks to me, and for me, today.

Those who read my blog regularly may remember that I mentioned at some point in the last three weeks that I was caught completely unawares by both the protests and in thinking what role Grace might play because of its location as “the church on the square.” I’ve been reacting, often without the time for reflection that I want to take. It has also up-ended everything else at Grace. Our Lenten planning, begun in early February, came to a crashing halt and we’ve had to piece it together at the last minute.

This week was intense for reasons quite beyond events on the square. We had an elaborate and exquisite liturgical and musical celebration on Last Epiphany, with a Haydn Mass and string players. Monday was the first Monday of the month, so that meant we were feeding 150 people from the Men’s shelter and the community. Then came Shrove Tuesday, and Ash Wednesday. The Capitol Square, though, was quiet, and I felt like I was able to catch my breath and was hoping that after Ash Wednesday I could regroup and enter fully into the season of Lent.

Events at the Capitol overtook us. The protests that provided a backdrop and accompaniment for our service. It was surreal.

It was while driving home that the verse of the psalm first came to me. It remained with me as I talked with Corrie about the day, we followed events on the internet, and then watched a few minutes of local news.

It remained with me when she said, “We’ve got to do something. You have to organize volunteers to be in the church tomorrow.” I replied, “I can’t do anything. I can’t write an email right now.” In the back of my mind was, “I am poured out like water.” A few minutes later, I went to bed, reciting that verse to myself.

When I awoke in the morning, it was still with me. I managed the email; we got the volunteers. And I went off to Clergy Day which was a welcome reason to be away from Grace and Capitol Square, for at least most of the day. But still those words were on my lips and in my heart, “I am poured out like water.”

Being with Bishop Miller and with my brothers and sisters among the clergy today was restorative. Many expressed their good wishes, their support, and told me I and Grace were in their prayers.

As they spoke, shared, hugged me, and offered to help however they could, I was deeply moved and uplifted. But still, the tears were close all day, “I am poured out like water.”

When we talk about Lent, we often use language of desert and wilderness. As a community, a city, a state, we are in a very difficult place. Wherever we stand on the political debates, deep harm, perhaps irreparable, has been inflicted on our community and on our body politic.

I came home on the bus this afternoon, really the first time I’ve ridden the bus in the past few weeks. As I was waiting, a young man engaged me in conversation. I’m sure he was a student. He had been at the Capitol and asked where I was headed. As we talked, and as he learned that I was Rector of Grace, he began to open up about his fears. I was grateful to God when my bus came before we were able to enter to deeply into conversation and just as two other bystanders began to engage us.

“I am poured out like water.” I will stay away from Grace and Capitol Square tomorrow, but somehow I have to open myself up to God enough so that I can craft a sermon to preach on Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent.

While I was at Grace this afternoon, I took the time to pass through the nave and chat with the volunteers who were present. One of them said that, while she couldn’t carry a sign, walk around the Capitol, and protest, she could be in the church, sit, and pray. She said she was praying for me. My hope is that everyone who reads this blog prays for me, for Grace, and for Wisconsin.

“We are poured out like water.”

Ash Wednesday: The Changing Drama of a day

Earlier, I posted a photo showing what the Capitol looked like at 6:45 this morning. We received an unexpected snowfall. I wasn’t sure at 6:55 that anyone would make it to our 7:00 service, but a few hardy souls arrived. The beauty and silence of our surroundings made our worship meaningful, allowing us to reflect on the day, our human nature, and the God who created us. I had prepared a homily, but instead of preaching it, I reflected on our human nature, laid bare for us in the ashes of Ash Wednesday, and in the love of the God who created us.

What a difference eleven hours makes. It was obvious from the noise outside that as we prepared for our 6:00 pm service, things were heating up. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I hoped to use the Joel reading to think about the  significance of social and communal sin.

I’m not sure it worked, but the incongruity of it all struck home after the exhortation (“An Invitation to a Holy Lent”). There is an instruction in the prayer book for silence following the exhortation and before the imposition of ashes. We kept the rubric, but there was no silence. We could hear the chants from the capitol, but even more distracting were the horns of passing cars.

We could still hear the chants and the horns as we began the Litany and prayed:

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.

By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

To put the debates over the budget and collective bargaining in the context of Ash Wednesday and Lent is no easy thing but knowing what is occurring outside our walls as we pray meant we were praying not only for ourselves but for our whole state.

The past weeks have been interesting, challenging, and incredibly stressful. Lent brings with it its own intensity. Given what happened tonight at the Capitol, the task of reconciliation will become even more difficult; our task as Christians, to respect the dignity of every human person, to love our neighbor as ourself (and our enemy as well), and in the midst of the cacophony, to trust in a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Images from Grace Church today

I really did try to take a day off today. I also tried to stay away from the Square, and the Church, but I couldn’t resist coming down to see what was going on.

Some interesting images. First off, when we got there around 3:30, we saw workers unloading concrete barriers on West Washington Ave. It was surreal and evoked images of the security steps taken in the days after 9/11. It wasn’t at all clear what the barriers were for. Even after they were set up around the W. Wash. entrance to the Capitol, I couldn’t figure out why they were needed and what they were protecting.

Here’s a picture of them unloading the barriers:

Here’s a photo of the W. Washington entrance to the Capitol from the steps of Grace Church. Shortly after this was taken, the crowd here moved to the left, to the State Street entrance, on the theory that the noise they made could disrupt the Governor’s budget speech:

We went home after an hour or so, and passed another stark image. To get to our car, which was parked in the alley next to Grace Church, we had to pass through the line of guys waiting for the doors of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter to open so they could get a meal and a place to sleep for the night.

I had read about some of the cuts Governor Walker is proposing, and as I chatted with the guys in line, I wondered how many more people would end up on the street if the cuts went through, how many people would die because they couldn’t get access to health care or housing or mental health care.

Most of the protesters are union members–teachers, public service workers, police and firefighters. There were representatives from other unions as well. They have a great deal to lose, of course, but the stakes are even greater for the poor, the sick, the mentally ill, and the other marginalized members of society.

Pretty Quiet at Grace today

Our doors were open today, as they will be every day this week. Thanks to the volunteers who are providing hospitality. Not many people came in today, but then, there weren’t many people around Capitol Square, either. My guess is tomorrow will be busier, with several rallies planned as well as the governor’s budget speech. If you’re around and need to get warm, use a restroom, or pray, drop in and say hello.

I walked around the Capitol a couple of times today. I stood with the group at the King St. entrance where people were being prevented from entering. As the day went on, the numbers grew.

As I walked from the King St. entrance around toward State St., one protester who was banging a drumstick against a metal garbage can lid (or something of the sort) made his way up the stairs and on  to the portico. I was near a couple of sheriff’s deputies at the time, and I heard one say to his buddy, “I’m not going to do anything about that unless I’m ordered to.”

Seeing my collar, several people suggested the cops might let me in. I didn’t test the theory, but I might later in the week if this continues.

I’m not sure how long this will continue but enormous damage has been done to our state and our common life. I’m beginning to think of the aftermath–what can we as a community of faith do to foster reconciliation?