God Doesn’t Have a Plan B

Sometimes things are so cogently stated they should be allowed to stand as they are.  I had that experience today when I read — as I do regularly — my friend Susan’s blog, Creo en Dios!  It carried a provocative reminder that for all of us who claim to take our faith seriously: “We are God’s plan for justice, and he doesn’t have a Plan B.  We’re it.”

Think about that!  If we simply take a moment to consider that reality, letting it settle even a bit into our consciousness, my hope for this post will be fulfilled.

You may wish to take a look at Susan’s post for a rich discussion of “reimagining the the practice of law”, poverty and violence against the poor, and a few other poignant topics.  (Click on “post” in the previous sentence.)

Some may wish to regularly follow Creo en Dios! as I do daily.  Susan is a professor of law as well as an experienced, wise and popular spiritual guide and retreat director.

Again, WE are God’s plan for bringing justice to our world; there is no Plan B!

Going to Hell?

Recently we have begun hearing about religious “nones”.  Many of my generation initially assumed the term referred to the “nuns” we had in Catholic school.  In my case, they were the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, WI – superb educators and consistently caring women who instilled a love for learning, for service and for God.  Sorry, I have no stories of mean nuns.  Never once did I see a ruler come down on anyone’s knuckles in my K-8 years at Cathedral grade school in Omaha.

It has been quite a stretch for me to understand that “nones” now refer to people who claim no religious affiliation.  The number of “nones” has been inching upward so religious affiliation in the U.S. is presently at the lowest level since pollsters have been keeping track of such patterns.  Here is a dramatic representation of affiliation – or more precisely, unaffiliation – by generation:


What do you see?  How do you feel about such patterns?  What questions do these percentages raise?  A few will likely react with alarm, consternation and despair.  Some may see in this single statistical rendering confirmation that the world is in fact going to hell.

I would suggest a pervading attitude of curiosity.  Rather than rushing to premature judgment, we would do better to approach the data with eagerness to find out what is really going on – or not — in our young, our world and our churches.  Might it be that the Millennials are withholding “affiliation” with all sorts of social institutions, not just churches?  Political systems are dysfunctional by most standards.  Our economy is rife with examples of corrupt corporate practices and failure to generate sufficient jobs for their generation. Churches of all stripes are too often boring, irrelevant and present shocking examples of corrupt leadership.  But conjecture and defense is not my purpose.

Curiosity, and confidence in the enduring benevolence of the Holy Spirit, leads us in another direction.  The Dominican “nuns” of my youth would certainly have us move in that positive direction of openness, trust and confidence.  Where in the New Testament does it say we are always to be prepared to give a defense for our hope, both in and out of season?

Rather than indicting an entire generation, we would do better to remain curious about the 67% of young people born in the early 1990s and the 70% of young adults born in the 1980s who positively choose affiliation with a faith practice. What is enriching and worthy of imitation in their affiliation with their communities?  We must accept that “church” can, will and must look very different in the future – if not, aren’t we idolators?  Are we elders truly willing to turn over significant responsibility and meaningful leadership to those in their late twenties and early thirties?  I mean really turn over responsibility and leadership!

Whoever said, “Beware of anyone who thinks they have the answers!” was onto something profound.  Can we “live the questions” as Rilke counsels the young poet or as we see in Mary of Nazareth’s “How can this be?”  A good dose of spiritual humility along the line of the psalmist would also seem to be in order: “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Finally, if we are prone to consternation about the lack of faith affiliation among our young, we would do well to learn the truth so effectively communicated by the “nuns” at my grade school: Faith is “caught” more than taught!  Perhaps the greatest gift of the “nones” is a call to the rest of us to lives deserving of affiliation.


I first saw the affiliation chart in “Suspicious Minds” available in the current issue of America Magazine: http://americamagazine.org/issue/suspicious-minds

In the Face of Death

Today is my brother Fred’s birthday and we are in Florida to help him celebrate.  Fred and I have always been in sync despite a gaping age difference.  We haven’t always seen eye to eye – he willing served in Viet Nam while I was a peace activist at home.  I was enraged by the Reagan-Bush bumper sticker he proudly sported on his car.  Despite significant reasons for us not to even like each other, ours has always been a tight bond we both cherish.  Part of our fun every February 16 is that Fred’s birthday is my half-birthday.  We playfully mark the coincidence, delighting in this quirk of fate, as yet another cosmic indicator of a fraternal connection that was destined to be by powers more gracious than either of us.

We are now getting older and the evidence is harder to disguise or ignore.  In recent years I have to admit to a growing ambivalence about yielding to this “second” birthday any personal significance.  It marks a subtle threshold reminding me that I am now gently sliding closer to the next numerical indicator and farther from a receding benchmark — as of today, I am closer to 64 than 63.  Truthfully, I am not entirely sure how I feel about this imposing reality!

Today seems particularly poignant.  Readers of my post two days ago know of the death of a significant teacher.  A couple months ago we suddenly lost a dear friend at 58 to a rare auto-immune hepatitis.  Tomorrow we would be at the funeral for the mother of a dear friend and colleague if we were not in Florida.  Next Saturday we will be back in town for the memorial service of a longtime friend who died suddenly at age 50.  Another brother in Nebraska reported on the funeral of our cousin Dennis which occurred day before yesterday.  A harsh reality is there will be no birthday greetings from the five of nine siblings who have, as the euphemism goes, “gone before us.” Celebrating Fred’s birthday today seems all the more meaningful, welcome and appropriate because we know it could be otherwise.

The author of Ecclesiastes captures familiar wisdom: “There is a time for every purpose under heaven… a time to live and a time to die.”  When younger, I understood this to be two distinct options, alternating phases or discrete moments.  Now I know this reality is not an “either/or” proposition.  The wisdom of our great faith traditions, the quiet confidence with which true elders mark their days, is much more supple and resilient.  Slowly, even reluctantly, we come – through the “kneading” process of many years – to embrace our lives as an odd and crazy mixture of “both/and.”

How, then, are we to live?  How are we to memorialize loved ones who have gone on ahead of us? How are we to celebrate this and all birthdays?  No one expresses it better than Mary Oliver in one of my favorite poems:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.


Poem by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

Paying Attention

I did something really stupid! Readers have heard me complain about Minnesota winter so much that no one should be surprised that I scarfed up a really cheap flight to Florida. So Wednesday I get to the airport at 6:45 a.m. for my 7:50 departure. Zone 1 is invited to board and I gratefully prance to the skyway with my digital boarding pass emblazoned on my iPhone. The agent was thrown off routine procedure and asked me to step aside. Long story short, I had confused a.m. and p.m. My departure was to be 7:50 P.M.! Imagine my disbelief, frustration, and exasperation!

In a frozen daze I stepped aside considering my options. “Okay, compose yourself!” The water had been turned off at home (a precaution Minnesotans take in Winter), the thermostat set at 60 and the dog was off settled with his favorite sitter. This being prime time for Minnesota families to visit Disney World there was zero chance of going stand-by on any for the next four flights from MSP to Orlando. It was too soon to suck up my pride and call my brother to say he would not be picking me up at 12 noon but rather I’d be arriving at midnight.

Despite a horrific winter in Minnesota, it is remarkable what “the universe” (i.e., Providence) conspires to provide if we are but open and receptive. Taking a seat in  digitally equipped booth increasingly common at airport gates, I sought reorientation and refuge in on the iPad there for travelers’ convenience.  There in my email box was a routine link to a blog post from my friend Susan. This day she shared a poem by 13th century Persian Sufi poet, Rumi:

The Guesthouse.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Thank you, Susan!  How did you anticipate my need?  I spent the next twelve hours at the airport attempting to cultivate openness, attentiveness, receptivity, curiosity, gratitude. I was not entirely successful. However, the day was not a total bust.  I observed many things about our culture, other people and — with a certain resistance — about myself.

One primary lesson I hope never to forget is the profound significance of twelve hours.

In Memoriam

Sometimes you just don’t recognize the profound importance of someone in your life until they are gone. That happened for me last week upon hearing that a professor from graduate school had died of cancer at age 73. Dan Harrington was an internationally distinguished Scripture scholar, editor of the journal New Testament Abstracts and the Sacra Pagina series of books. He earned a doctorate in biblical languages and cultures from Harvard, taught Scripture to theology students like us, and preached every Sunday for over twenty-five years in Catholic churches he served as priest. A couple generations of students are grieving Along with family and many friends. Dan had all the “bells and whistles” of the finest academic pedigree.

More importantly, Dan was genuinely humble and disarmingly approachable. You learned that upon first meeting. You learned that Dan passionately loved God. And, you discovered that Dan stuttered. He once wrote: “My love for the Bible goes back a long way. I stutter – I always have and I guess I always will. As a young boy I read in a newspaper that Moses stuttered. … The Bible never grows wearisome or stale for me. I am deeply in love with the Bible as God’s word.” Dan taught us as a master teacher with impeccable skill and as an ordinary human being who struggled with limitation to bring ourselves, our experiences, our personal strengths and limits, as well as a deep sense of community to biblical studies.

Yes, Dan modeled for us the best methods of literary, historical, and theological analysis. More, he showed us that the Bible is not meant to be “an object of antiquarian research or words on a page (no matter how sacred).” He would insist: “In the encounter between the reader and the text the ‘word of God’ comes alive. Something can and does happen. In that encounter— whether it takes the form of silent or oral reading, literary analysis, or preaching—the word of God comes alive for me. I see analogies, points of contact, between what the biblical text describes and my life. As I discover and articulate those analogies I develop a language for thinking and talking about the experience of God and about human existence. This in turn shapes my way of living and how I interact with others.”

Perhaps his most profound imprint was in helping others comprehend that the “Word of God” is not identical with the text of the Bible. It is a living Word through which we enter a personal and communal encounter with the Holy One. “From the Bible we come to know the God of our religious tradition and what it means to be God’s people. We meet Jesus of Nazareth whom we confess to be the Word of God. In and through the Word/word, God tells us who God is and what God wants us to be and do.” Dan understood his craft in the context of his faith. “The encounter with God through the Bible cannot be programmed or forced. God takes the initiative in this relationship and leads us where God wants us to go.

More than anything, Dan explicated his love for an ancient, simple and effective framework of engaging with the Bible. Such “divine” or spiritual reading is known by its Latin name, lectio divina. There are four steps in lectio divina:
• Reading – what does the text say?
• Meditation – what is God saying to me through this text?
• Prayer – what do I want to say to God on the basis of this text?
• Action – what difference, challenges, or possibilities does this text open up?
In 1997 Dan expressed himself in words characteristically simple and distinctly apt for celebrating his life: “In the midst of these wonderful activities (which are my greatest joy) I occasionally stutter. And this brings me back to where my spiritual journey with the Bible began. Though I am slow of speech and tongue like Moses, I still hear the words of Exodus 4:11-12: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

May he rest in peace!


Source: http://americamagazine.org/sites/default/files/attachments/howcanifindgod_0.pdf

One God

Regular readers know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am steeped in Catholicism and aspire to nothing more than to be a decent Christian.  Many may not know of my deep regard bordering on love for Judaism.  Some may even know of my active curiosity for Islam.  The Trappist Christian de Cherge and his fellow monks in Muslim Algeria, on whom the movie “Of Gods and Men” is based, remain among my all-time heroes – but that is for a later post. 

As others have said rightly, there is not a Christian god and a Jewish god and a Muslim god.  There is only one God!  With that conviction in mind inter-religious dialogue, even practices where possible, remain an interest and commitment.  One of the great world religions of which I know very little is Hinduism.  You might imagine therefore my delight when I happened upon this prayer from the Hindu scriptures:

Though the Infinite One is without color,
He colors the entire universe;
Though immortal,
He is born, and lives, and dies.
He becomes the woman, the man,
He becomes the blue butterfly,
The green parrot with red eyes.
He becomes lightning, the seasons,
The endless sea.
Beyond all time and space,
He is the One from whom
All the worlds are born.
                                       – the Upanishads 

I would be inclined to interchange a feminine “she” with the masculine “he” from time to time in my prayer.  Here I simply offer it for your use in any manner you will find useful and consoling.

Too Late Smart

Many of us approaching elder status can be excused for saying, “I wish I knew then what I know now!”  I have a few insights I’d like to transplant into young people (re: anyone 40 or younger).  Here are three:

  • The essential value of delayed gratification
  • The magical wonders of compound interest
  • Smell the roses but save, save, save

I don’t begrudge exotic vacations or luxurious purchases.  But with the perspective of 63 years, I sometimes wish I had now what I spent then – plus the magical reward of compound interest!  The old curmudgeons were absolutely right: it happens faster than you think!

In an “ask me anything” question and answer session on Reddit, Bill Gates shared some of what he’d do differently given what he’s experienced and learned during his 58 years:

  • Get ahead of the game
  • Start giving back earlier
  • Spend more time away from the office

Gates’ first point was made in reference to his chosen profession, computer science.  Obviously, he intends for each of us to apply the principle of imagining the unthinkable in the context of our unique gifts, passions and dreams.

Gates was pressed for advice on how entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow should go about balancing business and philanthropy… or do they have to succeed first in order to give later? Gates noted that “just creating an innovative company is a huge contribution to the world.  During my 20′s and 30′s that was all I focused on.”  From his current vantage he adds, “Ideally people can start to mix in some philanthropy like [29 year old] Mark Zuckerberg has early in his career. I have enjoyed talking to … entrepreneurs about this and I am impressed by how early they are thinking about giving back – much earlier than I did.”

When asked how he’s changed over the past 20 years, Gates acknowledged that “age has taken off some of his edge in a positive way… Twenty years ago I would stay in the office for days at a time and not think twice about it—so I had energy and naiveté on my side. Now hopefully I am a bit more mellow but with a little extra wisdom.”

People have written books on the adage: “Too soon old, too late smart.”  Thanks for indulging the musing of this aspiring elder.  I hope you have learned something!





February Love

Burrowed up as we are during Minnesota winters, not to mention the aggressive isolation that comes upon drivers these months, “community” (or lack thereof) is a topic of special interest bordering on preoccupation. Yesterday’s post celebrated the distinctive way Minnesotans live community when we are at our best. An article I’ve seen bouncing around a few of the Twitter sites I follow highlights the consequences when we – not just Minnesotans – are not at our best.

Anna Nussbaum Keating looks at what happens when we disassociate love and sex in “Separation-Anxiety.” Keating’s springboard is the recent NYTimes article by Kate Taylor. “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too” describes a world of ambitious Penn undergraduates who put their personal interests and their résumés above relationship and inter-personal commitment. Forces of winter isolation in Minnesota are discouraging enough. So please indulge my diversion to a potentially transformative observation culled from this flurry of February angst.

Perhaps you already know Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Keating recounts a fascinating story from Gladwell’s bestseller about the people from the village of Roseto, Italy:

In the 1800s villagers from Roseto migrated to a town in Pennsylvania, where they created a prosperous community for themselves. Traveling physicians noted that, despite eating a high fat diet and exercising no more than normal, no one in the village of Roseto suffered from heart disease. There was also no suicide or violent crime. Rosetans lived long lives and died of old age. Nothing could be found in their genes to explain this anomaly. Researchers finally concluded that their close-knit community must be the source of their good health: multi-generational families living under one roof, neighbors knowing one another and stopping to chat in the street, respect for children and the elderly and everyone getting together for church on Sunday. The medical community had previously made the materialist assumption that only things such as genes, diet and exercise could be the cause of longevity, but Roseta proved what had already been codified in religion and myth: communities and relationships matter.

Jesus implores us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Childhood immaturity and the rebellion that comes with adolescence understandably dismiss this “commandment” as hopelessly naive, onerous and old-fashioned. Seeing the selfless love of my nephews and nieces who are parenting, or knowing the utter relief of discovering that an anonymous neighbor has snow-blown our driveway, confirms for me that it is in fact the Way, the Truth and the Life!





Salt and Light

Our block in a typical south Minneapolis neighborhood circulates a “TGIF, Friday, 5 pm” sign — at least in the summer. Whoever wants to host the  informal gathering gets the sign from the house where we gathered during the previous week and sticks it out front in their yard, generally on or about Wednesdays. No obligation! It’s pot-luck, very kid-friendly and easy-going. Yes, we have a block captain who keeps an eye on crime-alerts ( e.g., bicycle taken when garage door left open), email list-serve and printed directory that even includes the names of our pets. But, it’s our face-to-face informal gatherings in each other’s yards that really make us neighbors.  These summer socials go a long way to sustain us through the five months of the year when we are likely to have snow on the ground.

Minneapolitans need to be a hearty stock! So, our summer TGIFs sometimes must morph into spontaneous conversations over a snow shovel or commiseration when scraping ice from the windshield. However, we are rarely deterred and never defeated — our block proudly hosts a mid-November party!  We close off the street and, donned with coats and gloves, kids get one last chance before the snow flies to run and ride bikes with wild abandon. Most years, neighbors desperate for social connection will anticipate TGIF season with indoor gatherings as early as March, certainly by April.

This weekend the neighbors with whom we share an alley hosted the annual mid-February soup cook-off. Outside, of course. Organizers again got requisite permits to close off the street and Mother Nature cooperated with a refreshingly high temperature of 15 above zero.  No one needed to mentioned that the gray clouds mercifully insulated earth’s residual heat and a clear blue sky would have come with significantly lower temps — Minnesotans live this sort of reality! Crockpots keep the food warm if you eat fast and the kids play as if this is the way the whole world lives.

Despite my reputation and penchant for making soup, we chose to go instead to a benefit for our church’s Guatemala outreach.  As we drove out of the alley en route to the afternoon fund-raiser inside a popular pub, we noted the canvas ice fishing huts clustered midway down the blocked-off street. Steam from neighbors’ breath was as visible as from the pots of soup or smoke from patio grills repurposed for hand warming. We felt torn — these are our neighbors. Yet, we were not deterred from heading off to join other friends and hear music from some good bands.  You might say, we Minnesotans are accustomed to too much of a good thing!

At church this weekend we heard Jesus say: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” Always good to be reminded of what we easily take for granted. Salt and light — two things Minnesotans are especially grateful for at this time of year. Right here in south Minneapolis, we are blessed to be part of a community where neighbors really do melt a sometimes icy world and brighten our cloudy days.  We are truly blessed.


Okay, time to be honest!  I want to avoid, equivocate, prevaricate, dance, waffle, turn-the-other-way, find a distraction, go to sleep, run the other way!  Why?  Tomorrow’s Scripture at church is really challenging.  Did Jesus really mean it: “What good are we if we aren’t salty? …Don’t hide our light under a basket.” How’d Jesus know that is exactly how I act sometimes?  Sometimes I feel flat.  Sometimes I just want to hide.  I’m not the extrovert most people think I am. At times I’m scared.  A lot of times I’m just not sure.

Just makes it worse knowing tomorrow’s “salt and light talk” is at the core of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  You know: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are you when people persecute you because of your faith.”  Tough stuff!  All this is so clearly counter-intuitive, even contrary, to the way things really work.

Feeling stretched by the Gospel is only compounded by tomorrow’s selection from the prophet Isaiah paired with Matthew.  Share my bread with the hungry?  But, Food Stamps develop dependency.  Shelter the oppressed?  Provided, of course, they have “papers” and speak English.  Clothe the naked when you see them?  This can wait until Monday when agencies and programs reopen.

Matthew is all about Jesus coming to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  But, isn’t that language sexist and insensitive?  Shouldn’t we say “reign” of God?  … or at least “kin-dom?” Perhaps. Especially among academic-types, quibbling is a great way to avoid Jesus’ core message, an easy escape – the sort of equivocation, prevarication, diversion that lets me off the hook by arguing about what God really meant.  Keeps it all nicely theoretical, abstract, principled.

Jesus obviously meant his call to discipleship for an elite few, right? Not everyone is meant to “follow” Jesus, are we?  A few hours in church on Sunday takes care of it, right?  Faith in the workplace?  Isn’t that unconstitutional? Does Matthew really make too fine of a point crafting his Gospel with “bookends” – Sermon on the Mount (Beatitudes) at the beginning and the Last Judgment (“What you did for the least…”) at the end?  Jesus can’t be serious!  Can he?

I have tried to take Jesus seriously for more than a few decades.  Here’s some principles I try to live by.  They aren’t comprehensive, just a few that come to mind as I wrestle with tomorrow’s Scripture:

  • Slow shifts are more sustainable then dramatic change.
  • Family and spouse come first when it comes to loving others.
  • One size does not fit all; others will do it differently.
  • A community is essential to hold me accountable and challenge me.
  • Keep “skin in the game” like God did in Jesus.
  • God isn’t done with me yet.  Thank God.

You decide if I’m wimping out or prevaricating!  What would you change or add?