No Escape Needed

A few days ago I was musing with a friend about not going to Confession and how different today is from our childhood.  We chuckled that the Reconciliation Room in our church doubles as an emergency exit.  That linking of the sacrament with a fire escape is just too perfect to have been planned!  Such delightful humor aside, as long as Confession is constrained by the image of an “escape” it neither will – nor should – have much use or purpose in our lives.

My friend and I laughed while recalling in vivid detail our “First Confession” as children.  We both readily remember the penance that was assigned as well as the priest-confessor.  We reminisced about the presumed regularity and long lines of our weekly routine. Such was the world of growing up Catholic in the 1950s.  The fact that we fondly recall and share these formative moments after more than fifty years suggests it wasn’t all bad or to be so easily dismissed as some might be inclined to do.  As with so much in life, what is “the good” we would do well to bring forward into our sophisticated adulthood?

Terry grew up in Immaculate Conception Church in Milwaukee at the time famed civil rights priest, James Groppi served as an associate pastor.  One day Terry went to confession and received from Fr. Groppi a memorable penance – he was to go home and wash the kitchen floor.  Imagine the surprise of his mother!  “What are you doing?  Did you spill something?” Her incredulity was only heightened to learn that he had not spilled a thing.  She never knew it was her son’s penance. Talk about “the seal” of Confession!

Terry’s story reminded me of my sister Karen’s ingenious strategy to pacify her brood of six typically frenetic, intensely competitive, sometimes cantankerous kids.  As the dark days of November were taking their icy grip, constraining youthful energies in-doors, Karen repurposed the concept of “Secret Santa.”  Instead of giving candy or small trinkets under “the seal” of anonymity, the kids were to secretly surprise their sibling by doing something good for them – making their bed, straightening up a mess the other had left, complimenting them for no special reason.  Yes, the kids could randomly surprise their sibling with a favorite candy or some such thing.  But notice what Karen was doing – shifting attetnion from “stuff” to “doing” for others.  Or, so that was this mother’s idealistic aspiration for her six kids!

Confession has traditionally been associated with the season of Lent.  As with a child-like pout, I can almost hear our collective groan.  What if this year we dispensed with the “escape” idea and adopted a few of the strategies assigned by Fr. Groppi and my sister Karen?  What if we shifted the focus away from “me and my faults” to cultivating good habits that respond to the interests of others and strengthens the bonds of community?  What if Lent became an amorphous flash-mob of anonymous acts of care and generosity?  Or, is this an overly optimistic aspiration of one hopelessly naive?

My friend, Ivy is an extraordinary seamstress and makes the most adorable smocked dresses for children.  She is also the friend who helped me rebuild my 90 year old Seth Thomas mantel clock.  So, you apprecaite her masterful attention to detail! She makes three children’s dresses a year and gives them to favorite charities for auction or to a program that serves kids.  They are breathtakingly beautiful.  She would be embarrassed to know that I am blowing her cover by holding her up for emulation.  Isn’t that the sort of virtue “the seal” of Confession was meant to foster and enhance?

What do you do especially well?  It may be something as mundane as washing a floor or painting a room for an over-extended neighbor.  It need not be flashy.  Maybe it would enhance the gesture if your full motivation is kept secret and your actions seen as routine. In our maturity, Lent might become a season of giving-back rather than giving-up… a time to embrace others, a season we wouldn’t want to escape.

What the World Needs Now

When I was a kid our television got unplugged at this time every year.  It was a big, beautiful Motorola set in a handsome mahogany case that was intentionally given the place of honor in our living room.  Fireplaces had fallen into social disfavor as being so “back then” and they were conspicuous by their absence in contemporary ramblers like ours.  My dad was immensely proud of the silver antenna which towered overhead.  It was a public statement about his ability to provide for a wife and ten kids!  We were simply grateful for its magic in bringing all three TV channels to our living room.

In addition to unplugging the television, this was the time of year when we all asked, “What are you going to give up?”  TV was a decision made for us by Mom and Dad then applied to the whole family. Giving-up was to be my choice, something specific and personal.  Of course, it was always “candy” and my parents would just as routinely remind me that meant “all sweets” so dessert was necessarily included.  Then there was church.  We went to church a lot!  But at this time of year the expectation was that we’d go every day.  Such was our Lenten penance.

I cherish these quaint memories only slightly embellished.  I remain increasingly grateful for the grounding, security and assurance of God’s proximity all this brought to my childhood.  But from the perspective of 60 years. I would now suggest that we plug into media and pay even greater attention.  Rather than forgoing sweets perhaps we need to ask whether others are getting their just desserts.  Rather than going to church for daily Mass, the more pressing need is for each of us to “be church” among the masses today.  Despite the natural and necessary disposition of children, I still struggle to learn that it’s really not all about me or just my personal relationship with God!

We are all grousing – putting it mildly – about the harsh extreme winter we are enduring.  Yesterday an icon popped up on my iPad regarding the availability of milkweed seed and the urgent need to plant them for Monarch butterflies.  The University of Minnesota has a special research center focusing on a plummeting honey bee population.  Polar bears are disappering with the melting ice cap.  The looming drought in California is placed in perspective by the fact that the state produces 12% of the world’s – the world’s – produce!  Rather than un-plugging or giving-up, Lent 2014 calls for tuning-in and getting more engaged!

Statistics can really numb the brain, but consider this: From our first appearance sometime in the past one to two hundred thousand years until 1650 CE, humans grew to number about half a billion. Today – less than 400 years later – there are about 7.1 billion of us. Predictions vary as to where this growth might top out—perhaps ten billion by the middle of this century, fifteen billion by the next. Technology may extend the ability of certain resources to support life, but earth’s resources are not infinite.  Lent is about renewal, about change, about salvation in the fullest sense. Increasingly, Lent needs to be about waking up to the truth of our lives!

This clarion call came to me this week via a magnificent article in the current issue of Commonweal by Elizabeth A. Johnson, certainly one of the most compelling and influential theologians of our day.  She cites the obvious with a prophet’s precision: “There are three mechanisms of destruction: overpopulation, consumption of resources, and pollution.”  So what are we to do about it?  None of us can do everything; but all of us must do something!  We each get to choose; but choose we must!

We humans don’t have an especially good track record harkening to the prophet’s call to wake-up, turn-around and mend our ways!  Just maybe – let’s hope – this Lent, the natural and necessary self-interest of children will lead us to recovery, renewal and restoration of all God has made.

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Though “academic” in a manner you’d expect from a university theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson’s article is quite good and can be accessed [here].

Re-Storying

Thank God for “Wisdom Ways,” a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.  Last evening I joined thirty others for a three-part program, “Storying & Re-Storying After Personal and Family Changes.” That’s a fancy title for a writing course that meets for two hours over three Tuesdays.  We Minnesotans need something to gather us out of our houses on sub-zero evenings in February – mental juices freeze up too!

The theme for Session #1 was “There & Then and Here & Now.”  Ted Bowman, of U of M fame, did a masterful job of stimulating our creative juices.  I was especially drawn to his invitation to take something we experienced when we were younger and compare it with the meaning, understanding and significance that storyline has for us today.  It could be anything… birth, death, dance, sport, flipping pancakes or looking both ways at an intersection.

We were given ten minutes to write.  My thoughts were scattered and my plan was to exercise the other option, not to write anything.  At the last moment I chose to simply begin and let anything flow in a “stream of consciousness” style.  Here is what poured forth:

I’m absent from the family reunion
half a continent away
insulated, smug, oblivious
distant, unknown, missed.
I was what I wanted
being superior, arrogant, important.
Others admired my way with people…
Knowing their names, birthdays, spouses.
I was close to God.

You are absent now at the reunion
I cannot attend
tranquil, intimate, consoled
complete, resolved, finished.
I did not want you to go
too soon, so final, unexcused.
You broke ahead as people must…
names fade, death holds, love endures.
I miss your reunion with God.

I share this, not because it is any literary masterpiece, but to encourage you to reflect upon your stories.  What surprises, delights, consolations might they hold “then & there and here & now”?

You will certainly see in my poem the lingering grief that comes with loss of family – five of my nine siblings have died.  But there is also a kind of loss and necessary grief that comes with self-initiated change like moving from a career of many years to “taking early Social Security.”  There is a two-sides-to-every-coin or Both/And-ness in the later years of living.  Contentment, peace, happiness come from embracing that reality.

In that light, three quotes shared by Ted Bowman were especially poignant:

“If something is unmentionable it is unmanageable.”  — Folk Wisdom 

“Healing requires the reconstruction of meaning; the unspeakable must be spoken and heard.”   — Judith Herman 

“Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin 

Give it some thought.  Put pen to paper. Please excuse the awful pun, but “re-storying” is at the core of “restoring” our lives.

Finally, I leave you with my attempt last evening at a Haiku:

Show up
Pay attention
Let go.

Much More at Stake

Forty years ago this July I drove my parents’ over-stuffed Buick from Omaha to Phoenix.  They were retiring from cold-country to the Valley of the Sun.  Thus began a family trek in which three siblings followed and raised families in the PHX metro and a fourth migrated there in her retirement.  We are now a solidly ensconced AZ family with our fourth generation multiplying rapidly.  I have cherished having this “escape” from winter’s fury virtually my entire adult life.

Over the years I have noted the many stark contracts between Arizona and my home in Minnesota.  The remnant of our MSP family is scattered and has nothing to compete with the PHX tradition of “Sunday dinner” to which the extended clan generally all shows up.  There are Minnesota winters and Arizona summers.  The contrast between our state politics could not be more dramatic. The list of differences goes on!

AZ ignited a public relations nightmare by passing harsh anti-immigrant legislation in 2010.  A year later they again burst onto the national scene by passing legislation saying that Barak Obama and other presidential candidates had to show proof of citizenship for the their names to be on the ballot (Really! …where was that coming from?).  They seem to have done it again by handing their Governor SB1062, a bill that would allow a business owner to deny his or her public service based on the business owner’s sincerely held religious beliefs.  Similar bills in Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee and Maine have all failed over the past week.

The issue is vastly more complex than SB1062 and consequences cut far deeper than whether Governor Brewer should veto the legislation. I grieve that so much of the public discourse on this – Arizona seems to have a unusual propensity to enact attention grabbing legislation – is grounded in calculations about the financial impact on the AZ economy!  Are there no higher social values or moral principles to guide our civic life?

Here are only three observations – expressing my convictions – to contribute to a more substantive public discourse:

The AZ legislation, as in the other four states, was in direct response to a court case in New Mexico where professional photographers were found to have unjustly discriminated against a gay couple because they refused to provide their professional services for the couple’s wedding.  Here we have a volatile convergence of business, religious and “gay” interests.

We need to name the issue for what it is!  The impact of law extends far beyond specific statues and immediate issues.  As with all law, SB 1062 creates a climate and fosters a culture in our neighborhoods and communities. SB1062 sanctions a social environment in which acts of violence and intolerance are more likely to occur. This is not the moral climate in which I want my grand nieces and nephews to grow-up!

We must also consider the bigger implications for our Constitutional separation of church and state. SB1062 establishes a scary precedent.  Does a Christian taxi driver have a right to refuse a ride to a Muslim because the driver believes Islam is a violent religion and a threat to our country?  That’s not the America in which I want to live.  Should a pharmacist have the right to refuse making “Plan B” available to a woman in a remote AZ community based on the pharmacist’s personal religious convictions?  I think not!  Do the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver or does the University of Notre Dame have a legal obligation to provide contraceptive coverage among it’s employee  health care benefits?  As long as public policy in this country links health care coverage – something Catholic social teaching says is a universal human right – to an employer-based system, I believe they do.

Finally, issues raised by SB1062 go back to the founding of our republic and must withstand the scrutiny of principles our Founders recognized as precious, dynamic and ever in need of protection.  In other words, we might easily screw up our patrimony!  In creating “limited government,” balancing a “separation of powers” and carefully crafting a “separation of church and state,” the Founders sought to respect the dignity of each person and the individual rights of all citizens.  This is at the crux of the SB 1062 debate – much is at stake; much is in danger!

Our forebears wrestled with the implications of the government they had crafted in The Federalist Papers.  There the principle of majority rule is presumed and enshrined. It is also tempered.  Their enduring concern and wise counsel is incisively stated by James Madison, one of four authors of The Federalist Papers, “In Republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.”  Thomas Jefferson expresses a similar preoccupation, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

So what about Arizona and SB 1062?  Who is the “majority” with the authority to pass legislation?  Who is the “minority” whose rights must be protected?  Think clearly and carefully – it may be more complicated than we initially think and vastly more consequential than some calculus of economic impact.  Can we step back from defending our individual self-interest for a moment?  Can we tone down the rhetoric long enough to listen and perhaps, just perhaps, choose to defend what we hold in common?  This is of vital and more enduring importance.

Will we honor our Founders by showing careful attention to the rights and welfare of the various “minorities” among us?  Will we see our world from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian God who consistently takes the side of the anawim, the remnant, those on the outside or underside, the oppressed or any who suffer?  What truly are our most noble religious convictions that need free and open expression?

SB1062 is bad legislation and I will be profoundly disappointed if Governor Brewer does not veto it.  Her veto would be an important step to making AZ an attractive alternative to cold-country.

Transformation

I almost didn’t go to church yesterday.  Our pastor is on retreat and “subs” can be a crap shoot.  Post-blizzard road conditions and treacherous sidewalks would give perfect cover for my absence. Besides, we were hosting an end of season Downton Abbey dinner party last evening and the extra prep time was needed for the fussy recipes we were featuring.  I defaulted to habit obeying one of life’s core lessons: Just show up!  Once again, I’m grateful I did.

In the Gospel Jesus minces no words: “I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Fr. John Bauer, pastor at the Basilica of St. Mary was the “sub” and did a good job.  He referenced “Ten Traits of Mature Discipleship” distilled by one of my all-time favorite authors.  John linked the Gospel admonition to forgive with one of Oblate Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s ten traits: “What we don’t transform we transmit!”

I had heard something like that before.  Today it was a not-so-subtle tap initiating a cascade of dominos. Numerous web-searches for Rolheiser’s full list of ten disrupted my fuss over table settings. “Transform… transmit…” echoed across the preparation of watercress soup and Mrs. Patmore’s infamous Raspberry Meringue Pudding.  Examples from my own life, years as a pastor and retreat director, ministry with patients wrestling with chronic illness or a terminal diagnosis confirmed this cogent truth.  Unless we find some way to transform our pain, loss, abandonment, abuse, grief, illness, rejection we will certainly pass it on!

My search for the list of ten was not fruitful.  However, additional comments by Rolheiser on the Web were:

Nobody comes to adulthood, let alone to old age, without being deeply hurt. Alice Miller, the renowned psychologist, puts it this way: All of us, from the time that we are infants in the cradle until we are self-possessed enough to write an autobiography… are not adequately loved, not adequately cared for, not adequately recognized, not adequately valued, and not adequately honored. Moreover all of us also suffer positively some rejection and abuse. None of us is spared life’s unfairness… 

What can we do about this, beyond first of all admitting that we do nurse a grudge against life?  

Miller suggests the most important task of mid-life and beyond is that of grieving. We need, she says, to cry until the foundations of our life are shaken. At a certain point in our lives the question is no longer: “Am I hurt?”. Rather it’s: “What is my hurt and how can I move beyond it?” It’s like having been in a car accident and carrying some permanent scars and debilitations. The accident happened, the limp is there, nothing is going to reverse time, and so our only real choice is between bitterness and forgiveness, between anger and getting on with life, between spending the rest of our lives saying “if only!” or spending the rest of our lives trying to enjoy the air, despite of our limp… 

There is only one ultimate imperative in life: Before we die, we need to forgive. We need to forgive those who hurt us, to forgive ourselves for not being any better than those who hurt us, to forgive life itself for some of the things that it dealt us, and, not least, to forgive God for the fact that life is unfair, so as not to die with a bitter and angry heart. 

Gratitude is the fruit of that struggle.  

I’m grateful I “just showed up” for church yesterday. I’m grateful a “sub” preached.  I’m grateful for Jesus not mincing words in the Gospel — who better than he to speak of the suffering and injustice living can hold?  I’m grateful for Jesus’ invitation to more mature discipleship. I am also grateful for Downton Abbey and the opportunity to gather with friends for an evening of frivolity.

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You may read Rolheiser’s entire post [here].  Better yet, it will lead you to his website where you will find more of his reflections and regular posts.

The Journey

During a particularly challenging time about fifteen years ago a friend shared a copy of Mary Oliver’s The Journey. It was a time of pain, brokenness and grief.  I read The Journey daily, if not numerous times a day, for months.  Not surprisingly it remains one of my all-time favorite poems, certainly the one that has had the most profound impact on my life.  Rather than providing a diversionary link, here is the poem in all its poignancy:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Many others, perhaps you, love this poem as well.  Do a Google search for “Mary Oliver poems” and it will pop up first along with another terrific piece, The Summer Day. Those of us who eagerly await release of every new volume from this National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize winner are almost cult-like in our adulation. The New York Times once described her as “far and away, [America’s] best-selling poet”.

It seems unthinkable, if not inexcusable, to suggest that Oliver’s poetry may in any way be deficient.  Yesterday I entertained the unthinkable!  Here is my excuse: If I were a poet, I would propose The Journey as the warmth, security and intimacy of base-camp after hiking.  Yesterday was like breaking camp early to resume the hike and suddenly happening upon breathtakingly lush valleys and expansive vistas.

Why?  Yesterday Pope Francis referred to “the journey” when installing nineteen new Cardinals. In his homily Pope Franics referred to Mark 10.

“Jesus was walking…”. This is something striking about the Gospels: Jesus is often walking and he teaches his disciples along the way. This is important. Jesus did not come to teach a philosophy, an ideology… but rather “a way”, a journey to be undertaken with him, and we learn the way as we go, by walking. Yes, dear brothers, this is our joy: to walk with Jesus. And this is not easy, or comfortable, because the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross.

After a momentary wince at “dear brothers” – but, all 19 new Cardinals are male – I recognized the inclusivity of his very human exhortation.  I felt a sudden refreshment much like happening upon a lush, expansive vista:

Jesus did not come to teach a philosophy, an ideology… but rather “a way”, a journey to be undertaken with him, and we learn the way as we go, by walking.

I settle into the consolation Mary Oliver offers when I am feeling spent, exhausted, empty – the sort of times that come after a long sometimes treacherous hike through mountain terrain. Base camp can’t come soon enough.  After rest, nourishment and intimacy only base camp can provide we again hear the call to resume our walking.

Yes, …this is our joy: to walk with Jesus. And this is not easy, or comfortable, because the way that Jesus chooses is the way of the Cross.

Any who have received love, found love or attempt love know the persistent call of this journey, aware of our frailty and needs but ever expectant of what lies ahead because of all we have seen and those with whom we travel.

___________________________

“The Journey,” by Mary Oliver, from Dreamwork (Atlantic Monthly Press).

February in Minnesota

I FINALLY UNDERSTAND!  We returned from Florida to what meteorologists are calling the most “extreme” winter in a generation — with March yet to come.  Minnesota typically gets more snow in March than any other month.  With piles already four, five, even six feet high along sidewalks and driveways, where will we put it all? But today, I understand why we live here, why we do what we do.  My story doesn’t rank up there with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, but it focuses on the same question. 

Yesterday I was backing out of the alley for a 1 p.m. meeting. Much to my surprise – and disappointment – the plow had been down 51st street and left a high ridge of hard snow. With well practiced determination I punched down on the accelerator – at least as much as seemed prudent given I could not see over the piles of snow blocking views of the sidewalk or street.  My trusty 1999 Chevy Cavalier found its perch atop the wall of hard snow.  “Aren’t plows supposed to make it easier for cars to get about?” I grumbled.

No amount of sand under the tires or revving the motor was going to budge my car from high center.  A man happened to be walking by, introduced himself as someone who lived in an adjoining block, and was soon on his knees shoveling.  Our neighbor, Jeff from four houses north stopped attending to his driveway and quickly came to my aid.  Within minutes an anonymous couple just driving past stopped to help with broad, knowing smiles.  All four, not just the neighbor I knew, took turns down on their knees chipping snow from under the chaises. Two of the three shovels were brought to the task by these unknown Good Samaritans. No one chided me for my foolishness.

In what seemed like record speed for one feeling so foolish and frustrated, the four got in front of the car and “rocked” me free.  Then, these three “strangers” dispersed as quickly as a flash mob at Penn Station.  Driving away, I noticed Jeff through the rear view mirror remaining to clear the scene so other impertinent drivers wouldn’t have the same problem. I arrived at my meeting on time.

Why do we live in Minnesota? IT’S THE PEOPLE! In the Parable of the Good Samaritan an expert in the Law, wanting to justify himself, asks “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus flips the question around, and hopefully the self-satisfied legalist, to make an incisive point: Our neighbor is anyone — even a stranger — who needs us to be neighbor to them!

Yes, there are good people everywhere. But, my experience tells me we just have a higher concentration of great, caring people here in Minnesota. I would like to be proven wrong!