When I wake up in the morning I can look through the little window space in my bedroom and down through the doorway in the living room below and see light from the house across the brook shining on the water.
From my bed I can hear the falls, 25 yards away, and I can see water from where I sleep. In other words, I'm really, really lucky. I live in a great building in a warm-hearted town, surrounded by a kind of natural beauty that grounds me and helps keep me focused on the important things in this life: the world around me and the people in it.
Notice, if you will, that I did not include myself in that list. I am not important in the scheme of things, though some might disagree, given my role as the only pastor of the only church here. I get to do very important things: baptize babies, marry people who are in love, bury the dead. I get to lead the Christmas Eve service which is the most awesome night of the year, when all of the Whos here in Whoville come together, stand in a circle and welcome Christmas in song, by candlelight. It gives me goosebumps even now to think about that moment.
I do very important things here, but I, myself, am highly replaceable and I know this. I tell my parishoners this all the time, from the pulpit: "The only reason I'm standing up here is because I said yes; it could just as easily be you."
I love us humans, I love all of our different personalities and individual quirks and foibles, our talents, gifts and passions, but I am worried about the growing tendency of people to be hyper-focused on their own agenda, their own narrative. I blame the cell phones, in part, that have created for each of us our own private bubble and an addiction to that device and its macroworld. We carry wherever we go our own messages, our own photos, our own landscape of stuff that no one else has privy to. Imagine what this would have been like 20 years ago, if we had left the house with the telephone, a stack of books, several photo albums, several years' worth of mail, newspapers, magazines, reports and a satchel full of god knows what else people are checking every few seconds throughout the day.
It would be heavy; we'd have to put that load down a lot.
Coco and I went out for dinner the other night. It was a beautiful summer night and we sat outside at a restaurant we like in Shelburne. We were flanked on both sides by young couples. To our right were a man and a woman, a bottle of wine and two poured glasses between them. What a beautiful setting, seemingly so romantic, a nice end to a day. They sat across the table from one another with their eyes glued to their cell phones.
To our left, also a man and a woman, wedding bands on their fingers, so they were either married or having an affair or just friends. They looked married to me. Also, both with their eyes and hands on their phones continually.
I had dinner with a friend the other night and he told me about a conference thing he might attend and how he had received a kind of memo thing talking about the use of pronouns and specifically whether or not it was appropriate to address a group of people as "guys." As in, like, approaching a group of people and saying "Hey guys, how's it going?"
Apparently it's not, unless they're all guys, and maybe even not then, I'm not sure. It's all very, very confusing to me.
To be fair, it was kind of late and I was kind of tired and most definitely hungry and there were lots of people in Burlington that night, the place was humming, which can be a little overwhelming for a person who wakes up in the morning to the sights and sounds of a river in a town with one store and two restaurants, but I found myself feeling a little angry about this pronoun business.
With all due respect for those who are generating the memos of this world about what's right and wrong in regards to who is male and who is female, what any particular person identifies with in regards to their sexuality, what we can, cannot, should or should not call each other, I would like to propose a time-out.
During the time-out I would like to take each of you by the hand and lead you to the table where I sat yesterday with the person who heads the Homeless Prevention Center in Rutland, Vermont. There I would like to have you listen to the stories of people who have become homeless for many different reasons, some simply because of a series of unfortunate events: families, single parents with children, who have nowhere to go because there is no family shelter in Rutland. At this table you will hear that there is a building in Rutland that someone donated to become a family shelter, sitting empty, because the state of Vermont will not allocate the resources to run a family shelter.
I don't know what the numbers are in regards to homelessness in Rutland, but I can tell you this: they're going up and not down.
When we leave this room, I will continue to hold your hand as we walk a short distance to the food shelf, a bustling and busy place today because ... so many people are hungry and cannot afford to buy food. The waiting room for the food shelf—people have to wait their turn to "shop," that's how busy it is—is also the waiting room for the public service psychiatric clinic. "The wait for an intake can be as much as six months because there aren't enough counselors," you will learn before we leave this building.
With my hand in yours we will walk past the homeless encampments, strewn with trash. We will see graffiti left all over town by the gangs who have arrived to carve our their space in the drug and human trafficking trades that go on. In Rutland, Vermont. Every single day.
You might be worn out by now, tired from seeing the truth of the suffering of your neighbors, but I can easily spread this moment out to fill the whole day. I can show you neglected children, abused women, the lonely elderly, scared cancer patients, the dying. As a pastor I have special access to all of these worlds. And every single fucking time I go to them I wonder why the hell more people aren't helping.
My apologies, but I do get a little worked up, especially when I hear that we are wringing our hands over pronouns when our neighbors, the very people we are tasked to love as ourselves are actually suffering, from hunger and lack of shelter, no place to take a shower, lack of decent medical and psychological care, lack of kindness, compassion, attention. Who wins when a community falls apart, person by person? The pharmaceutical giants who are turning entire towns into opioid addicts, the drug lords, the assholes of this world.
When our time-out is over I'm going to give you what will be the hardest task of all: put your cell phones down for a while today, dethrone yourself from the highly personalized project you've been working on called ME!. Look around you, talk to people, ask where help is needed, say hello to a stranger. Get to work. You are not that important; your life is a fleeting moment in time on a spectrum incomprehensibly vast. But the work you do here is. Very. Important. The work you do here in service to this world and the people who need your help is very, very important and will have a lasting effect long after the him, her, you, me, it, guys, gals, he, she, male, female, both, neither confusion has vaporized into the ether.
You're worried about pronouns? Worry about this: us.