Love you, Bro!

My hero, my mentor, my big brother died one year ago today.  Yes, I miss him daily and would give anything for just one more “Villa Run.”  Yet, in stark contrast to other deaths I have grieved, I am consoled by Jerry’s enduring presence every day.  This presence transcends fond memories prompted by photos in the TV room.

Sixteen years my elder, I traversed that stage of rejecting whatever anyone tried to tell me about how to live my life.  Now, one year after Jerry’s death I spontaneously depend on his wisdom to show me what my life, what human growth and maturity — life fully lived — should look like.

Life on life’s terms!

Let go!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I could do no better than to put into practice what Jerry lived.  I can do no better than to again share the eulogy I offered one year ago…

My brother’s life can be explained in three words. …just three words: Jerry loved Marilyn! She was his best friend, trusted confidant, spiritual soulmate, …his beloved. I know, I was there at the beginning! Some of you knew Gert, our dear mother! She believed this too. More than once Gert is known to have said: “You know, Marilyn is the best thing that ever happened to Jerry!” And that’s a mother speaking!

Yes, my brother’s life can be explained in three words – and the mirror of these three words is the other side of the equation: Marilyn loved Jerry. Marilyn has a tremendous capacity for love! Yet everyone in this room who holds Marilyn so dear … in our many unique and special ways … knows without question that Marilyn’s love for Jerry was always first, singular and unqualified.

And I’m here to tell you that loving my brother like that is no easy feat. Burbachs come with a double dose of certain character defects – especially Burbach males. All of you know, probably better than we who are in it up to our eyeballs, that we tend to be hard-charging, opinionated, stubborn and can boast of a good dose of unbridled pride to bout. Jerry was no exception – yet we love him. We love him.

We have witnessed a remarkable transformation in Jerry over the years, especially over the last ten years. And it was not just – or even primarily – about Alzheimer’s! Hard-charging became more gentle. Opinionated softened into acceptance and inclusion. Stubbornness began to morph into patience. Pride began to show glimmers of genuine humility. Then there was gratitude – tremendous gratitude: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Yes, Jerry’s thirty years in AA working a 12 step program certainly contributed to his spiritual transformation in character defects. But that’s not the real explanation! Jerry loved Marilyn. And the other half of this truth is: Marilyn loved Jerry.

As spiritual soulmates, Jerry and Marilyn lived and experienced their very special love as deeply Sacramental – a living sign, a tangible expression – here and now – of how God loves… even unto death. We have experienced their love in hospitality, compassion; as generative, life-giving — most conspicuously we have them to thank for Matt and Chris! But, we are all richer because of the other-centeredness of Jerry and Marilyn’s love.

The explanation for my brother’s life, for his ability to let-go of all that ego-stuff with its bells and whistles, his ability to embrace life-on-life’s-terms, his willingness to step courageously, even if regrettably, into the mystery of Alzheimer’s; finds its source – and salvation – in the steadfast, singular love Jerry and Marilyn shared with each other. We are all witnesses to this truth. And, we are all the better for it!

Jerry you will always be my hero, my idol, my BIG brother! Thank you for teaching all of us how to live, how to love and how to die. We, all of us, “love you, bro!”

Scripture Blesses Same-Sex Marriage

Twelve years ago I proudly marched in my first Gay Pride parade. Yes, I was afraid! A lifetime of being vilified within American culture and condemned as “inherently disordered” by the church I love and served would not easily loosen its harsh grip.

A few short months before that Sunday in June 2002 I had been the pastor of the Church of St. Luke – an iconic institution a block down Summit Avenue from the Governor’s Mansion. I had been a priest for thirteen years and a Jesuit for twenty-three. The stark contrast between preaching and presiding at Sunday liturgy and now marching in the Pride parade down Hennepin Avenue could not have been more acute.

I have come to believe what I only intuitively knew twelve years ago – the turmoil and debates in Christian churches are not ultimately about my sexual orientation or even sexuality in general. Our biggest fight is really about our understanding of Scripture and its use in exercising authority and maintaining order in our communities.

If it were really about sexual orientation and behaviors there would be more than enough “inherent disorder” among heterosexuals to keep the defenders of moral rectitude busy! As Luke Timothy Johnson – distinguished professor of New Testament at Emory University and father of four – incisively points out, a relatively small set of same-sex behaviors gets singled out for moral condemnation while a vast pandemic of sexual disorder goes ignored.

It’s a moral duplicity as old as the human race! The LGBT minority offers a convenient scapegoat onto which the cultural majority easily projects its own moral failings. Righteous indignation often compensates for the human state of powerlessness. Long ago I learned to be especially wary of any who would sit in moral judgment – what is so out of control in their own lives that they feel the need to control mine or the lives of others? From my way of reading the Gospels, this resonates with what Jesus preached. And for that, he was scapegoated by those who claimed seats of authority.

As Luke Timothy Johnson convincingly asserts is an essay cited below, a moral obligation confronts those of us who experience God at work among all persons and in all covenanted and life-enhancing forms of sexual love. Believe me, those who are gay understand fully that the authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial to us.

At the same time, we must honestly ask when has Christianity ever been lived in precise accord with the Scriptures? Forget about reconciling war with Jesus’ Scriptural teachings of nonviolence, I am regularly exasperated with Catholic bishops who wantonly ignore its own Just War tradition while giving tacit approbation to whatever military action our government chooses to deploy.

Scripture and tradition are conveniently and regularly set aside by bishops no less those of us who populate the pews every weekend. What about divorce? Even under another name such as “annulment”, Jesus explicitly prohibits it! And where would we be if Christians ever faithfully observed the exhortation in Leviticus to put adulterers to death?    Must wives be submissive to their husbands to have a good Christian marriage?

Yes, something sacred is at stake. The authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial. As Professor Johnson demands, our responsibility is to take our tradition and the Scripture with at least as much seriousness as those who use the Bible as a buttress for rejecting forms of sexual love they fear or cannot understand.

Again relying heavily on Johnson’s compelling insights, our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. All abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments which gave every indication that slaveholding was legitimate and necessary. Scripture explicitly sanctions slavery as a God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised any fundamental objection.

So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong? The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience.

Eventually, though begrudgingly, we came to recognize that every human being is created in God’s own image. Once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation and our churches could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.

Those of us who call for full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position.

To justify our resolve, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.

Paul struggled mightily! Ultimately he recognized he could not force the God of Jesus Christ into the framework of his community’s previous understanding of what it means to be a people in covenant relationship with God. Instead, he called others to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture with new eyes and a transformed heart. We too journey to Damascus and are at times startled to recognize Christ in those we previously rejected if not persecuted.

Quite simply, we would not revere the New Testament as sacred if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own stories and experiences more than the prescriptions contained in their sacred texts —writings we, as did they, cherish as holy and inspired by God.

It is extraordinarily important, as well, that we who assert convictions based on the graced experience of our lives not just accept “cheap” or “easy” grace – as if whatever feels good is morally acceptable. What grounds our Scriptural defense is our own lived experience of those profound stories of bondage and freedom, longing and love, shared by thousands of persons over many centuries and across many cultures, that help define us as human.

Our obligation, therefore, is to name what constitutes virtue and vice in sexual behavior. A good start would be applying the same criteria on both sides. If porneia among heterosexuals includes promiscuity, violence and exploitation, then the church must condemn similar forms of homosexual activity. Similarly, if holiness among heterosexuals includes fidelity, chastity, modesty, and fruitfulness, we should celebrate and praise the same virtues whenever and wherever present in same-sex love.

The creative, redemptive work of our living God never ceases. The Spirit blows as and where she will. As people and as the People of God, we continue to be shaped as imagio Dei every day of our lives in ways that can surprise and even shock us. This fact cuts to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself—namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life.

In this perennial struggle to come to the fullness of faith, brave witnesses like Paul refused to force their experience of the Risen One into the “old wineskins” of any dogmatic or literal understanding of Scripture. Instead, they followed the invitation to give witness to Christ alive among them. In the light of that experience, they began to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture as prophecy that reveals God in ways they had not perceived before—and could not have perceived before.

In short, we would not have the New Testament as Scripture if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own bodies more than the precedents provided by their most cherished writings—writings we also, by the way, consider holy and inspired by God.

Jesus reserves his harshest judgment for the Pharisees’ willful narrowing of God’s initiative and intentions. They obstinately clung to their own sense of righteousness rather than acknowledging God’s prerogative and propensity to work in ways their moral categories could not contain. In this we see that human history truly does reveal salvation history!

Yes, much has changed in the last twelve years. Much more needs to change – and this by God’s design and initiative. This Sunday morning I don’t know if I will be at the parade or at church. It will come down to how the Spirit moves me!  My hunch is I will be in the pew at Christ the King Catholic Church.

In any case, let’s all celebrate where we’ve been, where we’ve come  and where we’re headed — with parades and in our churches. Happy Pride!
______________________
This reflection is largely an edit and synopsis of Luke Timothy Johnson’s superb essay, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture and Experience” that first appeared in the June 11, 2007 issue of Commonweal magazine. In writing, I made the judgment that extensive citations and quotations would be distracting. Nevertheless, I must express my esteem for and indebtedness to Professor Johnson. I enthusiastically encourage you to read his more extensive and compelling essay [here].

 

 

Love’s Yearning

We went to a movie last evening and guests are coming for breakfast — time to resort to yet another “all-time-favorite.” You may recall from a post here on Monday:

“Those from a Sacramental tradition are predisposed to encountering the Holy One in “stuff” like bread, oil, water, wine, food, drink; sensually in touch, smell, taste, sights and sounds.”

Well, here is the iconic prayer poem, The Dark Night by sixteenth century Spanish mystic St John of the Cross. Talk about taking sensual prayer to new heights!!!  They say its even better in the original Spanish!

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my
heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

__________________

Translated and edited by E. Allison Peers from the critical edition of P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, C.D.

Good Grief

Grief softens, taunts us into familiarity, befriends us over time and — though uninvited — comes to settle in with us as a respected companion.

At least that’s my experience from the perspective of having lost five of nine siblings. Today is the third anniversary of my brother Art’s death.

You would have liked him — I honestly do not know a person who did not! Of the six brothers he clearly inherited our Dad’s gracious charm and ease with people. He was incorrigibly kind, generous, self-effacing, optimistic and happy. That was quite a feat given our genetic disposition and his ten-year battle with lung cancer.

Art loved cars as did our dad, his namesake. One of my most vivid childhood memories was his purchase of a sleek, white, 1959 Pontiac Star Chief sedan — it belongs in the Smithsonian! Just having it parked in our driveway gave this nine-year old immediate, and fully exploited, bragging rights.

Art’s fascination with cars endured but also signaled a fundamental shift. No longer needing to flash an icon of a financially flush bachelor, over time Art became quite skilled in car repair. He embraced a new focus, new goals. Modesty and frugality became his obsession as Joyce and their three kids became the locus of his pride and uncontested priority.

Always the financial wizard and astute investor, Art became as selfless as is constitutionally possible for a Burbach male. His many sacrifices and deep reservoir of faith in God and other people has been validated in terrific children with whom I am proud to share the family name.

One last, parting gift endures. Honored to be among my brother’s pallbearers, I was unprepared for what I was asked to carry.  Lumbering up a slight incline at Calvary cemetery proved more than I could manage. I buckled under the weight — others had to come to my rescue.  Thus, my brother’s legacy continues to work its way with me.

Being the youngest of a large family is a profound gift. Perhaps I learn from some of their mistakes, though plenty of evidence suggests the contrary. Certainly I profit from their example and wisdom.  I am growing more accustomed to not being the leader, content — perhaps blessed — to follow.

More than ever, I am coming to appreciate what T.S. Eliot expressed so well:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
__________________
T.S. Eliot’s famous quote is from the conclusion of Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets.

Jeb’s Lesson Plan

Every day, come hail or high water, Jeb the Dog takes me for a walk along Minnehaha Creek. Jeb is especially excited these days because record high water pushes the creek far beyond its banks. Need it be said that neighbors who feverishly tend sump pumps are not nearly as enthusiastic?

The high water enables Jeb to more easily greet Mama Mallard and her five ducklings. It gives him an edge in tormenting Mr. Snapping Turtle. Watching Jeb’s sheer exuberance and feverish freedom makes me wonder if our wonder-dog faithfully takes me to the creek to remind me of a basic truth:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Jeb’s been with us for almost three years now. He patiently but persistently labors to share with us many truths, adapting his lesson plan with the agility of a master teacher. His core message remains tediously consistent: We urgently need to acquire a new way of looking at ourselves, at the created world, and at God!

The environmental cliff on which we teeter suggests that our head-in-the-sand addiction to immediate gratification is not primarily economic (e.g., portfolio profits), political (e.g., re-election) or technical (e.g., “clean” energy) but spiritual. Jeb might say we are in need of a more fundamental transformation, conversion, metanoia, change-of-heart.

Just before our walk to the creek yesterday I was reading something by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. He laments that we no longer see the world as gift of God or sacrament of divine presence. We no longer have Wendell Berry’s eyes or heart, becoming day-blind to the grace of the world.  We have become pretty hard-core secularists.

Record flooding on the creek tempts me to despair. At times I fear for our lives and what our children’s lives may be. Perhaps wood drakes, great herons and snapping turtles will do what patriarchs and poets apparently cannot.

Jeb, I need another walk!
_________________
Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998.

Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today by Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Doubleday. 2008. pp. xviii-xix. Continue reading

The Perfect Hamburger

In the Greek classic, The Odyssey, Homer probes the meaning of life. Me? I’m simply in search of a hamburger that tastes as good as the ones I enjoyed with my Dad at Main Street cafes of small Nebraska towns when I’d accompany him on a sales trip.

Imagine my delight when I spotted an article in the NYTimes explaining how to cook the perfect hamburger! Like Homer’s Odysseus I’ve followed more than my share of dead ends and made some pretty serious mistakes.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

First, forget the grill. Use a cast-iron skillet or griddle. The point is to allow rendering beef fat to gather around the patties as they cook. The beef fat collected in a hot skillet acts both as a cooking and a flavoring agent. Grease is a condiment that is as natural as the beef itself.

Great hamburgers fall into two distinct categories. There is the traditional griddled hamburger of Main Street diners like the ones I enjoyed with my Dad. The other is the pub- or tavern-style hamburger, plump and juicy, with a thick char that gives way to tender, often blood-red meat within. Dad never took me into any pubs or taverns so you know the one I’m looking for!

The diner hamburger has a precooked weight of 3 to 4 ounces, roughly an ice-cream-scoop’s worth of meat. Pay close attention to the cuts of beef used in the grind. Home cooks should experiment with blends that contain from 20 to 25 percent fat.

The grind most stores sell is “fine,” which means the fat globules in it are small. That can lead to the dreaded mushy mouth feel of a substandard hamburger. Better to have a butcher grind your meat, asking for a coarse grind so that the ratio of meat to fat is clear to the eye.

Whatever the blend, it is wise to keep the meat in the refrigerator, untouched, until you are ready to cook. Hamburgers are one of the few meats you want to cook cold. You want the fat solid when the patty goes onto the skillet.

Forming the patties is an art. Simply use a spoon or an ice-cream scoop to extract a loose golf ball of meat from the pile, and get it onto the skillet in one swift movement accompanied (for the first burger) with a pat of melted butter to get the process started.

Then, a heresy to many home cooks: the smash. Use a heavy spatula to press down on the meat, producing a thin patty about the size of a hamburger bun. Everyone freaks out about that, explain the experts, but it’s the only time you should be “working” the meat, essential to creating a great crusty exterior in doing so.

Roughly 90 seconds later, after seasoning your burger, slide your spatula under the patty, flip it over, add cheese if you want, and cook the hamburger through.

The hamburger of my dreams has no cheese. But I concede some gild the lily. If you must, the experts say most people don’t melt the cheese enough. Put it on the moment the patty is flipped and let it drape the burger. Which cheese you use is a matter of preference. American cheese is designed to melt and it has 50 percent more sodium than Cheddar or Swiss, so it adds a lot of flavor.

In choosing buns the bun-to-burger ratio is incredibly important. You want a soft bun, like a challah or potato, but whichever you use it shouldn’t overwhelm the burger. They should be as one.

Finally, choose your condiments. You know the ususals… they are a matter of preference. But again according to the experts, do not overdress — people really over complicate hamburgers. We substitute complication for simplicity, sharing and loving those we are with.

Sounds a lot like spirituality. What I wouldn’t give for just one more burger with my Dad in a cafe on Main Street in a small Nebraska town.

__________________

You may find the entire June 24 NYTimes article on which my reflection is base at: http//nyti.ms/1rqWdZ2  —  It contains a great explanation (and recipe) for Pub or Tavern burgers for those who prefer these over my favorite diner burger.

More than Blackberries

Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

Theologians haggle over the “hypostatic union”. Those who truly comprehend the creation accounts of Genesis — or the Annunciation of Mary — spontaneously “find God in all things!”

To pray “on earth as it is in heaven” presumes we understand that to “have dominion” precludes domination and demands we protect the creation from every form of degradation.

Those from a Sacramental tradition are predisposed to encountering the Holy One in “stuff” like bread, oil, water, wine, food, drink; sensually in touch, smell, taste, sights and sounds.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

On this long lush summer day, take off your shoes and pray a while.

_________________
Thanks go to Fr Dale Korogi for inspiring this reflection with his use of the Browning poem yesterday in his Corpus Christi homily at Christ the King Church.  The quote is from Bk. VII, l. 822-826 of Browning’s poetry.