How Bad Is It?

Now ensconced in that “curmudgeonly old uncle” demographic, I’ve become particularly attentive to holiday gatherings, weddings, even the birth of great-grand-nieces and nephews. I envy the prospects, insights and opportunities of younger generations. And though I try not to belie my trepidation, I twitch at some cultural practices beyond my comprehension or those that jolt my moral conscience.

Being of the generation we are, my husband and I recently delighted in the chance to fold an embossed wedding program into our suit pockets. It seems we reenact that gesture much more often with memorial cards these days! We celebrated all the more in the warm glow of our grandniece’s wedding — the couple’s promises of faithful love, long awaited reunions with family, surprise encounters with friends we haven’t seen in decades.

Only the birth of a baby is better than a wedding! Fortunately we have a family flurry of these as well — flashes of unmitigated joy hold us in an embrace of love. These are all special occasions, liminal moments, transitory times grounding us before an inevitable return to the hum-drum of a daily routine — what we typically call “reality”.

That confounding admixture of exuberant revelry with that which love really looks like day-to-day, moved me to pull aside a favorite nephew-in-law for some honest talk. He’s a career meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Witnessing the youth, promise and expectations filling the banquet room, I needed to know, “How bad is it?” His professional perspective would be unvarnished — if only because we will soon be celebrating the marriage of his son and a fiancé who charmed us with their presence at our table.

Pat’s ever present smile and the Irish glint in his eye revealed his indomitable good humor. “It’s serious, Richard!” With dance music muffling his words, he explained that his attention is focused on North America. Still, he soberly reported that we are “well on our way” to an increase of 2 degrees Celsius by 2050. We will have winters when Minnesota lakes do not freeze over. It will be worse in the northern part of the hemisphere. The poor will be especially hard hit! My mind reeled while recognizing this is a mere 28 years from today.

Perhaps it is best to hear such sobering assessments in the context of a family celebration of birth or while witnessing the exchange of promises to love one another in good times and bad, in sickness and health, forever! In none of this are we to be naive, delusional or unrealistic. As in marriage, that is not an option!

Whatever hope we may muster has to be grounded in a love that — finally, in the end — is really what its all about! Am I an old curmudgeon for worrying and questioning what gift we are giving to young couples and our newly born?

Surviving Success

Of course, success is to be desired. By virtue of writing or reading a blog such as this we belie, ipso facto, a certain good fortune. This should be a cause for gratitude! Never do we want to take our success for granted.

What follows, at best, should be read as an invitation to reflect a bit more deeply about that good fortune. Without guilt or shame-throwing, how might we look more honestly and holistically at the condition of our lives? No conclusions or prescriptions are offered, no moral judgments, no smug conclusions.

Rather, this invitation follows an intriguing proposition that has continued to rattle my thoughts while reading James Baldwin, A Biography by David Leeming — success carries consequences, some undesirable, some endangering, some we would do well to survive. Of course, Baldwin is not unique in needing to navigate these currents. All truly successful people would likely recount pitfalls strewn along their road to achievement. But here the really provocative issue is how we are to survive success after it is achieved!

What’s so incriminating about the proposition that success needs to be survived is that I am infinitely better at assessing — I resist using the more accurate term, judging — those society clearly deems to be unsuccessful. Who, me? I too easily, and unreflectively, take my personal success and consequent prerogatives for granted. After all, “success” is self-validating is it not?

What has this disquieting awareness and challenge awakened? Well, first, I and most of us are unwitting prisoners of our own story. I look in the mirror and uncritically presume the world looks like me, shares my cultural values and understanding of what constitutes a good life, no less what it means to be human. Preoccupied with my own reflection I fail to appreciate that truth, goodness and success in living encompass far more than “me” exponentially multiplied.

A further self-indictment challenges me to admit that I float along in a dangerous naïveté. Categories, labels, stereotypes easily become my default for making sense of the world. Thus, I am blind to others and to much of creation — never bothering to consider who or what remains invisible in my purview. What kind of imprisonment accompanies a failure to ask what or who is missing from the universe of my creation and awareness?

The full range of consequences accompanying our success will yield realizations and responses as numerous as those who hazard to call the question. Perhaps the only constant is that our successes have tremendous consequences, some we would do no better than to survive.

And truly, the most fortunate to whom success is granted recognize that it never really belongs to us alone.

Spring of Hope or Winter of Despair

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens would be hard pressed to find any who would say these are the best of times…

Despite optimism projected out of Scotland, the world’s top climate analysis coalition warns we are on track for disastrous global heating of 2.4C;

As a retired person living off limited assets I shuttered to learn that prices climbed 6.2 percent in October compared to last year, the largest increase in 30 years;

Action by bishops of my church individually and collectively bely an anti-intellectualism that is, sadly, not uncommon in other sectors of American society today. Many church leaders — not just Catholic — believe themselves to be sufficiently situated to make moral judgments about things they know nothing about and to distrust actual experts and professionals.

A former President recklessly undermines confidence in our elections while the Electoral College, equal State representation in the Senate, passage of laws to suppress voting and carefully crafted gerrymandering assures that we will be a “democracy” where the minority rules;

And there is Covid-19. No longer is there realistic discussion of eradicating the virus. Rather, efforts are directed at transforming the pandemic into a “manageable” epidemic.

Ufduh!!! as we say in Minnesota. There appears to be plenty of evidence to suggest these are the worst of times.

Wisdom broke through the gloom’n’doom in words spoken by Bryan Stevenson in the rebroadcast of a late 2020 interview: “The reckoning that has to happen in the country has to be rooted in a moral awareness, a moral awakening; a consciousness that evolves in a way that we begin to do things that we must do if we’re going to not only save the country, but save ourselves.”

Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, notes what we understand or forget at our peril… injustice, despair and violence prevail where hopelessness persists! Are there solutions for our societal and global crises? Do we have enough hope, confidence and resolve to believe we can do better? Do we? Really?

We truly do become that which we live and believe. Those who despair, hate, exclude or are consumed by fear and anger come to embody it. Scenes from January 6 flash through my mind. Those who truly dialogue, remain curious, build bridges, weave community, embody hope come to personify that which they practice. Teachers in classrooms, volunteers of all stripes, most local government officials, those who quietly do the heavy lifting of caring for others or restoring justice are among the many who call me to hope.

The future — if there is to be one — rests in our individual and collective hands. Will we reap a winter of despair or a spring of hope? Will ours be an age of wisdom, an epoch of belief? It feels perilously up for grabs.

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The On Being interview with Bryan Stevenson and Krista Tippett can be found at: https://onbeing.org/programs/bryan-stevenson-finding-the-courage-for-whats-redemptive/

Credit goes to Brian P Horan, OFM for the insightful critique of Catholic bishops and other church leaders. https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/archbishop-gomezs-comments-reveal-anti-intellectualism-among-church-leaders

Weight Loss

During my last visit with the cardiologist I was directed to get back to 185lbs. Yesterday, our rarely used Taylor “Biggest Loser” glared 198.2 back at me. How will I ever make it through Thanksgiving and the Holidays without adding to to my conspicuous girth? Excess characterizes these approaching months, after all. Considerable consternation forced me to consult the calendar — January 8, 2022, my date with cardiac destiny!

Weight Watchers worked well about ten years ago. The Mayo Diet fulfilled its billing when the heart doc first admonished me. But as is the case with most, the weight slowly resumed its upward trajectory once I eased up on the regimen. Earlier this week my husband and I were looking into the phenomenally popular KETO solution. A closer look at the bacon, eggs and fat at its the core soon convinced me it was not the answer for someone already on a hearty daily dose of statins.

During a healthy but more than sufficient breakfast a fresh question interrupted my morning solitude. Perhaps it was the second mug of strong French Roast that inspired the moment. In any case, I found myself asking, “Why do you eat?” Pretty elemental, yes! Perhaps, even foolish! It’s patently obvious why we eat. Yet, the question jarred me by its stark simplicity.

Weight Watchers had me counting points. Mayo focused me on portion size. So many others, like KETO, are primarily about the food — its calorie count, its quantity, its nutritional quality, even the number of calories we burn through exercise. Still, this morning, the ridiculously simple question stalked me, “Why do I eat?”

Surely my ten years of alcohol sobriety influences my curiosity. Countless conversations with others in early recovery inevitably lead to “Why do you drink? Why do I drink?” Implicit are deeper questions: What hunger am I trying to feed or thirst am I trying to quench? What social insecurity, emptiness or void in my life am I trying to fill? What pain or trauma am I trying to medicate, even anesthetize?

Who knows where this fresh insight will go or how I will find myself on January 8. However, attending more to the “why” and less to the “what” seems like a wise and practical strategy approaching a season of conspicuous overindulgence. Ignoring that simple question will certainly result in me being the Biggest Loser.

Tenacity Suited to a Pandemic

Barbara Brown Taylor and the dean of the National Cathedral shared a conversation last evening. I love everything BBT has to say as well as those all too familiar ribes from church-types she deftly sidesteps. Two things really rocked me…

She shared a favorite quote from theologian Walter Brueggemann: “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, and this by the grace of God.” Yowzer!!! Sit with that for awhile.

Second, BBT referred to the destruction of the Temple in 70CE as a source of consolation for her at this time in the life of Christianity. The Jewish people had to change, adapt, transform in unthinkable ways. Yet, they endured!

Hmmm… maybe God’s in charge after all; a “jealous God” who will have no truck with idolatry (magic, fantasy or superstition)!

Just some random thoughts percolating this morning on the Feast of the Ascension, that occasion when the departure of the Risen One yet again leaves his friends befuddled!

Are we to simply keep doing what we’ve been doing, frantic to return to what we knew as “normal”? How do we stay true to Christ? How do we avoid being co-opted by a past — not all bad — that needs to fall to the earth and die if it is to yield a rich harvest?

Somewhere in all this is the secure footing for a tenacious hope.

Eyes Glazed Over

Conceptual. Philosophical. Abstract. Theoretical. Credal… feel your eyes glazing over?

It happens routinely every Sunday when Christians stand to “proclaim our faith.” Absurd arguments over words — “consubstantial with” versus “of one being with” — exemplifies our dire and desperate straits. God save us!

Yet, Sunday after Sunday we dutifully stand to rattle off an obtuse treatise composed in the fourth century in some long forgotten outpost in present-day Turkey. We know it as the Nicene Creed.

Richard Rohr diagnoses our malady with characteristic precision, “There seem to be very few actionable items in most Christians’ lives beyond attending Sunday services, which largely creates a closed and self-validating system.”

What if our Christian proclamation was less conceptual and more concrete, less philosophical and more practical, immediate rather than abstract, applied more than theoretical, a matter of actually “walking our talk”?

Here’s a modest proposal… What if those who care to express their belief chuck the Nicene Creed for a year and substitute one or another proclamation attributed to Jesus? When our carpenter from Nazareth offered his core teaching, what did he say?

We do no better than the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor, they that mourn, those who are meek, and hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the single-hearted, peacemakers and those persecuted for what is right. Blessed are you when others revile you, persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Is this what we believe? Might such an expression of our faith make us too uncomfortable, threaten our status quo, challenge our cultural presumptions and preferences? Might this put in too glaring of a light that which we truly believe and where we actually place our faith?

If this be too much, we might consider a different formulation offered by Jesus as his valedictory address: “The righteous will answer. ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you? The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.” (Mt 25) Jesus clearly has in mind an actionable and actualized life of faith.

Today we begin Advent. Will it truly be a preparation for Christmas — that occasion when we celebrate Word made flesh, God-With-Us, the birth of our Savior? May our commemoration make us appropriately uncomfortable, challenge our cultural idols and expose our false gods. May we actually experience the surprise and gift of our salvation and not merely feeling satiated with stuff brightly wrapped in Holiday style.

Come Christmas, may we find ourselves proclaiming a faith that is concrete, practical, immediate, and enfleshed. May the glaze over our eyes only be the tears of recognition and love.

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This reflection was inspired by the sentence of Richard Rohr quoted above. His essay, “Powering Down: The Future of Institutions” is available in The Future of Christianity, Oneing, An Alternative Orthodoxy Vol. 7, No 2 (2019), a publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

Thanksgiving Song

As the Great Dynamo who powers the wheels of seasons and years
Turns autumn once more into winter,
At this season of Thanksgiving,
We give thanks for all seasons.

For winter, who strips trees to their basic design,
For stark, minimalist winter,
We give thanks.
May we let go, and grow bright as stars in a clear, frosty night,
The more we are stripped of what we thought we could not do without.

For the springtime that bursts forth,
Just when we think winter will never end,
For irrepressible springtime
We give thanks.
May we never forget the crippled, wind-beaten trees,
How they, too, bud, green and bloom,
May we, too, take courage to bloom where we are planted.

For summer, when fruit begins to ripen more and more,
For the green, swelling high tide of summer
We give thanks.
May we trust that time is not running out, but coming to fulfillment,
May we wait patiently while time ripens.

For autumn and its slow growing fruition
For that season of ultimate rise and fall
We give thanks.
May we gracefully rise to the occasion of our own falling,
Giving ourselves just enough time to go beyond time
To the great Now
At the quiet center of the turning wheels.

We give thanks for all seasons
At this season of Thanksgiving.

— Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB

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Thanks to Gratefulness.org for publishing this prayer-poem. All credit is theirs.

Late Autumn Oblation

I’m simply moved by and want others to enjoy Laura Foley’s poem, The Offering. Not only has she crafted a wonderful poem, the poet gives expression to a marvelous prayer…

These woods
on the edges of a lake
are settling now
to winter darkness.
Whatever was going to die
is gone —
crickets, ferns, swampgrass.
Bare earth fills long spaces of a field.
But look:
a single oak leaf
brown and shining
like a leather purse.
See what it so delicately offers
lying upturned on the path.
See how it reflects in its opened palm
a cup of deep, unending sky.

Experiencing Childhood

Sometimes you actually feel it! Something shifts inside, like our own personal tectonic plate that has previously anchored our world. Or, its like the floor suddenly dropping and we find ourselves in a very different place.

That happened last evening. An African-American woman spoke about parenting her children. She recounted efforts nineteen years ago to gather other parents who also wanted nothing but the best for their kids. Aware of debilitating stereotypes and cultural messages that doomed their children, these mothers wanted what every mother wants — that their children achieve their God-given potential and find their heart’s desire.

Nothing earth-shattering, plate-shifting or floor-dropping in this parental aspiration so far. It’s what this woman said next that shook my complacency and piqued my attention… “There is no achievement gap; there is only an experience gap!” These woman banded together to do everything in their power to enhance the quality and quantity of their children’s experiences. So simple. So true. So foundational!

For years, my husband has taken his grand-nieces and nephews on “Adventure Days.” (Imagine a mini-Make a Wish Foundation.) They’ve shared everything from scuba diving to pedicures, rock concerts to rock climbing. We share season tickets to our world-class Children’s Theater with my grandniece and grandnephew.

Our motives are selfish. We enjoy the events ourselves. Most of all, we recognize that if we do not have relationships with them now we certainly will not have relationships with them as adults. Comments by the mother last evening refocused for me of how enriching these experiences are for the children. Of course, we all want the world for the kids we love!

And herein lies the sudden shift, my floor dropping away — “Achievement Gap” puts the focus on the child. It implies that his or her actions are our standard for evaluation. Is that a pressure we would want to place on a child we love? Is it even fair? It just doesn’t seem right.

This mother’s insight nineteen years ago cast a bright light on what I hadn’t seen or adequately appreciated. What seems so obvious this morning is that our children have a serious “Experience Gap.” This mother, and the others she gathered for their shared mission, got it right.

Yes, this shift holds profound implications for school boards, academic standards and how teachers teach. But this too easily shifts responsibility onto others. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbors, neighborhoods, civic organizations, workplaces all need to reorient our practices and priorities. We need a collective cultural shift in how we define “my” children.

We all want kids to do better. What if we start by doing better ourselves? We all may need the proverbial floor to drop from under us so fewer kids fall through the cracks.

It’s Really Very Simple

Happening upon this paragraph in Autumn seemed, somehow, especially apt. Mere coincidence? The profoundly simple message triggered an anticipation of Thanksgiving…

Maimonides goes on to point out the genius of nature and the foolishness of humankind. Nature he observes, provides in the greatest abundance that which human beings need the most. For example, the two things humans need most for survival, air and water, are among the most common and accessible things in nature. On the other hand, the things that are more or most rare in nature — precious gems, for example — are the things we need the least. A lot of us spend our time working to make enough money to buy the things that are the most costly because they are the most rare, and yet ironically, these rare and costly things are the things we need the least.

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Maimonides was a medieval Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician.

The quote is from More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us by Steve Leder. Hay House, Inc.: New York, 2017. pp 150-51.