Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander – Part I

Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander — Part I

A preliminary note: It is June, season of personal anniversaries, marriage (53 years) and ordination (51 years). 

For United Methodists, this is a time when regional gatherings called Annual Conferences meet and plan– or at least that is the theory.  After a fractious and harmful called Special General Conference in February, it appears that the denomination which I have served for over five decades is headed for a nervous breakdown – or an amputation of various body parts.  Who knows what will survive and in what form?

I find myself thinking there must be some way to think about this in a larger context than “my denomination” and “my years of ministry.”  I am reminded of the marvelous quote by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, then you are not thinking big enough.”

So, I turn first to Thomas Merton for a larger frame on the world and the church — then over the next several postings (don’t know as yet how many) I will share some reflections from the view outside my window.

Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1965.  This wide-ranging collection of snippets from his notebooks is a rich resource.  Merton wrote, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to beand spoke of the importance of “living fully in the condition of limited knowledge.

I recall the day a van load of us, young seminarians, were carted off to Gethsemani Abby near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Vietnam War was raging; I remember the compelling call from “Father Louis” to live fully into our Protestantism.  We should offer our delight in this struggle as “way-finders to the peaceable kingdom,” he said. Imagine my embarrassment upon learning later that this remarkable, robust monk, was in fact, Merton.
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When I read Merton I read a provocateur, a convivialist, whose insights push me forward.  My paltry, pale insights offered here are but wisps of smoke in comparison.  He writes as a “bystander” from the monastic life.  He shares “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgements on readings and events.”  I write from the balcony of retirement — or at least my several recent attempts to retire.  I pray that while my thoughts will not match this master, I might have the vulnerability and a bit of the humility he displays in his work. Throughout Conjectures Merton reminds us of our vulnerability and that “We need not seek happiness, but, rather, discover that we are already happy.”

I will say more about near encounters with Merton and those who knew him in future posts. Before a few reflections on my denomination, United Methodism, and its current fracturing, this passage below from Conjuctures seems apt.

“I will be a better Catholic,” Merton writes, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept, but first one must say “yes” where one can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 133)

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I’m having that sinking feeling — “Help, help,” United Methodist’s cry, “we’re Melting!”  For me, these weeks of United Methodist Annual Conferences

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Disappearing Glacier on Columbia Ice field in Canadian Rockies

around the U.S. have been times of Despair and Delight.  United Methodism in  2019 feels like a glacier confronted with rapid climate change.  We are, as the Brits would put it, in omnishambles.  There are fissures all around.  I delight because each week in May and June from many Annual Conferences has come good news.  We are electing delegates to the next regular General Conference in the spring of 2020. Delight — a strong majority thus far, as represented by the delegates elected from Texas to Missouri to Florida to North Carolina want to turn away from the punitive past regarding our homosexual siblings.

Across the south and Midwest there is  change.  Trends strongly favor of Centrists and Progressives (as they have been labeled) picking up dozens of delegates.  Will it be enough to change things?  Well, probably not.  Legislation may change, but hearts and minds are less pliable.  It may be that we are stuck.  Many of these new delegates are folks who seek to reverse the harmful and mean-spirited actions take at the February 2019 Special General Conference —  reclaiming a more open stance for the church on issues of LGBTQI acceptance. The General Conference in February uncovered the ugly divisions that have been dividing the church for more that four decades.  The presenting issue is homosexuality but it is so much deeper than this. 

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Truth is the denomination in the U.S. has been melting for years and we have been seeking answers in all the wrong places.  Hearts and minds will never be changed so long as we see one another in categories, rather than as fellow children of God.

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I am told by friends I trust on all sides that there is no mending this shattered church.  “This broken family must now be dissolved,” they say.  Many families, kinship networks are already stressed and separated.  “Divorce is painful but it is not all bad,” I hear.  I am told “Methodists have done this before” — remember we divided over slavery in 1844!  I am told that United Methodism must be abandoned so that a new church can emerge.  To my ears some of this talk sounds a bit like the language from Vietnam when some foolishly said “We had to destroy the village to save it.”  Frankly, the talk of division comes too easily — Disaffiliation for what?  Toward what end?  It is the old metaphor of a glass half full and focusing on the empty part of the glass.  What is the value, the potential, of that which is already in place?  Yes, I will say it, there is a kind of naivete abroad when folks quickly say it is time to separate.

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Nor does this talk of division ring true theologically for me.  I think of I Corinthians 12 and 13 or the message to the early church found in Galatians.  This month our Gospel lections were from John 14 and John 17.  Are these not calls for the followers of Jesus to stay together?   The prayer of Jesus presented in John 17 has been called the High Priestly prayer and the Great Ecumenical Prayer.  Of course, Richard Rohr reminds us that United in Christ is not the same as the unity of the church.  I know.  Even more, however, I am shaped by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who even in the face of the division of his Lutheran Evangelical home in Germany between the Confessing Church and State church called on the focus to be on “Christ the Center” and not on the boundary lines of time and place.” Shall we separate now so that we can re-affiliate in twenty or thirty years?  Have the so-called traditionalists listened to their adult children and grandchildren about this issue?  A majority of young persons who call themselves “Evangelicals” don’t buy the desire to exclude  others based on sexual orientation.

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What might we do?  This is the question many have pondered and most (including bishops and congregational leaders) have felt powerless to answer.   It is about agency.  By this, I mean, no one seems to have sufficient influence to make a difference.  I am told that there are folks working on solutions behind the scenes.  This is precisely my worry — how many groups are there?  Doing what?  Trading what for what? It feels very “in house” and based on old paradigms.  Still, I acknowledge my ‘guilt’ in this whole mess.  Even more, I grieve the pain caused by a church that for so long did such damage to persons based on the bigotry and discrimination of homophobia.  I struggle with the question of what more might I have done?

My sense is that we are thinking too small, we are talking too much to ourselves, we are working in the star chambers called the Caucus Groups, General Conference, Annual Conference and Boards and Agencies. 

Isn’t there a larger frame?  Can we admit that we are asking the wrong questions? I think of Roseanne Haggerty’s Community Solutions and her emphasis on Housing First.  She shows the need to “flip the script” on homelessness.  First, she argues, provide a place to live!  Stop believing persons much first earn safe shelter.  Then work on the other social and emotional needs.  In the wider economy and ecology, this is a better, more cost effective way of approaching things.  And it also happens to be Christian!

What if instead of dividing up the church we saw the great potential of having tens of thousands of communities where we worked in new ways to offer a witness?  What difference might be made regarding our ecological crises?  What if we used funds for community environmental renewal ministries and didn’t funnel everyone though some sausage-making congregational development matrix?  What might we learn from economists? Health Care specialists?  What new patterns of citizenry? — make that discipleship — might be modeled?  Might United Methodists seek to live more fully into our heritage and be way-finders to the peaceable kingdom?  Well that is a dream that certainly extends beyond my life time.

 

 

Forever Beginning

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From T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Exploring, this time, lands me in the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in San Diego as Interim Pastor.  I have preached in this great church in the past; however, this time is different.  This time, I will have a weekly assignment.  To show up, listen, learn, study and then seek to share truths about the transforming love of God.

This is not an easy task in any season.  Yet, as I face the task now, it seems more challenging than any time in my 52 years of ministry.  Attached is the sermon entitled “Simply Beginning” preached on August 12, 2018. 

Prayers are appreciated for this fine congregation — and for the “weak reed” who will be giving his best in the year ahead.

Shalom,

Philip Amerson

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Sermon — Forever Beginning 8-12-18 PRINT

 

 

Lent — What Fast Might Be Required?

Lent Arrives — What Fast Might Be Required?

I write this post on Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, the day known for Madi Gras or Carnival in many parts of the world. It is a time for play, for “letting go,” for silliness… and preparation.

Years ago, when teaching in the Republic of Panama, I discovered that in that culture at least, Carnaval lasted for days – make that weeks – with music and dancing till dawn every night and tricksters roaming the streets by day ready to smear the unsuspecting passerby with makeup or face paint.  This frolicking was a counterpoint to what followed, the Lenten season.  These forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) were the days prior to Easter and were to be a season of fasting, mediation and self-denial.

As an adult, I have come to value the remarkable gift of the alternating seasons of the liturgical year, and alternating opportunities to live more fully, more deeply, into the dimensions of human experience.  Over the course of every liturgical year there are seasons of celebration and times of preparation, reflection and penitence.  This rotation captures the human reality — no fake news here — we humans live with the complications of joy and sorrow, sickness and health, solitude and community.  At best, at our most whole and holy center, appropriate belief and value systems will reflect this alternating dynamic.

Shrove Tuesday, for our family at least, usually means pancakes and perhaps a silly mask or costume… not much more.   No dancing all night or smearing with face paint.  We typically eat pancakes with lots or syrup, fruit and maybe even whipped cream on top.  We do this knowing that the next season will include some times of sacrifice, discipline and prayer.  Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins a time of meditation and, perhaps, fasting and self-denial.

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Some traditions speak of “giving something up for Lent.”  Perhaps it is sweets that are “given up,” or not going to the movies, or giving up attending a sports event (well, not basketball in Indiana!)  Perhaps some change in diet or giving up some other pleasure is practiced. 

In recent years I have appreciated those who suggest that perhaps we should think about what we might ADD to our daily life patterns during Lent.  Perhaps we should add some acts of kindness, charity or justice.  I like it.  Our pastor, Jimmy Moore, suggests this idea of adding something at Lent.  Then, jokingly, he says that when growing up, he had already given up all the pleasures and excesses of life, because at the time he was a Southern Baptist and had already given up all such temptations.  I laughed, and understand, because growing up in a strict conservative Methodist home, we had already given up dancing, movies, rock and roll music and, of course, smoking, alcohol and playing cards!

As Lent 2018 begins, two realities collide. 

There is scripture that speaks of God’s desire for humanity and there is the proposed national budget presented today in Washington, D.C.   From scriptures, think especially of Isaiah 58:1-11, where the prophet asks what sort of fast does God require of the faithful?  Hear these words written hundreds of years before Jesus of Nazareth, and referenced by him in his ministry.  They still carry a force for shaping the lives of believers today.

Isaiah 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
Then the righteousness of the Lord will go before you;
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. 
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
[New International Version]

 

Ironically, tragically, these words of guidance and reminder to the faithful, read during this 2018 Lenten season, COLLIDE HEAD ON with the national budget from the White House presented TODAY!  There are deep budget cuts proposed to efforts that provide food, housing and health care for the poorest among our people in the U.S.  [Less than a month ago, deep tax cuts were made that benefited the richest among us.]  Instead of building up our foundations, instead of seeking to strengthen our COMMONwealth here is a focus on walls, on further depleting our environment and the exclusion of those who differ.

So, what fast is required of us?  We shall pray and reflect; however, this is not a season for quietism or passivity.   We will need to find alternating patterns of action and prayer during Lent this year.  Richard Rohr appropriately calls his ministry a “Center for Action and Contemplation.”  These two emphases seem right this Lent.  Perhaps this is one of the sacrifices required this Lent — to do both — act and pray.  Some time normally given to meditation, may be time that will go to writing a congress person.  Maybe the money saved from having no desert should go more directly to offer food to the hungry.

This Lenten season I invite you to add some act of kindness and justice to your normal routine.  I invite you to daily prayer and meditation.  If this is not a part of your routine — this is your opportunity. 

There are many fine resources.  You might subscribe to the insightful reflections of Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation CAC Daily Meditation; or, look to the Upper Room Upper Room for the daily devotionals there.

Perhaps you would wish to join some in New Harmony, Indiana on March 23 and 24 for a “Finding New Harmony” retreat (check out: www.mycalmcard.com ).

How will you observe this Lenten Season?  What might you give up?  What might you add?

 

 

 

 

 

For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

For Learning, Loving or Loathing?

There she was in the alley.  Pushing a shopping cart.  She might have been mistaken as a homeless woman, except the cart was transporting a box of strawberries and a thermos of coffee.  Beside her along the route of sidewalk and alleyway, we walked.  She was recognized, and sometimes greeted, along the crowded path.  I looked on and saw scenes replaying over and again, as if she came from central casting.

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Ann Livingston, Al Etmanski, John McKnight and Michael Mather (Photo by Travis Lupick, The Georgian Straight Magazine)

I was unprepared to meet Ann Livingston, founder of a group known as VANDU.  We were in the east end of Vancouver, B.C., Canada.  VANDU has been around for almost twenty-five years as an organization of drug users and former users.  They organize as peers, seeking action to better their neighborhood, their personal situation and that of others.  Ann is what I call a “divine irritant.”  She challenges the taken-for-granted worlds of Vancouver. 

Ann disrupts the “normal” activities of police officers, operators of cheap single room occupancy hotels, health professionals, social workers and drug dealers.  She is a convener of alternative visions, a truth-teller, a fierce organizer.  Her work — joined with dozens of others, especially drug users — rattles the tectonic plates of political, economic power.  She challenges the assumptions, programs and professional expectations of many on the east side of Vancouver. 

When I say Ann comes out of central casting, perhaps it is better to say she seems to emerge from the story of other women, women I never met, but have long regarded as saintly disturbers of the peace.  As I watched and listened, I thought of Francis Willard, Jane Addams or Lucy Ryder Meyer, from the 19th Century.  

With the arrival of fentanyl, deaths from drug overdoses in the neighborhood soared.  In the last six years over 1,800 persons died from overdoses. When public officials were slow to act, Ann and others decided to set up unsanctioned injection sites.  This strategy, along with clean needle exchanges, is based on the successful Four Pillars approach in Europe.  The four pillars are: Harm Reduction, Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement.  To learn more see: Straight News, December 2016.

LEARNING

Now at the front end of my eighth decade, I am discovering how little I know and how much more there is to learn.  (And, I am learning of the many places I have been wrong in assessment or assumption.)  I am helped by new learning occasions.  Yes, these new insights can come from books and films — but I am advocating for putting ones self in new and uncomfortable places.  Places that challenge easy assumptions about life and how things really work.

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photo by Travis Lupick

Visiting an unsanctioned safe injection site with Ann, I appreciated that we are not limited to the official, and agreed upon, responses to the social and institutional challenges we face.  When there was a need for a response to drug overdoses from fentanyl use, and the system failed, Ann pitched a tent and began to offer a place for safe injections.  There were safe needle exchanges and a responding to overdoses by offering naloxone,  Naloxone can counter the probable death from a fentanyl overdose.  When asked about the consequences of breaking the law, Ann simply replies, “I am pretty sure it is not against the law to save a person’s life.”

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Ann Livingston and John McKnight, photo by Travis Lupick

My “learning journey” was with colleagues Mike Mather and DeAmon Harges of Indianapolis.  It was a gift to accompany friend and mentor, John McKnight.  John has advocated an Asset Based Community Development approach to community organizing.  It is about encouraging the recognizing of abundance within all communities.  This approach focuses on identifying the assets of people, rather than collecting up their deficits.  This approach, that focuses on gifts rather than needs, is widely known around the world, as ABCD community organizing.  Ann Livingston is a most remarkable practitioner of this approach, seeking out the abundance in her community, encouraging drug uses to be their own researchers, advocates and providers — and not being afraid to disrupt that which focuses only on neediness.

LOATHING

As I traveled I couldn’t help but think of our situation in the United States.  Our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is determined to return our nation to the expensive and failed “war on drugs” that focuses only on ENFORCEMENT and PUNISHMENT.  It simple doesn’t work.  Or, better said, it provides results that are exactly the opposite of what is believed. 

This effort misses all of the lessons that have been learned from around the world and across the years.  It comes from lousy morality constructs and even worse theology.   Incarceration only turns prisons into schools for future soldiers in the drug cartels and neighborhood pushers.  The time has long since passed for us to establish ways for the addicted to have access to methadone and medical heroin.  Only by ending the demand and offering a Four Pillars approach to drug use and addiction (harm reduction, prevention, treatment, enforcement) can we find a way forward that is not just a revolving door to continuing our past mistakes.  Mistakes that destroy lives, families and communities.

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has wisely said that much of the mean-spirited, anti-democratic and fear-based political efforts in the recent years is what he calls a “loathing of the present.”  It is a hunger to return to a world that never was — except in the minds of those who out of fear seek to divide, exclude and punish.  In this world those who suffer, who are different, are to be loathed because they represent a reality that cannot be accepted.

LOVING

Can there be a turn from loathing to loving?  Any faithful Christian expression would say “yes, of course.”  No need to cite chapter and verse — it is evident in the entire sweep of scripture — to move toward health, abundance and renewal… and to do so out of love and not exclusion.

By now, good reader, you have probably wondered, “Strawberries?  Why was Ann carrying strawberries?”  It seemed incongruous in the midst of all of the suffering and tragedy to bring strawberries to the unsanctioned safe injection site.  When asked why strawberries? Ann’s answer was simple, “Who doesn’t love a strawberry?”

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

The Unexpected: Surprised by Joy

September 6, 2016

An unexpected gift came to my doorstep this week.  Unexpected.  And, actually, it wasn’t delivered to the mail box or, like an Amazon package, to my doorstep.  Rather it came when I was away from home; discovered while traveling in California.  Elaine and I were in Sacramento. 

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The “Safe” — an empty pork and beans can

Early morning, out on my daily constitutional (the goal is to walk five miles a day), I was stepping along a stretch that looked promising.  It was a grassy and green stretch.  On one side was the I-5 interstate that runs the length of California.  Sounds of rushing traffic — good folks no doubt on their way to work in the city — perhaps in state government.  On the other side of the green way was a row of tall evergreen trees.  Beyond them an empty field.  The stretch, about four football fields long, ran between the Hilton and Marriott hotels.  No paths, little appearance of use, just the promise of a good place to walk alone, I thought.

About half way between the Hilton and Marriott, tucked away under the trees, sunlight streamed like a silver web on the grass.  It gyrated across my path.  The light beckoned me come.   I turned toward the trees and just a few steps away, hidden in underbrush, was a small encampment.  Clearly someone’s abode — plastic bags, a water jug and a couple of bedrolls — these were obvious.  Only the trees for cover.  I called, “hello,” then thought it foolish.  They likely wouldn’t welcome a visitor.  With no response, I looked more closely.  There were a couple of books including an old Bible and what, at first, appeared to be trash — four opened and empty tin cans.   Looking more closely, in a Pork and Beans empty “safe,” was a rosary and 47 cents.  Feeling guilty, embarrassed, about disturbing this hermitage, I quickly moved away.

Who lived here?  For how long?  Was this a “permanent” residence for a couple of homeless folks?  The irony of this camp between two upscale hotels did not escape me. I walked on pondering questions about our society and wondering about these residents on the edge of survival tucked away between the comfortable respite of travelers like me.   How had these homeless folks arrived at this situation?  Bad luck?  Addiction?  Mental illness?  How had our nation come to this point of ignoring the poor among us?  Our bad luck?  Our ideological addictions?  Our mental illness? 

A rosary and forty-seven cents – left in a pork and beans tin can.  Returning along the path, I couldn’t help it.  I returned.  Looking around carefully to make certain I would not intrude.  Still with no one “home,” I fished some cash from my wallet and added it to the modest stash in the pork and beans can. 

I left quickly, and then that first strand of light fell again across the path way.  I looked back to see an old broken mirror hinging from twine on a tree in the encampment that was reflecting the light.  I stopped and prayed, praying as earnestly as I have in years.  Yes, I prayed for these homeless folks.  Yes, I prayed for our nation and world.  More, I prayed for myself.  My intrusion into this purgatory (or was it a haven?), this place of meager shelter, hidden away in our brutal and too often numbing world was illuminating.  So many live on the edge.  It was a heartbreaking reminder of the work yet to do.  How many homeless in the U.S.?  Eleven million?  Or, as some say, thirty million? 

I was also aware that my intervention might not be of value.  Should I call a church or social workers?  NO!  Knowing all too well our systems of “helping,” I didn’t want to further endanger those who sought this place as sanctuary.  Even though I had left a little money behind, I was not a hero.  Nor were my motives heroic.  There is too much in our society that encourages us to believe that we are the heroes and others are the victims.  Our world is not as much of an either/or calculation as so many of our ideologies or theologies all too often communicate.

I wondered if this was a couple and if they had a child?  Might that child be undocumented?  Might that child be a refugee?  A refugee like that child Jesus so long ago?  Might it be a Joaquin, Jamal, Maria or Alice?

IMG_1645Returning to the hotel parking lot, there was another glimmer of light.   Down, and there on the asphalt, was a lost key.  My first thought was to carry it back to the camp.  Leave it there with the rosary in the can.  Then I realized the key might be for me.  I was to remember — that because God loved me so, I was to live in responsible ways, always remembering those tucked away, out of sight, living on the margins.  I was to live aware that because God loved those camped under the evergreen trees, I dare not stop speaking or working on the behalf of all.  Now — here is the real surprise for me.  In that moment there was JOY.  The joy of remembering my faith, of knowing my calling.  The JOY of having another key to my identity.  Lost and found — Joy.  Like an empty can, I had been provided so much by so many. I thought of those who had taught me so much — teachers, parents, friends, the homeless I had known over the years who “took me in.”  I checked with the hotel desk and no one reported losing a key, so I dropped it in my pocket as a reminder.

Yes, I was so privileged.  I had work to do.  In a world where our political candidates seem determined to forget the homeless, in a world where our refugees are a small fraction of the refugees all across the planet, there is work to do.

I recalled C. S. Lewis who wrote of these moments:  ” I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

I brought the key home with me.