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.

Everyday for 7 Years

Again and again, rain or shine, through ice or humidity! JebTheDog has faithfully taken me for a walk virtually every afternoon since 2011 along Minnehaha Creek. Nothing I post on Facebook is as popular as photos from these outings. Friends consistently remark about how they look forward to seeing the latest in the “creek series”.

At first, the walks were a duty I accepted as part of dog “ownership.” Self-interest motivated me during bleak February freezes — why else would I get out for a 30 minute walk in the depths of Minnesota winter? …it was good for me! Hassles were not limited to obligation or inclement weather. In 2017 I tumbled over a granite boulder on an idyllic summer afternoon. Surgery, screws, plates and physical therapy over a couple months were required to return my left wrist back to normal.

What happens when we do the same ritual time and time again over a considerable period of time? I now annually await the bluebells on the north slope. These are followed by an explosion of violets. Unintentional comparison of water levels are noted from year to year. JebTheDog remembers where to look for the snapping turtle each June in case I forget. Worried curiosity wonders what’s happened to the coy white squirrel. The rotting stump of a ginormous willows plucks a cord of grief, followed by grateful memories for what remains and for all that has been.

Beyond the uniqueness of each day and incidental occurrences, something cumulative and and rhythmic takes hold. Shifts in motivation creep in over time. Obligation morphs into anticipation. Laughing water reliably softens a knot of worry. Trees become faithful sentinels. Field mice consistently entertain and confound Jeb. The migration of mallards and the cyclic flow of seasons nudge us to notice patterns in our lives.

After seven years, the creek no longer presents itself as a destination. Rather it has become an extension of home, a harbinger of relationship, a sanctuary of wisdom, a grounding in matter — and in what matters. The Shakers had it right:

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

Seven years of mentoring by my faithful companion, JebTheDog, casts a gentle glow on my 68 years of “occupancy” on this planet. I recognize how so many years and relationships have been characterized by action/reaction, effecting change, leading the charge, not simply being driven but being the driver. Perhaps a certain intensity needs to characterize seasons or transitory roles in our lives — they too can reveal the bulwark of a life well-lived. Yet, these can too easily come to dominate. In dire cases we accept them as our destiny — such is the death rattle of stifling monotony!

The demise of leonine willows, the laughter of rollicking water, the tenderizing cycle of seasons unmask my patterns of foolishness. A smile begins to replenish worry lines framing my eyes. With a spiritual master extraordinaire leading my way, doing the same thing everyday for seven years nudges me to awaken, let be, listen, allow and behold — recognizing we are in the place just right and precisely where we ought to be.

I’ll be glad for another seven years of dog-duty!

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The familiar Shaker quote is from “Simple Gifts”, composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett.

I am indebted to Martin Laird, O.S.A.; An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation; Oxford University Press, 2019 for the distinction between reactive and receptive mind as well as the perfectly prescriptive words: let be, listen, allow and behold (p. 94).

These Times

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

This winsome melody of the popular Shaker tune filled our space and perfectly expressed the sentiment of the moment. We had gathered to celebrate friendship and send Susan and Claudia forth to their new home in Rhode Island. Love and letting go are polarities of life.

In most other times and settings — times like ours — such lilting tunes seem better left to a more sentimental time. Too often today we feel disconnected from community, kin and country. These are not simple times. The weight of scandal and complicity within core institutions of church and politics ensnare us, rendering us desolate. Seems ours are not “times of love and delight” this Shaker melody celebrates.

Today at Tuesday morning prayer group, someone expressed a petition with the clarity and precision befitting of a Shaker meeting. He asked for the grace “to live well in these in-between times, times when we witness the dying of that which is already dead; but a time that yields no clarity, offers no assurance of that which is laboring to be born, the new life in us that desires to be lived.”

The prayer was perfect, poignant, one might even say pregnant! Isn’t that where we find ourselves — amid the discomfort of these in-between times, witnessing the death of that which is all but dead, powerless to deliver that life which comes in its own time, as it wills!

This is not only the place we find ourselves — this is the only time we have! As with all times, this is a moment of gift, our time of grace. This morning’s petition finds fulfillment in our living precisely within these contradictions, amid the tension, our labor pangs, holding the poles of paradox, in our ever-present now, the only time we are given…

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
  To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
  Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

I Was Wrong!

I’ve sat at this keyboard for 30 minutes trying to compose a compelling opening sentence to get you to read what I have to say. I don’t know how to begin! What I have to say is a simple and heartfelt corrective to misconceptions and an injustice I have perpetuated (however unintentionally). Please hear me out!

Virtually everyone in our family knows that our cousin (my first cousin’s son, Pete) has been incarcerated in Nebraska for the past 41 years, 23 of which were on death-row. I reached out to Pete a couple of months ago and we began a mutually satisfying email correspondence. All this came to an abrupt halt after I shared with Pete two blog posts I had written a few years ago in opposition to the death penalty. I had referenced him with the presumption of his guilt.

Pete politely but curtly asked that I give him the courtesy of not contacting him again. I had no clue of the pain my naively well-intentioned posts had caused him. We have had no correspondence since.

I had never taken a close look at the evidence in Pete’s case or the specifics surrounding his conviction. His trial was conducted just as I was preparing to enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1978. That was the last time I have lived in Nebraska. But I do not mean these as an excuse. The truth is I remained blissfully ignorant of the facts, “bought” the findings of the jury trial and placed unfettered confidence in the veracity our judicial system. I was wrong to make these presumptions.

Over the last couple weeks I have taken a much closer look. I’ve concluded that Pete’s conviction was the result of a legal system desperate to wrap-up an unsolved two-year old murder case, an unscrupulous assistant county attorney, nefarious interference by the victim’s family, and the contrived testimony of a key witness manipulated by fear and a desire to save his own ass. I now believe Pete is not guilty and wish to correct the falsehoods I have presumed and spread over the years.

I come to this conclusion for various reasons. Here are a few that I found compelling:

Pete had inadequate legal representation from the start. Though he benefitted from the skillful defense of Dave Lathrop (counsel to the other man charged with the murder) after the cases were combined for purposes of trial. Pete’s court appointed attorney was inept and would later be arrested and convicted of drug offenses and child molestation.

The so-called “testimony” of the prosecution’s key witness had been thrown out as tainted, “poisoned” or otherwise unreliable by the judge in evidentiary hearings prior to the trial. It was reinstated by the Nebraska Supreme Court in what appears to me as an internally contradictory argument.

Subsequent appeals by court appointed attorneys were urgently and understandably focused on protecting Pete from imposition of his death sentence rather than digging into the case for further exonerating evidence.

Advocates for those unjustly imprisoned have for decades shown special interest in Pete’s case. My review of the facts was greatly assisted and inspired by New York writer and advocate, Doug Magee. He has poured over Pete’s case for more than thirty-years and comprehends the facts, and untruths, like no other. I owe him a special debt of gratitude for kindly but clearly correcting my ignorance.

In early 2014 the Innocence Project of Nebraska, the state affiliate of the highly successful national Innocence Project, agreed to take Pete’s case.  Even though there is no DNA evidence (a mandate for their advocacy), evidence of Pete’s innocence was simply too compelling for the Project to ignore.

So what do I believe? I believe Pete was framed! The victim had his enemies. He was known for shady deals and had even done time in federal prison for a kickback deal. There was talk in the media of a hit-man from Phoenix in town around the time of the murder. I’ve concluded that this — combined with an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney, the manufactured and coerced lies of the key “witness”, and the illegal and corrupt dealings of a private detective hired by the victim’s family (their third) — is a much more reasonable explanation to the murder than the travesty of justice seen in the Pete’s trial. I believe Pete was scapegoated by an unscrupulous legal system that wanted a conviction — any conviction — to close a high profile murder case from its books.

So what now? Well, first of all, we need to know the truth. Scripture says, “The truth shall set you free.” Well, what do you think?  Does it?  Our 64 year-old cousin has been incarcerated for more than 40 years for something I no longer believe he did. Will the truth set Pete free? If not, how truly “free” are the rest of us?

Please remember this story as you would all significant family stories! I ask all of our Nebraska relatives and friends to be especially vigilant. Learn the truth. Speak the truth. Correct falsehood. Decry every injustice that would be perpetuated in our name.

And, of course, share this message with any others you think would be interested in it or have a need to know.