Being of Some Earthly Good

Back when I was doing ministry with the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation — could it really have been more than 25 years ago! — bands of mostly young people traipsed through on service trips. Most came at this time of year with eagerness, generosity and a good dose of naïveté. With a critical attitude that frightens me today, I came to harshly judge the value of such trips smacking of cultural imperialism.

I ranted about others painting Grandma’s house when the responsibility really belonged to her own kids. I cynically dismissed the students for coming from privileged suburban schools to further polish their already exaggerated egos at the expense of people I had come to know as colleagues and friends.  Yes indeed, I could be pretty cynical and harsh!

Such angry judgments embarrass me now.  They have also been found to be unfair and unfounded. There is solid evidence for the power and potential of service. Michelle Sterk-Barrett, at the College of the Holy Cross, is an expert on the issues of best practices in preparation, execution, and the processing of often life-changing encounters.

Sterk-Barrett’s research shows that service experience has a huge impact on both faith formation and citizen engagement. She’s found that service changes students’ world views and self-concepts in critical areas:

  • Students who perform some kind of sustained service during their education discover that social problems are far more complex than they’d previously assumed.
  • They develop a powerful sense that an individual can improve conditions for those who suffer and can influence social values.
  • They discover a level of social concern that changes them into people who identify themselves as engaged, potential community leaders who want to make constructive change.

In contract, Strek-Barrett’s study found that students who did not engage in service experienced no change in these qualities, values or characteristics.

Rather than harshly dismissing well-heeled kids from the ‘burbs, Sterk-Barrett helped me see their generosity as an “eye-opening experience” for them. She states what we all know:

[Many parents] have made decisions that prevent our children from knowing those facing injustice in the world. In a desire to have our children have access to the best educational opportunities and minimize the potential for them to live in unsafe environments, we have collectively segregated ourselves, so that it’s nearly impossible to know and build relationships with people living in poverty.

The result of this segregation?  Stereotypes that perpetuate the misconception that people in need are fundamentally inferior to those of us who have been “successful” in traditional terms.  Service, if done well, has the power to change individuals who change the world.

My conclusion 25 years later? We need many more, and better, service opportunities — and not just for students, but for seniors and every citizen in between! It’s never too early or late to start.  Let’s all get out there and “be of some earthly good.”

Doing something for others — for which we do not get paid — has been shown to be a pretty good indicator of human character!

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This reflection is heavily dependent upon an April 10 article on the website Crux by Kathleen Hirsch. I heartily recommend her article which you may access [here].

There Comes a Time…. Then, What?

It is said that when Alfred Nobel’s brother died, media mistakenly reported that it was Alfred and printed his obituary by mistake.  We’ve all heard of people who write their own obituary. But, what would it be like to read your obituary written by the public media?

One apocryphal account should be true even if it is not. It holds that Alfred was so shaken by publicity surrounding his premature demise that he became determined to be known for something other than being the inventor of TNT.  Thus, after his death in 1896 his estate created the Nobel Prizes — of which the Peace Prize is the most prestigious.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with a local Focolare community. This “domestic church” movement was founded by Italian Chiara Lubich from amid the devastation of World War II. With death an immanent possibility, Lubich came to a deep reverence for “Jesus forsaken.” She recognized the intimate connection between Jesus’s passion and death with the unspeakable human suffering she and others were enduring in 1943.

It was not the magnitude of Jesus’s suffering that mattered — his suffering does not save. The immensity of Jesus’s love — first for the one he spoke of as Abba and us by inclusion — is the source of our salvation! Lubich spent the rest of her life, until 2008, living and leading others in her simple but onerous spirituality of bringing great love to others, especially to people and situations seemingly forsaken.

With this as backdrop I have begun reading We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer with Cathy Wurzer. This dangerously beautiful book tells the story of Kramer’s diagnosis in his early 50s of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He died just last month.

As Susan Allen Toth expressed so well, “Kramer turns his diamond-hard diagnosis like a prism, reflecting light and joy in surprising places… invite[ing] us to consider how we live in the face of impending death or unwanted change.”

One turn of the prism is to the presumption with which we all live: “If only I could eat correctly, exercise enough, hold all things to moderation, devote myself in equal measure to my family and my job, I would have a great chance of living past ninety and looking back on a life well lived.” He recalls joking that he wanted his epitaph to be: “He died racing semis on his bike.”

Kramer writes: “I know what you are thinking — that you don’t need this right now, you don’t want to think about it, that you have plenty of time.” He acknowledges that we are “totally correct in thinking this way, until…” Call it the thief in the night or whatever you wish. That “until” will inevitably come!  Ultimately, we must accept that we cannot “fix” our lives.

Kramer had the inevitability of death foisted upon him. He was “pulled into the essence of what it means to be a living human being.” He reluctantly mustered the ability to recognize that he was “just aging exponentially faster than most… accept[ing] the fact that fixing is a lie.”

Like Alfred Nobel, Chiara Lubich and so many other noble saints among us, Bruce Kramer had the courage and fortitude to look death — his death — squarely in the eye and to ask, “How are we to live?” I am still in the very early pages of the book. However, I know already it is one that I hope you go out and read immediately.

Kramer frames our perennial human dilemma: “Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question, what will you be from here to eternity?” He continues: “Therefore if I threw in my lot with trying to fix this, I would only be frustrated and bitter, and while I might glimpse the old normal Godhead from time to time, the person I wanted to become could not fix this.”

Again, the person Bruce Kramer wanted to become could not “fix” this!  Then, what?  How are we to live?

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We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying, Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2015.  Quoted material is from pages 17-21.  The quote by Susan Allen Toth is from the dust cover of the book.

A God Not Created in My Own Image

True confession: I’ve got quite a way to go. My spirituality may be accurately described as a faith seeking justice. To me, the fact that God became human in Jesus unequivocally expresses what God has in mind for us.  I quickly fall into a trap: thinking transformation of the world is my/our responsiblity rather than God’s doing!

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers: “If you want peace, work for justice!” The same is expressed by the southern Black Baptist pastor I often quote: “Sometimes our faith is so heavenly minded its no earthly good.”

God in Christ has no other purpose than to restore this creation to what God had in mind in the first place. Mature Christianity understands that we are designated as primary agents in the implementation of God’s plan.  But, my recurring challenge is to align myself to God’s plan, not God to mine!

Today I am confronted — like smack-dab in my face — with the inadequacy of my way of seeing things. I’m long on the justice imperative — I really fall short when it comes to expressing God’s mercy. Honestly speaking, I’m fixated on my conception of “justice” and stingy with extending mercy (except when I am the recipient and the one in need of understanding or forgiveness).

Today Pope Francis proclaimed a “jubilee year” exhorting people like me — indeed the entire Catholic Church — to get with God’s program!  We are to refashion ourselves as a people, not of judgment or condemnation, but of pardon and merciful love. True confession: this would require a much deeper change of my “standard operating procedure” than I’ve been willing to accept to date.

Francis names my challenge: “The temptation … to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step.” He may just as well have had me in mind when reminding us of Peter’s question about how many times its necessary to forgive. We all know the answer; I have perfected the practice of keeping it at arm’s length!

Francis acknowledges the Bible’s frequent use of the image of God as a judge. But he cautions, “Such a vision … has not infrequently led to legalism by distorting the original meaning of justice and obscuring its profound value.”

Francis explains, “Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation … One can see why, on the basis of such a liberating vision of mercy as a source of new life, Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and the other teachers of the law.”

And here’s something to mull over: “If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected.”

“In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us … and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” Truth is, I’ve heard that so often and in so many ways its like water off a ducks back!

“The Lord asks us above all not to judge and not to condemn,” states the Pontiff. “If anyone wishes to avoid God’s judgment, he should not make himself the judge of his brother or sister.” Ouch!

The Pontiff (word means: bridge-builder) not only challenges us personally but exhorts the whole church to “become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope.”

Recalling the action of the Holy Spirit in Vatican II, Francis reminds, “The walls which too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way, … a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning.”

Let’s be honest… this is pretty radical stuff! I thought Lent and all that “conversion” talk was finished for the year. If we really take this Holy Year talk to heart, it will require a complete re-boot of the way I live my faith. I won’t speculate what this might mean for “standard operating procedure” at your rank-and-file church down the street!

Change isn’t easy. I sort of like my well-worn faith-practice, thank you very much!  I prefer the God I’ve created in my own image!

In this, I am grateful God’s justice is tempered by mercy!

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Francis’s proclamation runs over 9,500 words.  I acknowledge my dependence on two articles for papal quotes cited above.  I am especially indebted to Joshua J. McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter [link] and to a lesser degree, Cynthia Wooden of the Catholic News Service [link].  I recommend both articles for excellent summaries which exceed what I have attempted here.

Giving Pause

Boston has long been my favorite American city — yes, it surpasses San Francisco. Graduate study at the Boston Theological Union remain four of the happiest years of my life. My affection is bolstered by the fact that my maternal grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Casey, was born there. Currently, a nephew and his wife are raising their two daughters in the metro area.

A nephew from South Dakota will be fulfilling a bucket-list dream of running the Boston Marathon in a couple of weeks. Back in grad school it was still possible for weekend runners like me to jump into the race without an official registration. I did just that at the beginning of Heartbreak Hill to pace a housemate in his quest for a personal best time. So, I’ve had the thrill of crossing the finish line in Copley Square even though I’d run only six of the 26.2 miles!

As a nation we were all traumatized by the tragic bombing at the finish line two years ago. Personal association with the city as well as my years as a runner made me feel the pain in an acute way. Remember how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended after being found hiding under the tarp of a boat in someone’s driveway? Well, that all occurred at the family home of my niece-in-law’s best friend from college.

Now 21 years of age, Tsarnaev has been found guilty on thirty counts associated with the bombing, seventeen of which carry the possibility of capital punishment. The young man’s defense never contested his participation in the bombing that ultimately killed four and seriously injured hundreds more. Having been convicted of his crimes, the jury now turns this next week to consideration of his sentencing.

Last week the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts came out strongly in opposition to imposition of the death penalty in this case. Citing the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2267), they remind us that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are “rare, if practically nonexistent.” [link]

Church teaching allows using force to stop an aggressor, and accepts that such force might sometimes be lethal. Nevertheless, this argument cannot be invoked to defend the death penalty. The reason is simple: with the death penalty, people are being killed not for current acts of aggression, but for something that happened in the past —  they are already held within circumstances that prevent them from doing more harm!

Longtime readers of this blog know of my strong opposition to the death penalty as well as our family’s personal association — my cousin’s son was sentenced to death for murder.  Here is a [link] to my earlier post.

All that aside, evidence is incontrovertible that capital punishment simply does not serve as a deterrent. It is clearly applied in an arbitrary manner with people of color and poor people bearing that disproportionate cost. Lists of innocent people whom we have executed — before exonerating evidence or judicial malfeasance has come to light — are staggering.

Yes, a big part of my heart remains in Boston and I proudly tout my family associations. I have reveled in the Boston Marathon for decades and remain outraged by the death and injury caused by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s self-acknowledged actions. All this having been said, I am left with two nagging questions:

How can there be any social value in the death of another young man? How would his state-sanctioned execution be anything more than retaliation and revenge? To my mind, it is a sick sort of reasoning that concludes yet another death constitutes restitution or can in any way be restorative.  Such is a pretty base perversion of “justice.”

Finally, a group of 400 Evangelical Christian and Catholic leaders issued a joint moral condemnation of the death penalty during Holy Week [link]. My final question: Does it make any difference that the one whose Resurrection we have so recently celebrated, as the source and promise of our salvation, was the subject of a state-sanctioned execution?

Should this not give us pause?

Returning to Our Roots

We are hoping to go to Germany sometime this Fall. I’ve been there once — more than thirty years ago I was able to visit Bergheim-Esch, near Cologne, from where my Burbach family emigrated in 1850. This time we hope to see  the very small village of Weiburg northwest of Kassel in central Germany from which my mother’s German ancestry came in 1860.

Other attractions fill our wish list… I’ve never been to Berlin or what was East Germany. Everyone says the city is magnificent. As a child of the Cold War I am also motivated to see for myself that place which, like no other, symbolized the Iron Curtain. On a lighter note, we dream of doing the Sound of Music tour in Salsburg.

On Monday we saw the movie, Woman in Gold. Like the Sound of Music it recalls the terrifying days of the Nazi juggernaut. Woman in Gold also chronicles a dramatic escape to America. You will cheer the ultimate, improbable outcome and feel ennobled by the tenacity of those few who demand justice even after many decades.

Woman in Gold ironically awakened in me a deep personal desire to visit a concentration camp — most likely Dachau not far from Strasburg. Born in 1950 of German heritage, I have often wrestled with the unanswerable question: How could the insidious perversion of Nazism take hold in a culture so grand, a people so great? What is it in humankind, within my own DNA, that could give rise to such collective evil?

Seventy years ago today, April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany for participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. There is no doubt of the Lutheran theologian and pastor’s “guilt” — he had been a member of the conspiracy since 1940. Where did he find the courage? What inspired him when so many of his fellow Christians acquiesced?

Biographers point to a visit to the United States in 1930-31 as a turning point. Among the friends he made was an African-American student from Alabama.  His new friend introduced Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was moved by the depth of conviction he witnessed in the preaching and worship.

Bonhoeffer also traveled to the South, where he was appalled at the racial injustices he observed. He wrote home that the segregated “conditions are really unbelievable …when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant … with a Negro, I was refused service.”

With the rise of National Socialism in 1933, Bonhoeffer had already devoted much thinking — and, ultimately, action — to the question of how the church must respond to racism and anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer declared “the church has an unconditional obligation towards the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community” and that the church was charged “not to just bind up the victims beneath the wheel, but to halt the wheel itself.”

How is it that such a devout Christian, who so often spoke and wrote about the importance of the Sermon on the Mount, could partake in an assassination conspiracy? He saw clearly that what we profess to “believe” must be joined by responsible action in the real world in which we each live.

How could evil of Nazism happen? How could such perversion take hold among a “Christian” nation so grand and great? Could it happen again? What is in our DNA that makes human beings capable and culpable of such atrocities? I must return again to my German roots.

Like Bonhoeffer and the Jewish heroine of Woman in Gold, a very small remnant draw from some deeper source to challenge injustice against ridiculous odds and at great personal cost. What is that source, that strength, that conviction which upholds the greatness of human potential of which we are capable? I must return again to the Scriptures.

Seventy years may seem like a long time ago. Let us not forget or ignore the Gospel narrative being lived out by thousands of Christians being martyred in our own day.

Can it happen again?

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I am indebted to Kirk O. Kolbo for his marvelous commentary in today’s Star-Tribune from which I quote and heartily recommend to you [here].

So Much More Than a Haircut

Getting my hair cut provides an increasingly sobering experience. My hair has always been thin, wispy and generic brown, never a thick wavy mane of movie star standards. An assortment of random cowlicks have bedeviled generations of barbers. Now the whirling dervishes are only minimized by a healthy case of male pattern baldness.

Yesterday offered only the most recent humiliation. Yet another new stylist needed to be counseled about the obstinance of the cantankerous cowlick above and behind my left ear. Alyssa actually did a good job for a first-timer. Her major challenge was probably making me feel I was getting my money’s worth — no doubt she could have done her job in three minutes. Yet, she combed, spritzed and primped more than necessary to draw out the ordeal for at least fifteen minutes.

What Alyssa had no way of knowing was how troubling was the black apron she had secured around my neck.  Was she to know how brazenly white the cloth made her clippings appear?  Doesn’t she appreciate that — atop my head — hair retains a dark shade of gray? Neither does she know that my eyes are well-trained to see only the neck taper — oblivious to my invisible tonsure — when she positioned her handheld mirror for my final inspection.

This humbling brush with reality well disposed me for a delightfully sobering piece in the current issue of Commonweal [link]. Peter Quinn also bemoans changes which are only to be expected — at thirty, male pattern baldness. At forty, a first set of bifocals. At fifty, the addition of Metamucil to orange juice. At sixty, an assortment of medication that come with a lifetime prescription.

One day we hear a pin drop. Then, suddenly, we can no longer distinguish conversation from background noise (not that it matters much) at cocktail parties. Knees begin to resemble the coil springs on a rusted ’56 Chevy. We open cabinets and instantly forget what we’re looking for. The Commonweal writer confirms that the ability to attach names to the faces of friends is becoming one of life’s small triumphs.

My haircut prepared me to commiserate with Peter Quinn that the inevitability of the final curtain doesn’t make it easier to accept. I’m as reluctant and fearful as anyone else to face the end. A degree of resignation and acceptance isn’t a bad thing. Sooner or later, it’s all right to think about making room instead of taking it up.

And here is where Alyssa comes back into the picture. Alyssa expects to become a first-time mother on May 7. This balding, white-haired man had the temerity to ask, “Are you scared?” Alyssa responded, “Of course! But there’s no turning back now. It’s got a life of its own. It’s going to happen.”

Then Alyssa added, “But, I’m even more scared about being a parent — it’s not just giving birth! I want to be a good parent. This will change my life. Who knows what lies ahead? …but I’m excited, can’t wait!” Upon leaving, I was moved to give her an extra generous tip.

Others have long made the association between womb and tomb, birth and death, death and rebirth.  If Easter is about more than pastels and bunnies it’s about all that life throws at us, about dying and (expectant) rising.

Alyssa gave me a great haircut, and so much more… she reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s marvelous poem, The Journey of the Magi which more often comes to mind at Christmas. Eliot concludes:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

______________

I am eager to recommend Peter Quinn’s entire article, Last Word: Things Fall Apart, The Failure to Stay Young from which I have liberally quoted.  A link is provided above.

“The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot from Collected Poems 1909-1962. © Faber and Faber, 1974.

True Identities

I bristle when people mispronounce my family name, saying BurBACK instead of Burbach. Why is it so complicated? Football fans don’t say, Roger Stauback! Music aficionados know better than to say Johann Sebastian BACK! It’s BACH, thank you very much!

I’ve heard that my Nebraska branch of the family softened the name to a “k” during the early to mid-20th century. They feared being seen as anti-American and wanted to separate themselves from our German roots. Many adopted “back” to emphatically distinguish themselves from Nazi-sympathizes.

The original Milwaukee branch of the family never felt such need to prove its patriotism and have always been known as Burbach. Names say a lot about how we see ourselves, what we have to prove, about our place in community, about our self-esteem.

Up until about 15 years ago I introduced myself as Dick. I still recall with a chuckle being first told that my name was really Richard. That instruction began when I was about 4. As a pre-schooler I understood myself to be Dickie — though for a time some in the family tried to saddle me with “Butch”. By about the time I began kindergarten I had concluded that my real name must be Dickie-Richard.

Clearly, names carry meaning. They express identity. I fully understand those who go from Betsy to Elizabeth. I have much greater appreciation for what women choose if they take their husband’s name at marriage.  About 15 years ago I decided I no longer wanted to be a Dick and made the shift to Richard. Family and friends seem to have taken well to the shift.

Though I don’t bristle as I do with the mispronunciation of my family name, I am increasingly caught off guard when an old-timer refers to me as Dick. Mostly, I just smile in gratitude that this comes from a really old friend.  Names carry meaning, express identity. My name is Richard — it’s simply who I am!

All this having been said, you will understand why the Gospel (John 20:11-18) proposed for today, the Tuesday of Easter, is one of my favorites. Mary of Magdala is at the tomb, turns, sees Jesus but does not recognize him. Jesus asks, “‘Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.’ Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’”

A few things make this one of my favorite passages. It’s so personal, so intimate. Even more, I cherish that Mary did not recognize her dear friend. Who he was now was not who he had been! He’s changed. She had him boxed-up in a tomb. Now he was different and no longer fit her preconceptions!

Do we try to keep Christ in our self-prescribed boxes? Do we feel more secure with the Jesus we have known? Having him out and about — perhaps even appearing to people and showing up in places we wouldn’t expect or approve — can be down right unsettling and disconcerting!

But notice, it is in the speaking of her name that Mary recognizes the one she loves as alive! The restoration of this relational bond, this recognition and expression of personal identity bridges any and all change in externals. Meaning, identity, sense of oneself within community is not just restored, it is recognized as indelible!

Mary didn’t recognize Jesus at first because the way he appeared wasn’t what she was looking for? What would it look like if Christ were to appear to you today? Are you ready to be surprised… maybe even taken off guard?

How would Christ speak your name today? What tone, texture and temperament would his voice express? Which of your names would he use? How would he pronounce it to fully express the meaning, identity and intimacy of your one, unique and indelible relationship?

Allow yourself to be surprised, even changed by your encounter! Who are you, anyway?