The Journey Home

You have made us for yourself, O God,
and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.

Blog Postings by Rev. Bob Johansen
Minister, First Church

We're All in This Together

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
          --Martin Niemoeller

As the reality of Tuesday’s election begins to sink in, many of us are trying to make sense of the new reality we find ourselves in. 47.3% of those who voted chose Donald Trump, allowing him to win the electoral college vote. Four hundred thousand more voted for Hillary Clinton ( 47.7%), but not enough to make her the next President. Our country is deeply divided in many ways—by party and political perspective, by race and ethnicity, by religion (or lack thereof), by gender, by age, by income, by educational level, and by our perception of the reality of and causes of the current economic situation in America. Have we ever been this divided as a nation? I don’t think so. Not in my lifetime, at least. It’s also clear there’s a deep distrust of the political system, although there are differing perspectives about what the real problem is.

There is a lot of hurt, anger, and mistrust right now. Going forward we need to talk to one another, not just at one another. We need to listen to one another, not just listen to what we are planning to say in response to what they're saying. This is the only way we can move forward to rebuild the trust that's been broken.

Over the last eighteen months a great deal of damage has been done. This election was filled with hateful rhetoric and behavior towards women, people of color, people with disabilities, the LGBT community, non-Christians, immigrants and foreigners. We are already seeing the consequences of that play out in our neighborhoods and especially in our schools where incidents of threats, violence, bullying and verbal abuse based on political rhetoric are increasing daily--yes, even here in pastoral Central Massachusetts. No one should be subjected to this kind of bullying and harassment, especially not our children.

There is a movement afoot in a number of different denominations to send the message that bullying and abuse will not be tolerated. People are wearing safety pins to demonstrate that the groups targeted during this campaign are not alone. We will stand with you. What that means in practical terms is summed up in this promise, shared by a number of faith communities:

If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train or greet you with respect on the street.
If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you.
If you're a person with disabilities I will treat you as the whole person you are.
If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources.
If you're a survivor, I'll believe you.
If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome.
If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight.
If you're LGBTQ, I'll remind you that you are beautiful and beloved, just as God made you.
If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok.
If you're tired, me too.
If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply.
If you need me, I'll be with you.
All I ask is that you be with me, too.
Together we can change our country and our world.

Remember, we are all in this together.

Rev. Bob

Palestine and Israel--Another View

global village square bethlehem 6058

Hearing Skip Schiel’s presentation, “Thru my Lens: Palestine-Israel,” this past Sunday brought me back to my own trip to Israel in 1989. I was unprepared for the beauty of the land, the shimmering deserts framed with purple mountains, lush gardens and hillsides meticulously planted and tended with olive and fruit trees, and the ancient city of Jerusalem, rich with history spanning thousands of years. Hanging on the wall of my home office is a photo taken looking out over the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum, as if Jesus might, at any moment, appear in the mist that hovers over the waters. Anyone who visits the “Holy Land” will never read scripture the same way.

But my trip also gave me a taste of what it might be like for a non-Jew there. It began at the airport when my partner Hugh and I tried to board our El Al flight. To the Israeli security guards we looked “suspicious”--two men traveling “without families.” We didn’t fit their profile of who should be allowed to board the flight. We were detained and subjected to repeated questioning, together and then separately. Why were we really going to Israel? What were we carrying? Did anyone give us anything to bring? Only after they verified who Hugh said he was, an Episcopal priest, did they allow us to board the plane with just a few minutes to spare. The experience left a sour taste in my mouth.

Once in Israel we rented a car and spent a week exploring Israel and Jerusalem, visiting traditional Christian and Jewish holy sites, as well as Qumran, the Dead Sea and Masada. Our visit to Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, brought home the scale and the reality of the holocaust in ways mere numbers and statistics, six million Jews killed, couldn’t do justice to.

In preparation for our trip I’d contacted my denomination, the United Church of Christ, which maintained an office in the area, and was invited to visit one of the Palestinian refugee camps. I made contact with the head of the East Jerusalem YWCA, located in the Palestinian section of Jerusalem, and made arrangements through her. She could not have been more gracious, offering us a car and a driver for our trip.

As soon as we set out, I noticed something very different. Every time we came to an intersection or traffic stop, soldiers with machine guns approached the car and turned their guns in our direction, letting us know that they were ready to shoot if provoked. Having driven around Israel for a week and never experienced this before, I asked the driver, “What’s going on?” His replied, “The soldiers see Palestinian license plates on the car and want to remind us who is in charge.” Clearly, this was his every day reality.

The visit to the refugee camp was not what I expected, more like an inner city housing project than my fantasy of a refugee camp. Displaced Palestinians had been in these camps for decades, many since 1948. There are now 58 camps in Israel each with thousands of occupants.

We were shown the camp by the health care services staff who spoke of how difficult it was for young people growing up in the refugee camps. They were frustrated, hopeless. Even so, many of them had a high level of education, degrees in medicine, law, business. But there were no jobs for them. The only option was to emigrate, to abandon their homeland and find a new life in a foreign country or settle for jobs doing physical labor. The camps and treatment by the Israeli police and government was breeding resentment and hostility. I came away seeing the situation in a new way.

I’m not blind to the realities of violence in Israel and the daily, on-going battle for safety and security for both Palestinians and Jews. During our visit to the old city a bomb was detonated at the Damascus gate just a day after we had been there enjoying the sights of the ancient gate and the steady parade of people from many different religious and ethnic cultures. But I do understand the anger and frustration of Palestinians in ways I didn’t before. Now, when I hear news from the area, I’m able to appreciate the complexity of events too frequently condensed by the media into headlines and soundbites. There is no substitute for seeing for yourself what life is like in another country or another corner of the globe. The more we do that, the more we can connect with the lives and stories of others, the more the more we open the door to the possibility of peace.

If you missed Skip's presentation or would like to see more of his photography, check out his website: web:





The Limits of Compassion

The last three weeks I’ve been reflecting with you on the subject of compassion (If you missed any of the sermons, they’re available on the website by clicking on “Worship” and then “Past Sermons”). Thank you for your feedback, and for sharing your own thoughts and challenges. All of us struggle with the limits of our compassion. Let me share some of my own struggle with feeling compassion for others.

For most of my adult life I’ve worked full or part-time with homeless men and women and people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. A few years ago I took a position in a local dual diagnosis treatment facility. But this was no ordinary place. It catered to individuals who could afford its hefty price tag, approximately $55,000 for a thirty-day stay. No insurance accepted.

Many who entered the program weren’t that different than people I’d met in other treatment settings. They were often kind and appreciative of any help that was being offered. They never let their financial situation get in the way of their dealings with staff or other patients.
Then there were others. Narcissists and spoiled brats who believed the world revolved around them. They had no respect for others, staff or other patients. Watching Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager who merely smirked when dragged before congress to testify to his price gouging of life prolonging drugs, instantly brought me back to the experience of dealing with some of these folks.

One man in particular stands out. His life was a mess. A run-in with the law had convinced him that treatment was preferable to incarceration. He was barely on speaking terms with his young son. He was arrogant and disrespectful to everyone around him, and didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him. His hobby was collecting sneakers, bragging that he had to build a wing on his house just to accommodate his growing collection of ever more expensive footwear.
Whatever compassion I felt for him initially soon evaporated. I couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him. I tried to imagine how he came to be this way, an adolescent in a forty-year old body. What was he like inside? Was he actually suffering inside? Was this all an elaborate defense for inner feelings of vulnerability or fear? After being around him for a few days, I simply couldn’t bring myself to care.

Dealing with him reminded me that there are limits to my own compassion. I can pray for him and pray that he doesn’t cause irreparable damage to his son through his behavior. I can pray that he gets treatment that will cut through his defenses and help him heal the person inside. But I realized I couldn’t be part of a treatment team working to help and support him.

Not long after he left the treatment facility I knew I also had to leave. If I couldn’t deal compassionately with this man and others like him, I was in the wrong job. A couple of months later I went to work in an insurance based treatment facility that took in patients from all walks of life, some working, some homeless, all struggling with substance abuse in their own way. This was not an easy place to work. It was often stressful, frustrating, and draining. But I didn’t feel my heart closing down when I went to work.

Our ability to feel compassion is shaped by our own life experiences. No one that I’ve met is able to feel compassion universally towards everyone. Even so, I believe we can all grow in compassion and nudge our hearts to open up just a little bit more. Sometimes it takes starting with ourselves first and then gradually opening our hearts to others, extending the circle of compassion more and more until we can even encompass the Martin Shrekli’s of the world. It’s a long slow journey, taken a step at a time. But I believe the journey is worth it.