Enough with Deprivation

Quickly closing in on the age when the Catholic Church excuses me from mandatory fast and abstinence during Lent, I should have something to say after more than six decades of experience. If pressed, it comes down to this: it’s not ultimately about denial and deprivation!

Jeb the Dog often directs me to the edge of Minnehaha Creek where he takes me each day for a walk.  Yeterday Jeb led me to a clump of green spikes audaciously staking their claim amid the crunchy brown stubble of last year’s summer spectacle.  A rippling sheet of water attests to the creek’s insistence on breaking winter’s paralyzing hold. Years of accompanying Jeb instill confidence that watery rapids will soon applaud the canary yellow blossoms atop blades of lavish green.

Chickadees are returning to the still somnolent serviceberries. Yesterday, while positioning bed pillows on the sunny deck for a seasonal airing, two Juncos flashed the white underlying of their slate-colored tails as they vacated the Korean lilac. A matched pair of cardinals more boldly held their positions, staking out their claim with a nearly forgotten song.

In his poem, March, Mark Doty unwittingly expresses the paradox of our Lenten fast and abstinence:

I thought the choice was to love austerity
or not to love at all,

but when I went out to look at the elemental
I found nothing sparse, only this density

and saturation: dusky sedge
at the pond’s rim, thicket and tumble

of violet contradiction, plum stems–
a whole vocabulary of tone and hue, demanding,

a history steeped in the long practice
of luminosity. How difficult

just to say what’s here, in March severity.

Yes, try! Ultimately, Lent is not about denial and deprivation! No, it is about awakening to all that is quickening in us and in this luminous creation. From her home on the North Dakota prairie Kathleen Norris hints at the salutary motivation for fast and abstinence:

What is enough? As always, it seems that the more I can distinguish between my true needs and my wants, the more I am shocked to realize how little is enough. The trees that fan me are the fruit of others’ labor, planted by an earlier generation of Plains dwellers who longed for trees to shelter them. The land resisted, but let them have these few. I am startled by something flashing through the trees. It is the Pleiades, all seven of them plainly visible to the naked eye. This is another’s work, and a mystery. And it is enough.

Our world is awakening, being renewed, restored, refreshed, redeemed.  Six decades bring more than well-worn duty and rote routine.

Age and experience yields freedom from frozen obligations, yet instills the assurance that we are securely held by Someone more gracious than ourselves. We settle into an audacious confidence that as spent patterns recede, the ultimate vitality of life will not be denied. We conclude that even the smallest of portions is more than enough!
In addition to Mark Doty’s poem, March, which is from his collection Atlantis published by HarperPerennial, 1995; this reflection was also inspired by my friend Susan Stabile on her blog, Creo in Dios. Susan quoted Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk in beautifully distinguishing the difference between our wants and needs. I recommend her post available [here].

Dance, for God’s Sake!

Friday the 13th! Pi Day… 3.1415! Beware the Ides of March! St. Patrick’s Day.

The concentration of these fun, playful, popular — though essentially insignificant days — has gotten me thinking. We need more of this! In fact, I was disappointed when the parents of 8 y/o Max, grinning a proud gummy smile, told me they don’t do the tooth fairy!

Same applies to our faith! Where’s the fun? …playfulness? …sense of humor? Lent seems like a good time to do a collective assessment. My niece shared a photo on Facebook of their family attending Friday Night Fish Fry in Omaha. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun!

Coincidentally, we looked for a fish fry in Minneapolis last evening as well. A couple of churches came up in our Google search — clearly skewed to the “more Catholic” St. Paul side of the metro.  Mostly, they were restaurants and taverns.  We chose the St. Clair Broiler over the Grandview Pub because I preferred the family atmosphere over a bar. But, hey, this seems to be where folks prefer to spend Fridays in Lent. Our server at the Broiler even told us how their consistently good business really spikes on all-you-can-eat fish fry Fridays.

I hope our churches are paying attention! People are hungry! We are looking for nourishment in the context of community. I think Pope Francis is on to something — if you are not a person of conspicuous joy you are not really a very good Christian! Our churches can be so lifeless! Our gatherings so scripted, staid and subdued! Where’s the life?

Secular culture is pulsing with stories, rituals and mythology — black cats, Pi Day, Shakespeare’s admonition to be careful tomorrow, green beer, tooth fairies. These are more than frivolous. They are fun, expressive of human imagination and hold us in community. They express the longings and appetites of the human spirit for story, meaning and relationship.

I grew up in a church awash in Ember Days, feast days (St Richard’s is April 3), May crowning, summer camps, pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners, St Vincent de Paul Societies, Legion of Mary (for men, BTW), “open gym”, block rosary, you name it! It was fun, secure and a wonderful time and place to grow up.  I found God there!

To be clear, I am not pining for a return to the 1950s. God forbid! Resuscitating past patterns and repeating old scripts is definitely not where it’s at though many will try! Where is the imagination? …the vitality? …the energy? ..the Spirit?  WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE? We are hungry and will find nourishment. Jesus went out to meet them!

My intuition has a sense of what we need to be about as communities of faith. It comes from secular culture not from my two graduate degrees in theology! It comes from the Ellen DeGeneres television show!

As a nation, we do not need another PBS special of Jackie Kennedy giving a tour of the White House or Nancy Reagan unveiling new china for the Presidential dining room. Though it’s not my musical style or within my range of talent, we need Michelle Obama dancing “Uptown Funk” with Ellen [link]. Whether I prefer it or not, this is expressive of the future that is calling.  It’s expressive of the fun, vitality and energy for which our collective spirits are hungry. This is the kind of First Lady we need now — one who can give expression to our future and offers leadership by showing us the way.

I get a sense that Pope Francis “gets it”. But he leads on the global stage where he fights a whole lot of lethargy and entropy.  So do we!  Yet, each of us needs to bring this vision and spirit to our communities and locale. We will surely crash if we keep looking into the rear view mirror. Resuscitating old ways of doing things is a waste of time — “See I am doing new things!” says our God.

People vote with their feet. Sometimes, we even dance!

Drinking Poison

Do you ever stumble over the Our Father? No, not whether to wrap it up with “for thine in the kingdom, the power…” or chop it at “deliver us from evil”. My problem is more than linguistic. From time to time I get hung up on “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes the words hold up a mirror revealing more than I want to see or admit, more than I am willing to give.

Yesterday a friend shared just how complex and convoluted our emotions can be. Reflecting on my post about loss and grief, he confessed an unwillingness to acknowledge anger, an emotion with which he has come to recognize a complex and difficult relationship. Recently, as he probed more deeply into experiences of sadness and fear he has discovered that feelings of anger were being masked by the other two emotions.

My friends honesty challenges me! Yes, loss and grief — as we live these out day by day — get all bunched-up and tangled with feelings of fear, sadness, anger, betrayal, remorse, you name it! Often, unmasking one emotion reveals others joined at the hip complicating and confounding our ability to disentangle from the emotional mess. Reciting the Our Father can become a jarring reminder of the paralysis I sometimes feel around my need to forgive.

Jeanne Bishop, the author I referenced yesterday, had the ultimate challenge of forgiveness! Her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child were brutally shot by a gunman awaiting their return from a celebratory dinner with Jeanne and their parents. It’s a heart-wrenching, compelling story of forgiveness, something I am incapable of replicating right now.  My emotions remain too entangled, my vices too entrenched for such magnanimity.

Yet, Bishop’s words return, over and over, offering wisdom to the degree I am willing and able to hear:

Hating is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die!

Jeanne Bishop was strengthened by a determination not to give her sister’s killer that emotional power over her! From the moment that the police told her that Nancy and Richard had been murdered, she sensed in her deepest core that hating the person who did it would affect him not a bit, but it would destroy her.

Our emotions are complex and convoluted and frequently mask others more entrenched. Grief from deep loss, anger over genuine injury, hate welling from despicable behaviors can ensnare us. They can kill us.

Self-interest is not the most altruistic of motivations.  Yet, it serves as the most basic of moral imperatives to forgive — we must not give to them that power!


See: Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015. p. 45.

As We Would Want It

“Make a fist! That’s right… a big, tight fist! Now, put it in front of your face… right up there near the bridge of your nose …right between your eyes. What do you see?”

With this simple exercise, Jeanne Bishop’s pastor helped her deal with the excruciating grief associated with the tragic death of her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child.

“What do you see?”

“I see a fist.” Jeanne replied.

“Good.” the pastor said. “Now slowly, slowly take that fist and move it down to your side. … What do you see now?”

“I can see everything, the whole world.”

“Do you see that fist, the one that once blocked out everything else? … It hasn’t change size or shape. It’s just as big as it was before. It’s just not here” — the pastor raised his fist back to his face — “anymore.”

With this very simple and accessible routine, Pastor John Boyle assisted a bereft woman to see that she could move ahead with painful memories, enduring love, the truth of her loss as “companions” by her side.

The pastor assured her, “You have had a loss. You will never get over it. But you will get out from under it.”

When grief is fresh it feels raw and all-consuming. This in testimony to the depth of the relationship lost. It appears to block out the rest of our world, like the fist in front of our nose. With time it subsides — in its own time and as it serves its good purpose. The chasm created by the loss never leaves but moves to another place, always by our side.

Memory, love and loss — our ever-present companions. Over time, life becomes as we would want it. As it should be!
References and quotes are from pages 44-45 of Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015.

Boundless Grief, Boundless Love

Lisa was the apple of her father’s eye. It was a bitter blessing, therefore, that she could be at his bedside when my brother died. My own experiences of loss prompt me to remember her often during this past month. Grief is damn hard!

As we took our inevitable leave on the afternoon of the funeral, Lisa and I embraced to express our grief, enduring affection and mutual need for consolation. Experience reminded me of what was in store for her — the seeming finality of what feels like an ultimate goodbye, the bottomless pit that would likely open as she drove the fifty miles to her home in Sioux City, how those miles committed to memory from so many happy occasions could now appear foreign, inhospitable, estranged.

I felt compelled to say something profound, at least avuncular. But there are no words! Yet, I mumbled something, fumbling to say what Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed so well:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love…
it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it,
but on the contrary, God keeps it empty
and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other,
even at the cost of pain…
the dearer and richer the memories,
the more difficult the separation.

That’s been my experience. Perhaps it will be Lisa’s. The challenge for me has been to leave the emptiness empty, open, raw as it is! I know the futility of trying to anesthetize the pain with alcohol. We are prone to fill the void with consumption or consumerism of all sorts. We easily seek diversion and distraction aplenty. Yet, what’s buried alive stays alive. If in our desperation we attempt to deaden our irreplaceable loss, our profound and personal “emptiness”, the void remains only a vacuous insatiable hole.

The unimaginable, the painful bitter route of grief unencumbered, becomes our source of blessing if we can remain open, embracing loss as life’s ultimate assurance of love. Bonhoeffer wisely concludes:

But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy.
The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh,
but as a precious gift in themselves.

Of this I am certain… Lisa remains the apple of her father’s eye!

A Simple Injunction

A big banner photo greeted me when opening the monthly e-newsletter from the Episcopal House of Prayer this morning:


During the few years I served on the EHOP board a new walkway to the chapel was installed with five incisive quotes from the world’s great religious traditions.  I had nominated this quote from Psalm 46 and designated my modest annual gift to this project.  I both welcome and need this Biblical injunction.

Imagine my surprise with this morning’s sudden reminder!  Such interventions should not be easily dismissed as mere coincidence.  So today I sit up and pay attention:  Be still and know that I am God!

Funny thing is, Jeb the dog tries to remind me of this in a hundred ways each day.  One look at him sprawled out in a shaft of sun on the dining room rug any given winter day should be instruction enough.

Sometimes life’s simplest truths are the most difficult to assimilate into our daily routine!

Pure or Poor?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? These sorts of questions were prompted by a headline that grabbed my attention. Essentially, the article [Link] frames the question whether the church is meant for the “poor” or for the “pure”?

At 48, Las Cruces, NM Bishop Oscar Cantú is the second youngest bishop in the country. He is the son of Mexican immigrants. He is a clear sign of hope as well as an indication of where the church in the US is headed.  This bishop gives me hope — not because he is young, not because he is focused on those securely ensconced within his churches, but because he has laser-beam focus on who the church is for!

In response to self-appointed watchdog groups that claim it causes “scandal” for the church to have any association with organizations that are not in total agreement with Catholic moral teaching on every issue, Cantú worries about who is being left behind.

“The Incarnation is messy,” Cantú reminds us. “There was nothing clean about that stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Sometimes we sterilize the stable, and we lose the mystery of the Incarnation. We can’t be afraid to get our hands dirty. … What about the scandal of not caring for the poor?” he asked. “This is the silent scandal.”

For Cantú, the church already has a clear road map for responding to urgent needs in a messy world. “When we read the Gospel, Jesus goes out to those on the margins.” We can never let “a fear of being contaminated” to allow us to be complacent or distract us from our call now to be Christ’s real presence in our day.

Instead of giving-up desserts or alcohol, in place of resolving to attend daily Mass or a commitment to an exercise routine; what if more of us declared a fast from secure isolation, abstained from passive indifference, gave up a piety of individualism?

What if more of us resolved to spend an hour a week in community service with those who really are “on the edge” in place of going to Mass?

What if we gave heightened attention to the Stations of the Cross being played out in our communities rather than expecting to find them in our sanitized churches at noon on Fridays?

Rather than spending an hour in Eucharistic Adoration, what if we actually were to become the “Real Presence” with someone whose body is broken or who knows what it is to shed blood?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? Do I go to church to become “pure” or am I sent forth from church to engage with any who are “poor”?

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to finally “turn around,” to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives. I am in desperate need of all that Lent has to offer! Even more, our poor broken world is in desperate need for all of us who claim church membership to have a profoundly grace-filled Lent.

Give It a Rest

My brother Gene died four weeks ago today. He was the sixth of my nine siblings to die. Some might think a person can develop a skill for saying goodbye or burying a loved one. You cannot! In fact, grief compounds and becomes cumulative. But so does grace!

Although I began kindergarten in Omaha, Gene moved back to our family’s hometown and married a woman from Hartington, NE in 1961. We gathered at Holy Trinity Church for his funeral, the same church where I was baptized in 1950, the same church where we had gathered for the funerals of our father in 1993 and our mother in 2007. Although they had moved from the town in 1955, such is the significance of this community in the life and lore of our family.

Imagine my consternation when the pastor paraded up the center aisle five minutes before the service was to begin, made a dramatic genuflection in front of the altar, then turned stage right to the sacristy for vesting. Honest to God, he was wearing a full-length black cape and berretta, that square, stiff cap with a tassel-like fur-ball on top that used to be worn by ecclesiastics in the Catholic Church. I gasped, then gulped. I should not have been surprised when he appeared from the sacristy attired in black vestments. I was more disheartened than shocked.

This was my brother’s funeral. I had some pretty important decisions to make. It was attitude adjustment time. This was not the first time I’ve had to hunker down in the face of such clerical falderal. But, this is the funeral of my brother — the stakes are singular and significant. Somehow I resolved not to allow this hierarch’s clerical peculiarities to steal this moment of prayer from our family.

Something happened! Grace? Actually, the priest’s homily was quite good for someone who had come to the parish so recently and had few opportunities to really get to know my brother. When he prayed I found that I could readily pray with him. When his ridiculous black cape billowed in the frigid February wind atop the cemetery hill I discovered compassion — aspiring to gratitude — for this innocently naive cleric.

Since, I have been thinking a great deal about the differences between conformity and community, between unity and uniformity. How my ego craves for what I know to be right, true and best.  How I squirm when not in control, when things are not done my way!  Grace nudges me to recognize the broad assortment of ways to be Catholic, no less Christian.  This, as God wills it to be!  When my stubbornness and pride rail as they will, I must ask, “What really matters?” Now I ruminate about how Gene would answer that question today.

This is the church into which I was baptized. This is the community in which our roots run deep. Here I find family, home, communion. We now have four generations buried in that cemetery. My plot is right next to my parents, twenty feet from our grandparents.

In the end, I would want it no other way. It is here that someday I will finally be laid to rest.

Born Again (Again)

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to be radically changed, to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives.

The Scottish poet, Edwin Muir, at the end of the Second World War, wrote a very personal prayer-poem on the Transfiguration. Muir captures in words what we seek and the world needs during this season of grace.  He writes:

  • But he will come again, it’s said, though not
    Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
    Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
    And all mankind from end to end of the earth
    Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
    Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
    Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
    Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
    His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
    Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
    Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
    In a green springing corner of young Eden,
    And Judas damned take his long journey backward
    From darkness into light and be a child
    Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
    Be quite undone and never more be done.