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?

_________

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?

What are You Doing for Easter?

No, this post is not left over from last week. You are reading it correctly. What are you doing for Easter? We hosted our family’s dinner celebration. Twenty-four hours later, despite the generous assistance of our guests, we are still in clean-up mode.

But, this question is not about Sunday, it’s about this full fifty-day Easter Season leading up to Pentecost. We are accustomed to doing something for the forty days of Lent, usually giving-up something to make us better. Well, if we really did that well and really got-into what we celebrated yesterday, all the more reason we would want to do something special for the Easter Season!

Rather than giving-up something maybe we could more generously give-back or gratefully give-forward in response to what we have commemorated during Lent and especially the Easter Triduum. Otherwise, what difference did it all make? How do we carry it forward?

Regular readers will recall that rock-ribbed HOPE amid the harsh and painful realities of living has been a recurring theme here in recent weeks.  Are we to resign ourselves to these hard realities and simply go on as if nothing happens at Easter? We need not. We dare not. We should not!

Where is our hope? Can a soon-to-be 65 y/o change his well-worn ways? As I look around, our friends and family still struggle with cancer, alcoholism and consequences of traumatic experiences. Religious fanaticism has not ceased to inspire terrorist violence. More Christians are being persecuted and murdered today than I ever recall in my lifetime.

What’s changed?  Are we to conceded that yesterday had more to do with soft pastels, sugary candy, coconut bunny cakes (of course we featured one in our menu) and bulb plants making tentative appearance from beneath our leaf-packed gardens? If evidence to the contrary is lacking, then it is up to us to provide it! We may not be able to change the world, but we can change ourselves and our small part of the world.

Here’s a sign of hope… Pope Francis. Many of us had pretty well given up hope with the Catholic Church before he made a surprise appearance two years ago. I was resolved that, at least for my lifetime, my friends and family were right: nothing would ever change in the church I was finding increasingly hard to love.

But as America magazine rightly states in its current issue: “…from the moment he took office, Pope Francis brought a new style, tone and clarity to the office of the papacy, opening up new ways of conversing and making decisions, speaking to people in new and direct ways and attracting many people who had long ago written off the church as irrelevant to their lives. His actions help direct us toward the Risen One, the source of all new life.” [link]

And it is not just Catholics citing Francis as a refreshing change. Evangelical Christians are making similar observations. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the last three Republican administrations, in an Easter Sunday op-ed [link] observes that without changing church doctrine, Francis has altered how the Catholic Church is seen.

This Evagelical Christian praises the pope’s special gift for symbolic acts packed with theological content, reminding us that human beings are infinitely more valuable than moral rules, that failures don’t define us.  He observes that Francis criticizes the church — not for its unwillingness to rebuke sinners — but for ignoring the weak and vulnerable. Wehner argues that Francis has his priorities right.

And so should we! What really are our priorities? No, we cannot change the world.  But we can, most certainly, change our own.

Essentially it comes down to What are we doing for Easter?

No Need to Pretend

It began as the sort of rumble you feel as much as hear. We were in the dark. It began quietly but quickly built to a frightening, roiling cacophony of dissonant noise, a disturbing sound that demanded our full attention. No one spoke.

Imagine hundreds of people pounding the backs of wooden pews. Imagine a basilica pipe organ in full throttle mimicking thunder. No, it was more like an earthquake! The darkness was smothering. Only a single candle guided our way.

It was Good Friday. My nephew and I were at Tenebrae at the Basilica of St. Mary. The word means shadow or darkness in Latin. The service takes its name from the responsory, Tenebrae factae sunt — “It grew dark.” It did. It has. It does!

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning while it was still dark, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. (Lk 24:1) Thus begins the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection… while it is still dark!

At the Good Friday service in the Basilica all the lights were extinguished. The Prince of Darkness seemingly triumphs. The vibrating rumble of thunderous noise replicates the earthquake described in the Passion narrative. Like the women coming to the tomb, we had come expecting to commemorate a death.

Unlike the grief-stricken women coming to anoint a dead body, we cannot pretend. A single candle left burning at Tenebrae is processed down the aisle as if it too were leaving the assembly.  We will have none of it!  Unlike the first to show up at the tomb, we know the conclusion of the story.

The roiling quake of death and darkness will not have its way with us! Louder, ever more cacophonous, people pounding our pews.  The organ explodes with an insistent plea. The small flame turns and slowly retreats back up the aisle. Our demanding clamber slowly subsides as the Light of Christ is returned to its central place of honor.

Good Friday 2015. We know the story even in our darkest days, our pleadings before dawn, our confrontation with death. Unlike those who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, we know the conclusion to the story — for it has become our story, and we know it to be true.

Christ triumphed over death and darkness. Once, for all! We cannot pretend otherwise.

Its 2015 — Jesus Christ is risen! Yes, risen indeed!

Threatened With Resurrection

Life is hard! Sometimes it really sucks! Oh, we each have our diversions and delusions. Some of us, by virtue of birth or other unmerited good fortune, have the resources to pretend otherwise. We cultivate the art of social posturing, cosmetics hide our blemishes, consumption deadens a deeper hunger, and we obsess with our frantic pursuit of the “American Dream.”

Believe me, as a white, well-educated, American male I’ve learned how to access and wield power and privilege. I have spent the good part of my life polishing my carefully crafted public persona to a high sheen. I’ve been blessed! …or, have I?

Rarely do we disclose the truth — life is hard, even sucks at times! Rarely are we willing to step from behind make-up and make-believe! Rarely are we willing to let down our heavily reenforced walls of denial.

Good Friday is one day that shoves the truth of our lives in our face. Unless we choose to look away, run away, and deny that we even know this guy Jesus, or those with whom he associated.

As her native Guatemala endured nearly 30 years of violence and repression under a series of dictators, Julia Esquivel did not look away as thousands of indigenous groups were savagely murdered. She refused to divert her gaze or run from the massive violence and brutality her people — and Central American neighbors — were suffering in the 1970s and 80s.

While others lost hope or took up arms, Esquivel claimed the role of activist, poet, and minister. She stood as a witness to God’s justice and compassion.  She found her voice and served as a healer amid a land of suffering.

Esquivel’s poem, Threatened with Resurrection perfectly poses our invitation this Good Friday — to watch, to endure, to keep vigil:

There is something here within us
Which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
Which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside,
It is the silent, warm weeping of Indian women without their husbands,
It is the sad gaze of the children
Fixed there beyond memory,
In the very pupil of our eyes
Which during sleep, though closed, keep watch
With each contraction of the heart
In every wakening…

What keeps us from sleeping
Is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall,
Though exhausted from the endless inventory
Of killings since 1954,
Yet we continue to love life,
And do not accept their death!

…Because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal which lies beyond death…

Accompany us then on this vigil
And you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep
To live while dying
And to already know oneself resurrected!

______________
Threatened with Resurrection/Amenazado de Resurrección
by Julia Esquivel, Anne Woehrle (Translator). Brethren Press, 1994 (first published 1982).

At Long Last, Hope!

A 60-year-old woman battles a fourth recurrence of cancer and is told by her oncologist that the chemo she has been receiving for the past few months has been ineffective.

A 52-year-old man living in a Catholic Charities residence for chronic alcoholics asks, “Where’s God? I’ve pleaded… on my knees! Why won’t God take away the pain?”

With excruciating grief etched across his face, a father kneels aside his bloodied deceased son. They had gone to their masque in Yemen for Friday prayer when it became the target of a suicide bomber.

To such as these the cliché, “There is always hope!” easily sounds stupid and saccharine if not insulting!  Those who proffer such platitudes either don’t know what they are talking about or they live in huge denial of what this Holy Week is all about.

Many of you know that after twenty years of confronting anxiety and depression I went public in July 2014 with my story of sexual abuse and the compounding anguish of being dismissed by Jesuit leadership. Today I want all to know that a nasty, brutal chapter of my life has found healing and closure.

Jesuit leadership really “stepped up to the plate” and I feel validated, vindicated and reconciled. My deep respect and affection for the Society of Jesus has been affirmed. They eventually responded with the best of what I know them to be capable.

In the often nightmarish ordeal I came to learn something about hope. Just weeks before my twenty-year struggle found resolution, a good friend said to me, “Give it up, the Jesuits aren’t going to do anything.” She of all people should know better — and so should the rest of us!

A woman with cancer, a man with chronic alcoholism, a parent grieving the senseless death of a child, victims of sexual abuse… we need more than pious platitudes or cheap grace. That’s what Holy Week is all about.

At some point or another we will all be bought to a place where optimism crumbles, expectation for easy solutions shatters. We are left with raw, stark, desperate hope! We discover nothing more than a fire-tempered conviction — discovered by a frantic clinging to life — coming from a source other than ourselves.

During my twenty-year ordeal wrestling with the demon of sexual abuse I was never optimistic. In fact, quite the opposite! There was too much pain, too many brick walls, blind denials, freaked-out stares and others battening down their defenses.

As with the dejected friends returning home to Emmaus, I too was tempted, “Just give it up! They’re not going to do anything.”  Yet over time, and wholly separate from my best effort, I ran up against a deep source of energy and conviction from a place certainly other than myself.

Today I would describe this as an insistent gift, a tenacious pulse
that I did not always welcome or experience as consoling. It was
beyond me and, frankly, sometimes a burden I did not wish to carry, a thorn in my side, even a royal pain in the ass. Yet it recurred — despite my impermeability, resistance, fatigue or resignation.

Today I call this involuntary impulse, Hope! We do not profess Faith, Optimism and Love! Each of the theological virtues comes as a pain in the ass from time to time. In that, we learn they are not of our own creation but truly gift.

Recurring cancer, chronic alcoholism, terrorist fanaticism, sexual abuse bring us face-to-face with our abject poverty, structures that defend — even enshrine — personal sin or an impervious culture that seems down right hostile.

Yes, we desperately need and await a savior — not of our own conjuring, not even of our own capacity to imagine. Very much from within our creation, though not of our making. Hope makes its tentative appearance when we — even reluctantly, even wishing it were otherwise or according to our plans — hazard to trust that what we really need will all be given.

Appearing amid the brokenness of our personal and collective lives, hope appears in a way and at a time not of our choosing. It is most assuredly not anything we can provide ourselves. Despite my protestations of personal autonomy, even to say “I accept” the gift sounds increasingly dissonant and much too volitional.

Ultimately, we are brought to our knees. At some time or other we are brought low by the death-dealing that life throws at us. We are invited to our knees during Holy Week because this is the truth of our lives — despite our best efforts, ALL is gift. But, ALL will be given.

This is what we are urged to encounter this week — God giving ALL in Jesus. We are invited to accept our radical inability to save ourselves, or even our ability to protect those we love from life’s death-dealing. We are compelled to recognize the inadequacy of easy optimism and pious platitudes. The very most we can muster is to receive God’s gift — always given as a gift of self!

Our eyes are opened.  We like others before us recognize this in telling our stories, in bread blessed, broken, shared — amid the dejection, the real stuff of our lives, where we most need to be saved.