Beyond Comfort

Yesterday I got a sudden glimpse of myself.  What I saw wasn’t pretty!   It happened as I was leaving Peace House, a community begun by a now deceased Sister of St. Joseph of Corondelet some thirty years ago. Sr. Rose envisioned a gathering place where Minneapolis’ poor and homeless could gather to form a community of their own – a place  where their voice is heard, where their priorities are expressed, where they are in charge, hold leadership and exercise roles of service.  Yesterday I left questioning what had just gone on.  A certain discomfort and disappointment rumbled in my heart and gut as I walked out the door.

We have a quote from Neale Donald Walsch on our kitchen bulletin board: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  I have been going to Peace House for a few hours each week over the past couple months. Peace House gets me out of my comfort zone.  It also flies in the face of my propensity to be in control.  I generally prod myself on Wednesdays to show up by 11 a.m.  for thirty minutes of visiting with folks before “Meditation” from 11:30 to 12:15 followed by lunch and more small talk until until 1 or 1:30.  I also go to Peace House in obedience to some inexplicable need/desire to be in direct and mutual relationship with the economically poor and those on the periphery of society.

My “sudden glimpse” sprang out of what had taken place during meditation – a very generous term to describe community announcements, shared discussion of a given topic, then five minutes of naming people for whom we ask prayers.  A core group of “volunteers,” people who look and talk a lot like me, provide a thread of continuity.  Many knew Sr. Rose and attempt to carry on her charismatic presence three years after her death.  Generally the same volunteer moderates the meditation on the same day each week.

Despite the moderator’s intention to lead us in a reflection of the Serenity Prayer, we got off on a discussion of the President’s State of the Union address.  In retrospect that seems especially strange because only three of the thirty folks in the room had even seen the address given the night before.  Soon the conversation spun further off onto “politicians”, the fact that women earn 77% what men earn for the same work, the various merits of Democrats and Republicans, etc. Eventually, someone recognized that all the steam and most of the voices were coming from the visiting “volunteers.”  It had become very much the sort of conversation you could expect to have in our south Minneapolis living room.  Finally, someone interjected, “I want to hear from some others, especially those who are having a hard time jumping in or people who don’t often get a chance to speak.”  The pause was something that certainly could not be recreated in our living room!

A homeless woman who had lost custody of her children was the first to speak of her desire to “be her old self.”  Others added their stories.  A Thai man, who is literally homeless in that he lives on the streets and not in a shelter, softly shared his perspective.  The man from India sitting next to me explained that our speaker was brought to the U.S. for protective political asylum.  When not speaking to the group, he continuously mumbles a harmless dialogue between himself and some unseen others.  This time we all were listening.  In a a tone hardly above a whisper, he told his story of coming to America ten years ago with the dream of becoming an American.  He told of losing that dream.  “There are no jobs. … Why do Americans hate Asians so much?”  A broken man now holds on to his impossible dream, returning home to Thailand.  This gentle man of soft words poses profound questions.

While driving south on Portland Avenue toward home it hit me.  OMG!  I am easily verbal and convinced of my well founded opinions!  I love a good intellectual conversation about pressing social issues.  After all, my liberal bona fides are well polished and something I want others to recognize.  I think of myself as a compelling speaker and rightly informed on all manner of topics.  OMG! I had a sudden, embarrassing glimpse. Do I know how to listen?  Do I respect the need and recognize the right of others to speak, especially out of their lived experience and practical reality?  How often do I “talk over” others or remain comfortably fixed in the realm of ideas, disembodied policy and abstract values?  These questions push me beyond my comfort zone.

Coincidentally, if there really is such a thing, I came upon a reflection after arriving home by yet another Sister of St. Joseph of Corondelet, Mary M. McGlone:

When we have identified our brothers and sisters most in need of the light of God’s love, when we listen to their cry, we have begun to hear Jesus’ call. That, of course, is not yet the beginning of real discipleship. Discipleship, the spreading of Christ’s light, only happens when we are willing to leave behind every political or ecclesial position that hinders or prevents us from acting on behalf of people in need. We may find ourselves with unexpected partners; we may even need to avoid discussion of certain contentious topics. But in so doing, we will learn the unimportance of our opinions in the light of the magnitude of the needs of our brothers and sisters.

We may not be able to leave behind our occupations, the nets and boats necessary to sustain daily life, but we can accept the grace of being freed from the encumbrance of our viewpoints, the ideologies and prejudices that prevent us from joining together with everyone else called to proclaim the kingdom of God in deed, and then, if necessary, in word.”

To this I can only add my faltering, AMEN!

_________________________

Mary M. McGlone’s complete reflection in the National Catholic Reporter may be found at:  http://ncronline.org/blogs/spiritual-reflections/spreading-christs-light

Just Human

My friend Peggy has really gotten me riled up by something she posted yesterday on Twitter and Facebook: “Brooding over error that a junior journalist would not have made.  Annoyed with myself.  Also exhausted. Cat and cocoa will help.”  Not sure of all the protocols for online privacy, so I am presuming her posting in two online venues gives me permission to make some comments here.  Besides, I continue to brood about something I consider pretty important.

You need to know that Peggy is a superb writer and communications professional who has held numerous leadership roles for prestigious institutions you would recognize.  My reply to her posting was: “So wish you could see this in the context of all (99.999993%) you consistently do so masterfully. I know how perfectionism can hold us in its nasty grip! Cat and cocoa are good antidotes. So are friends who know how good you are!”  The burr under my saddle is additional comments made to Peggy: “Give yourself a break and move on. After all, we are just human.” and “You mean you’re human?” We hear such well meaning remarks too often.  Sorry, I fear such rationale is dangerous and simply wrong!

I truly believe there is much less danger in humans thinking too much of themselves than in thinking too little of themselves.  There’s enough self-doubt, self-putdowns, even shame to go around!  Isn’t much of the glitter, glamour and posturing of our overtly social selves largely an almost adolescent cover for feelings of inferiority, insecurity and self-doubt?  Peggy’s honest sharing of her brooding sounds pretty healthy to me.  I take exception with the all-too-frequent explanation that demeans our humanness as the source of our errors.  We make mistakes, for sure!  But, we are better off and more accurate by grounding these in being fallible, imperfect and at times culpable — that is, not God.  Being human should not be held hostage to that reality.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill?  I don’t think so!  I confess to having been ruined by a liberal arts education that required courses in Metaphysics and Philosophy of Human Nature.  I admit more than run-of-the-mill enthusiasm for a semester long course in “Christian Anthropology” at divinity school.  This stuff matters! It shades the messages we send to our kids as they construct their sense of self as well as the quality of care we bring to ourselves when we discover yet again that we are less than perfect.  It also colors the way we look at others — especially those “other” than ourselves.  Too many, too often, dismiss faulty behavior – and I fear diminish our very selves – by finding an excuse in being “just human.”

Scratch a little more and you will see this perverting our relationship with God and religion too.  We all know too many churches and preachers of every denomination who are big on guilt and masters at instilling shame.  If there weren’t such a good market out there, “ministry” would not be so lucrative for so many! You get the picture.  Here’s my question: Do we see ourselves as inherently good, indelibly marked with the Image of God or is our nature inherently “fallen” and radically dependent on the utter gratuity of God’s grace?  You can guess where I come down.

Yes, I am fallible, imperfect, too often culpable and need to confess my sin.  But I am also human by God’s benevolent grace.  Like the humus from which we sprang, to be human is to be rich, fertile, filled with potential and capable of giving-life.  It will come as no surprise, then, that one of my favorite stories is that of the Annunciation of Mary.  The Holy Spirit breathes once again upon God’s own creation in the person of “a lowly servant.”  In Mary, God impregnates the human in our most simple and ordinary expression. God becomes human in this most humble of persons!  Think about it! The relationship between the human and the divine is neither forced nor discordant.  In fact, it required Mary’s “Yes!” There is an innate receptivity, resonance, rightness in the union of the human and the divine.  In this lies our salvation.

“Just human?” Does it really matter?  I believe so, BIG TIME!!!

Living Life

“Is the life you are living the life-in-you that wants to be lived?”

With words something like that, Parker Palmer stopped me dead in my tracks. Some twenty years later his book, Let Your Life Speak remains one of the most significant books of my 63 years. Palmer disarmingly recounts the consequences of living out-of-sync with his core-self, telling of his consequent struggles with depression, troubled relationships, spiritual malaise and professional wandering. As he goes on to explain, “Way opened.” Parker Palmer and we are all the better for it!

Don’t we all wrestle again and again with the life-in-us that struggles for fuller expression? Such yearnings led me to end my secure career as a major gifts development officer to pursue a 12-month hospital chaplain residency. Still, I completed this focused period of reflection with no ultimate conclusions. Only one conviction became clear: I just didn’t have it in me to go back to a 40 hr/wk, nose to the grindstone type of job anymore. Life-in-me needs to be lived differently – new wine needs new wine skins! But, what? …how?

The Gospel for this Sunday (Mt 4:12-23) is the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John – a call to “Follow me!” I freely admit that vocational calls in Scripture send a shiver through me. I left ordained ministry in 2002 and the Jesuits after 23 years. Did I say “No!” to God? Is Jesus disappointed in me for no longer following? Yes, I admit struggling with flashes of remorse and guilt at times. But, my easily inflated ego aside, it’s NOT really all about me! Jesus did not come to instruct, or even admonish, Richard on his career path. No, Jesus’ call is much broader and directed to all: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s not essentially about you, me or any one of us! Steeped in American cultural individualism as we are this may be hard – even disappointing – for us to hear. Sorry, Jesus didn’t come to provide personal therapy or individual career counseling. Jesus came to proclaim the Reign of God! No looking back — let’s get on with it!

Yes, Jesus’ call comes to us personally, particularly, sometimes even intimately. And in this regard, our Sunday Gospel may be ultimately more useful than the flashy pageantry we just left in the Christmas story. No choirs of angels for Peter and Andrew! No star leading James and John through their hesitation and doubts. Nope! Like each of us, just a stark direct invitation: “Follow me.” There are so many voices competing for our attention and commitment these days. None comes as unadorned as Jesus’ call to discipleship.

What’s the pay-off in this amorphous Kingdom of Heaven? Well, one thing it is not – it is most certainly not a ticket for early or easy transport to heaven. As Anglican bishop N.T. Wright explains about Matthew’s use of “Kingdom of Heaven” here and throughout his Gospel, this repent-and-follow talk is not “about our escape from this world into another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.” To further make the point, we should not be surprised that the Beatitudes are in the very next chapter and what the lectionary gives us for next Sunday.

The only thing I know from my meager, and sometimes noble, efforts to “follow” is that Jesus’ summons disturbs us, confounds us, knocks us off-center (cf., Paul’s proverbial horse?) and requires conversion that comes with a price! Again, what’s our pay-off? What does Jesus promise? “I will make you fishers of people. I will take you where you are. But I will take your specific talents, unique skills, professional gifts and transform them into something greater. Your catch, harvest, yield, ROI will far exceed what even you imagine possible. Follow me!” Palmer’s paraphrase merely gives it a fresh spin: Is the life you are living the life-in-you that wants to be lived?

I have reread Let Your Life Speak at least four times over the past twenty years. Phrases and its very cadence are now familiar. But it remains always fresh. I know the text well. But upon rereading it’s as if I am hearing something for the first time. In that, it is like the Gospel – Living Word. Our lives evolve, morph and shift – usually subtly, sometimes suddenly, evenly tragically at times. Jesus does not so much snatch us out of life’s realities or elicit a cognitive assent to disembodied truths. Rather, the persistent call of Christ is a summons to personally follow with others in companionship, living life on life’s terms.

The directive Jesus would seem to give to Palmer’s putting of our ultimate human quest: Do what you do best for those who need it most. This is the Way, Truth and Life.

Source cited: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York, HarperOne, 2008), p18.

Roe v. Wade

God, it would be so easy to ignore this topic.  No one would notice – really!  But with a tinge of what the Hebrew prophets must have experienced, I cannot remain silent.  History is strewn with too many well-intentioned, polite folks who did not speak up in a moment of moral turmoil.  But it is simply the turmoil to which I can attest with any certainty.  I have no final resolution or easy route out of our cultural arguments.  All I know is life changed fundamentally for all of us forty-one years ago when the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade.

Expressing any Pro-Life sentiments feels something like coming out as a gay man – scary, risky and crossing the Rubicon.  I cherish my liberal, progressive orthodoxy and wouldn’t want anything I said to threaten my reputation, web of relationships, or access to people of influence.  It would be so easy simply to be stereotyped and/or dismissed by cultural elites of every stripe!  More significantly, I do not want to dishonor or dismiss women. Surely theirs is a privileged, though not exclusive, voice that must be freely and fully expressed.

And, we all have to remain in this together – this I believe with all my heart.  Can we agree that it’s precisely the frozen entrenchment of opposing camps which we all detest, yet holds our nation captive and keeps too many of us mute?  How do we begin getting past this on a topic that has held us in turmoil for forty-one years?  Where to start?

Can we all agree to celebrate the origins of Planned Parenthood?  Can we Catholics stop with our knee-jerk vilifying of the organization?  Will we recognize a shared value in the founding inspiration for the organization – to confront poverty!  I am also compelled by the “seamless garment” only most recently articulated by Pope Francis: “All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.” It is nothing short of refreshing to hear religious leadership calling all of us to such moral and ethical consistency!  Moreover, I believe there are more than sufficient “secular” threads holding us together as a nation (e.g., Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Pledge of Allegiance, etc.) to initiate a shared, civil conversation – if we have but the shared will and commitment.  Can we commit that our dialogue remains ongoing, inclusive and non-ideological ?

Yes, this would be nothing short of revolutionary.  But, do we have a choice?  Is the present state of affairs tolerable? …sustainable?  Besides, a revolution in cultural values, world-view and self understanding is underway in any case! The only question is whether we recognize seismic shifts and choose to exercise moral discretion and human influence in the shaping of our lives in this new reality.

All this reminds me of a profound reflection by Archibald MacLeish printed in the NYTimes on Christmas Day, 1968 immediately after the astronauts to the moon were the first humans to see Earth from the depths of space.  Perhaps his concluding remarks are instructive on this anniversary of our life-changing event of 1972. I leave his blindly “sexist” language intact for the purpose of showing just how much more enlightened we might become in only a generation or two:

“The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere — beyond the range of reason even — lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.

To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold — brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

The struggle to truly comprehend and consistently respect who we are – all of us and each of us, together – remains our challenge, opportunity and only worthy choice.

(Some may wish to read Archibald MacLeish’s reflection “Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold” in its entirety: http://cecelia.physics.indiana.edu/life/moon/Apollo8/122568sci-nasa-macleish.html)

Remembering MLK

“On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?'”       – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like no other national holiday, this day challenges us to an individual and collective examination of conscience and honesty about how we live professed moral values. In that light, it makes sense that this day is increasingly being understood as something more than a day-off but, rather, a national day of service. Here is a reflection for the occasion:

Do we take Christmas seriously — God’s free choice to “become human”? Or, as another preacher once said, “Is our faith so heavenly minded its no earthly good?” Does our faith explicitly or implicitly encourage “disembodied” faith such that injustice is tolerated because “it will all work out” in the afterlife?

Do we see everyone as created in the Image of God? Does our faith affirm the fundamental dignity and worth of each and everyone, rejecting any claims of moral superiority, ether explicit or implicit?

Do we carefully and critically examine Scripture as “Living Word,” remaining receptive to the Spirit’s present impregnating action in our world, instead of being frozen in fundamentalism that idolizes the past?

Does our faith confront and reject any teachings that might cause us to, personally or collectively, act with violence or incite rage or hatred towards others? Do we believe that war is only to be used as a last resort or not at all?

Does our faith further interfaith cooperation and empower our ability to feel compassion for the suffering, for someone who may be different from me/us? Or, does it lead us to love and care essentially for those in our immediate group or people like ourselves?

Do we see social justice and equality – as well as individual acts of charity – as integral to the Gospel and “God’s will”?

Do we really believe that “God is love”? Do we profess the foundational commands to love God and to love others as we would love ourselves? Or, are we imprisoned by dogma with judgment as the defining characteristic of God?

I am hugely indebted to Paul Brandeis Raushenbush for inspiring this reflection.  You may find his original posting on which mine is largely based at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/martin-luther-king-faith_b_4623051.html

Real True Sincere

When I find myself particularly exasperated or frustrated with the world – trifling example: shoveling yet more snow  and chopping layers of ice but my car still won’t make the tight turn into the garage – there is a habitual expression that spontaneously comes out of my mouth, “Oh God, come to my assistance!”  “Now!” is an implicit directive to the illusive Presence in my day. No, it’s not some pious, anesthetized whimper recited too often, too easily, during the years I technically had an obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  No, my plea for assistance today is part despair, part admonition (of that absent third-party I often allege to be God), part remorse, part resignation, part desperation.  Whoever composed the Liturgy of the Hours knew what real prayer is like! Yes, all prayer really needs to begin with “Come!”  Pairing the rejoinder, “Lord, make haste to help me!” was singularly perfect and sheer genius.  Often, “Now!” is not any too soon.

If you read my previous posting, you already know that I’m big on “skin in the game” when it comes to prayer.  For God’s sake, isn’t that what the Incarnation was all about?  We sanitize the Manger scene into something sentimental, warm and cozy.  C’mon, was it?  Is that what our world needs today?

Some days I don’t know if I even know how to pray anymore!  Sometimes the best I do is that spontaneous muttering, “Oh, God!”  Sometimes I even question whether God has enough “skin in the game.” I am consoled by a quote that came to me yesterday via Frederick Buechner on Twitter.  He directs us to Ann Lamott in Help Thanks Wow:

 “Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, “God help me.” This is a great prayer, as we are then at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable.

Or I might be in one of my dangerously good moods and say casually: “Hey, hi, Person. Me again. The princess. Thank you for my sobriety, my grandson, my flowering pear tree.”

Or you might shout at the top of your lungs or whisper into your sleeve, “I hate you, God.” That is a prayer, too, because it is real, it is truth, and maybe it is the first sincere thought you’ve had in months.”

Real, true and sincere!  Pretty good criteria for prayer in my book!

Skin in the Game

Recently, my friend Susan shared a Prayer for the Homeless distributed by the Church of England during the Christmas season.  It was a nice pious prayer. But where is the “drawing near” of the Incarnation? Praying for those-other-than-ourselves who serve “them” turns me off. I was able to say this quite bluntly to Susan because we are good friends and share a mutual understanding that sometimes we need to get off our knees and give legs to our prayers! 

Susan agreed.  But, she also pushed back in a manner I enjoy so much about her.  “Richard, I see it as both/and, not either/or.  I assume you do also. The need to give our prayers flesh doesn’t obviate the value and need for prayer.”  The fact that I am still ruminating about this suggests there is still something that annoys me. 

Yes, prayer is good — essential, in fact. What I am beginning to find lacking in so many pious texts, words and rituals is “incarnational-investment.” Where is the “skin in the game”? Christian prayer needs to include a “…and what about me?” …”where am I in this picture?” Our prayer might be that of an anchorite (I’m reading about Julian these days) or my 97 y/o friend in a nursing home but it requires a “Here am I. Send me.” engagement. A Prayer for the Homeless?  Again, nice prayer — harmless and presumably efficacious, just deficient. 

Maybe the final arbitrator should be the cold and homeless themselves. Sometimes prayer is used to let ourselves off the hook, feeling warm and cozy.