Living An Extraordinary Life

Sometimes we see something and it cuts right to the core.  Sometimes we hear something so clearly expressed we wonder how we could ever have missed it.  Sometimes we read something and know it expresses eternal truth.

More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that all such wisdom is either understandable to children or it is suspect and perhaps counterfeit.

A dear freind shared something with me yesterday that moved me in this way:

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

My hunch is this is precisely what Jesus was trying to teach us when he told us that unless we become like little children we will never enter the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes we confound ourselves with convoluted statements that simply obfuscate the truth.  Sometimes children have it hands down over adults.  Most of the time, the extraordiary is right before us!

__________________

― “Make the Ordinary Come Alive” is by William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents, #35.

You Decide… You Really Do!

YOU be the judge. I could too easily come across as cynical. Who wants to put up with my cynicism?

Here are two news stories that greeted me this morning. They came totally independent of one another. Yet, they collided big time in my morning waking to consciousness.  I’d be curious to know if you see any connection and whether you see any reason for concern.

The first story came from my hometown newspaper, the Omaha World-Hearld. Though I moved from Omaha in 1978, it will always be home and I enjoy staying connected with what’s going on there. Today the paper reports that the buy-out for fired University of Nebraska football coach, Bo Pelini will be $128,009 for the next 46 months.

I guess the sum seems smaller if reported in monthly increments rather than a lump sum ($5,888,414.00). The positive spin on the story is that this is less than it might have been — I guess that’s good news!

Because Pelini got a job coaching at Youngstown State in Ohio, Nebraska will “save” $21,991 each month on what the Huskers would have had to pay if he’d not landed another coaching job. Whew! Saving nearly $22,000 each month is a really good thing, right?

Yes, Coach Bo got fired last year even though he again led the Cornhuskers to a 9 and 3 season! If my memory is correct, the team won at least nine games in each of the seven seasons that Pelini coached the team.

Nebraskans take their college football serious! Nine wins for a team in the Big Ten Conference which can boast of the #1 national championship team just wasn’t good enough! Sadly, Nebraska fans are neither unique nor exceptional!

Then comes a seemingly unrelated story, not from the World-Herald but from completely different source. New statistics from the Pew Research Center show that between 2007 and 2014, the number of Americans who identify as Christian dropped by nearly eight percentage points, from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent. Yes, an 8% drop in seven years!

At the same time, Pew’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study [link] found the number of people who are religiously unaffiliated — either atheist, agnostic or simply “nothing in particular” — has grown by more than six percentage points, from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent in 2014. Yes, fast approaching one-fourth of the population.

You be the judge! Do you see any connection between these two stories? I don’t mean to suggest that football causes one to loose one’s faith — though on football Saturdays in Lincoln you might very well get that idea! I remain curious, however, whether these two seemingly unrelated reports might be pointing at the same social phenomenon! Are they two sides of the same coin?

Again, no one wants to read a cynical rant! So, I leave the ball in your court (mixing my metaphors!) with a final observation. We are currently building a new football stadium in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Vikings at a cost of more than $1,000,000,000.00 — yes, more than a billion dollars!

It’s hyped as a catalyst for economic development. In fact, a new urban park in the heart of the city — dubbed The Yard — will provide a grand approach and view of the imposing architectural monument. The park is being praised for providing a terrific venue for the many pre- and post-game rituals associated with NFL football.

Time was when Cathedrals were built on the town square! Omaha’s St. Cecilia Cathedral — my family’s church and where I went to grade school — sits atop the highest geographical ridge in the city and is visible from as far as thirty miles away. The Cathedral of St. Paul is similarly perched above the Minnesota State capitol.

You judge! What are our core values? What’s important to Americans? Honestly speaking, where do we choose to worship on weekends? Who is our god?

 

Gert

She was about 85 and had just taken the leap into assisted living. This momentous transition required quite an attitude adjustment for me as well. I resented the notion that my mother needed assistance with anything!

One day Claudia was talking with Mom a couple states away. Our matriarch — whose parents saw no need for her to attend high school despite the fact she registered the highest score in the county on her 8th grade standardized exam — casually mentioned she was taking a computer class. These half-day sessions scheduled monthly were just one of many conveniences she enjoyed at her new residence.

Incredulous, Claudia objected, “But, Mom, you don’t even know the keyboard.”

With maternal self-deprecation mixed with characteristic self-determination she retorted, “I know … it’s not like I’m going to go out and get a job. I just want to know what my grandchildren are talking about!”

Mom died peacefully just weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Claudia and I were at her bedside along with other family members. She never lost her eagerness to learn. Her admonition to us kids grousing about one thing or another echoes long after her death, “[Fill-in any one of our names], life is pretty much what you make of it!”

Never settled or content with what she knew, Mom was ever curious about what she didn’t know. We learned to expect a well-considered zinger whenever she began with her characteristic, “Y’know, life is strange…” Generally, she nailed it!

Never having the privilege of a formal education, Mom let nothing inhibit her curiosity. Secure in her love for learning — as well as in herself — Mom’s wisdom far exceeded most of the better “educated.” She remains our first and best teacher.

We would all be blessed to finally learn what she knew — remaining ever-curious, always attentive to what we don’t know!

Guilty as Charged

“Has anyone called you arrogant?” My brother and I were driving south on I-35 south between Minneapolis and the Iowa border when he shot that zinger at me. From anyone else I’d probably be incensed. Coming from him, I’ve had to admit that arrogance is a deeply ingrained trait, especially in the male lineage of my family.

Now we laugh about our shared propensity to such exaggerated self-regard. We still goad one another with the arrogance charge as brothers are wont to do. It’s become sort of a stand-in for expressing our affection — if you haven’t noticed, men are good at code language! It’s guaranteed to make us laugh. As with all good humor, we know that our fraternal jousting is grounded in a good deal of truth.

This all comes rushing back because I just spent eight terrific days with my brother in Florida. Incriminating evidence in something I read yesterday also brought it back with a vengeance. Though I’m no thunder-thinker, I have had the good fortune of a pretty good education, especially in matters theological. Yesterday I was brought face-to-face with my arrogance by being reminded of my gross ignorance.

Inter-religious dialogue — especially among Jews, Muslims and Christians — is a special interest for me. I gravitate to articles on the topic and participate more than most in inter-faith discussions and shared prayer events. While quick to admit my ignorance about Islam, I have blindly presumed I knew something about Judaism.

After all, I have Jewish neighbors and friends. I’ve attended numerous Seders over the years and have been moved by the spiritual richness of Jewish weddings and funerals. I studied the Hebrew scriptures in graduate school. But here is the most dangerous of my assertions — Jesus was Jewish and I know a whole lot about Jesus!

Yesterday I was casually reading, as I am wont to do, an esoteric journal by a Dutch Benedictine monk (that should be indictment enough, right?). Then, here came this zinger: “For many Christians Jewish history ends with the death of Jesus on Golgotha in the year 30 or 33. They know absolutely nothing of the growth and spiritual development of the Jewish people after that.” My ignorance exposed, I stand guilty as charged!

God, like a special big brother, knows how to not-so-subtly lay bare my faults. So it was with even greater intentional ribbing that God seemed to place this bit of wisdom from a 3rd century Desert Father before me this morning:

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Ouch!!! In my arrogance lies my greatest ignorance. Like my brother’s taunt, God followed with a not-so-subtle poke in the ribs. Do I use my intelligence as a weapon to defend my superiority as well as insulate my pious “convictions”? I shudder to see how easily I presume to be the repository of all truth, especially around matters spiritual.

Yes, I confess my need to be recognized for having “a way with words.” Perhaps the world might be better off if I shut-up more and learned to listen better.

I am also coming to question whether my “male lineage” is the primary source of my fault.  Arrogance seems to be a deeply engrained trait within the whole human family.

We need to get over it.

___________________

The esoteric journal cited is: Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter by Benoit Standaert, translated by William Skudlarek. Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2003., p 15.

The quote of Abba Arserius is from: Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications: 1975), p 6. and was brought to my attention by Richard Rohr’s Daily Mediation for May 8, 2015 sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation. PO Box 12464. Albuquerque, NM 87195.

Surviving This Hell

The world is going to hell! There is more than enough evidence in the horrific stories popularized by the global 24/7 news cycle. Millennials are spurning commitment in record numbers such that the only ones wanting to get married these days are gays and priests!  Social, cultural and religious norms are crumbling.  What’s it all coming to?

Fast approaching my 65th birthday I’ve caught myself saying more than once, “Old people have been saying the world is going to hell for centuries, but this time it really is!” It generally elicits an intended chuckle. But just beneath my attempt at self-deprecating humor, a serious question festers. Are things getting worse? Have we chosen a fast-track to self-inflicted destruction?

It’s not just that murder and unthinkable forms of violence have become de’rigueur in our cities. Hideous acts of fanatical terrorism compete for public shock and outrage. Heightened electronic security and safety awareness training could not prevent the rape of a U of M freshman in her third-floor residence hall this past weekend. These are not just issues of personal safety; they beg questions about our collective, social sanity.

And it is not just what we do to each other that is killing us. Nine out of ten lakes, rivers and streams in SW Minnesota have been found to be unsafe for swimming no less consumption. What about the cattle that graze these fields and effects on the food we consume? What carcinogens is Jeb the Dog ingesting when we allow him to drink from Minnehaha Creek on his twice-a-day walk in the park?

I don’t have an answer, only questions! We cannot escape the urgency of the issues. If we don’t know the answer then we better ask, “Are we asking the right questions?” Maybe asking, “Is the world going to hell?” is the wrong question. Maybe it’s not even a good question. Perhaps its simply a kind of pretend-question that reframes the obvious, the sort of question that merely dabbles in curiosity only to assuage our feelings of powerlessness.

Are we willing to ask the right questions? Do we really want to face the truth? When it comes to senseless violence and acts of hellish inhumanity, its profoundly important to know who is asking the question. A 65 y/o white guy in Minneapolis? A 20 y/o black male in Baltimore? A Syrian mother fleeing to save her Christian children? A devout Muslim in Texas seeing the tenets of his faith mocked in cartoon fashion? If we disagree about the question we are bound to come up with different answers.

At 65 a few things are abundantly clear. I sure as hell do not have the answers like I once thought I did! Hell, I’m not even sure what questions to ask anymore. There is just one thing of which I am absolutely certain… our world will only solve the life and death issues confronting us if we begin to formulate questions and answers together!

This demands that we do a significantly better job of listening to one another, as well as to the whole of creation once teeming with life but now gasping to stay alive!

Authentic dialogue and sincere engagement with those other than ourselves offers our best hope for coming up with the questions and answers vital to the survival of life as we know it.

Beyond Grateful

Gratitude is overrated! Pop spirituality spouts trite phrases like “Gratitude is the Attitude!” Pious platitudes like, “No matter how bad you’ve got it somebody has it worse.” turn my stomach.  Even wise Biblical injunctions like, “In all things give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1Thes 5:18) can’t bear the weight we often place on them.

Item: Yesterday!

Sitting in my chair savoring a first cup of coffee I anticipated the day… a walk to the creek with Jeb the Dog, solitude to pray, time to do the last laundry leftover from our trip to Florida, an early afternoon walk along the Mississippi with my nephew. Though I did not know it at the time, the day also provided a late afternoon movie, a rare dinner of New York strip steak from the grill and baked potato with plenty of butter.

I’ve been retired for a year and a half — Sundays don’t carry the same poignancy they once did. Yesterday I recognized that I’ve settled into a “new normal.” A certain complacency seems to have taken hold such that days seem to fade into a predictable and presumed routine. Could it be a sense of passive entitlement has seeped in?  Am I to be grateful for this?

Yesterday I caught myself! Where’s the gratitude? Morning coffee generally includes an iPad survey of world news. There were plenty of reminders that others are much worse off than me… earthquake survivors in Nepal, dramatic rescue of Nigerian girls being held by Boko Haram. Trite phrases and pious platitudes prove insufficient to shake my complacency and self-satisfaction.  I catch myself more apathetic than apologetic.

Gratitude proves insufficient to the task at hand. Recognizing how good I’ve got it did not lift my stupor. What’s happened to my sense of wonder, my savoring of weekend mornings? Yes, gratitude is an essential ingredient but alone is insufficient protection from becoming tepid, lax, complacent, settled in predictability.

Yesterday I rediscovered that the necessary precondition for gratitude — perhaps all of life — is sheer awe, unbridled amazement, the sort of utter incredulity that Denise Levertov captures in her poetry:

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.

Can I say it, and not seem to taunt

all who live in torment? Believe it, yet

remain aware of the world’s anguish?

But it’s so: a caravan arrives constantly

out of desert dust, laden

with gift beyond gift, beyond reason.

Item: a yellow tulip
opens; at its center
a star of greenish indigo,
a subtle wash of ink
at the base of each of
six large petals.
The black stamens
are dotted with white.
At the core, the ovary,
applegreen fullness
tapering to proffer—sheltered
in the wide cup of primary
yellow—its triune stigma, clove
of green and gold.

That’s one, at nightfall of a day which brought

a dozen treasures, exotic surprises, landscapes,

music, words, acts of friendship, all of them wrapped

in mysterious silk, each unique.

How is it possible?

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.

____________

Levertov’s poem, A Yellow Tulip may be found in her collection, Sands of the Well. A New Directions Book, New York, 1994, p 123.

Progress = Perfection

Okay, I admit it… I deliberately laid a trap to see if I would catch him in dishonesty — let’s not even call it a lie. I was speaking with a dear friend in a life and death struggle with alcoholism. My trap? A simple question: “Are you drinking?”

Honesty carries fresh urgency these days. Denial, deception, white-lies and half-truths abound. We all do it! Maybe that’s why Bill Clinton got off so easy in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. We identified with his squirming machinations. Remember his emphatic assertion: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”? We’ve all spouted such half-truths.

We only wish we were as verbally dexterous as the ex-President. What he said was technically correct, but was it honest? If by “sexual relations” we mean sexual intercourse, Mr Clinton is telling the truth. That’s what he wanted us to believe. If “sexual relations” means a range of intimate sexual activity the President’s nose surpassed Pinocchio. And, we all saw his nose grow exponentially!

We all saw it because we all do it. Perfect honesty seems impractical if not impossible. We practice denial and indulge deception telling half-truths. We further deceive ourselves if we let ourselves off the hook just because perfection is beyond our reach or ability. What’s needed is not perfection but progress!

The other thing that’s needed is to set for ourselves a very high bar of personal accountability. My 45 y/o nephew just completed the Boston Marathon. He was uncompromising in pursuit of his bucket-list goal! Extenuating circumstances like rain, wind and temps in the 40s conspired such that he missed his desired time by 8 minutes.

Perfection was out of reach. Post-run photos suggest it wasn’t even pretty! Yet, Dean finished his marathon in 3 hours and 38 minutes and deserves all the accolades that are rightfully his. There was no Clintonian duplicity in his performance, no mincing of words, just raw foot-to-the-pavement pursuit of an illusive goal.

Dean may have completed the Boston Marathon, but Dean is far from finished. As if taking a page from Step 12 of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am confident the point of Dean’s exploit is to take the principles learned in “finishing Boston” and to apply them in all his endeavors. Such persistent progress, not perfection, is a worthy goal for all of us!

The snare I laid for my friend was not meant to be deceptive or a cynical trap. Rather, it was a well-intentioned question about his progress.  Just as finishing the Boston Marathon is a momentous indicator of one’s enduring practices and principles. So too is plain and simple honesty within each of our lives, especially when it isn’t easy or even pretty!

For as every alcoholic knows, it’s ultimately not about the alcohol. It’s about the much fuller, all in-composing “spiritual awakening” that restores us to living once again. Let’s be honest, it’s about taking the wisdom we learn from running our own hellish marathon and applying the lessons consistently across the board.

That sets a pretty high bar. Today I am grateful to both my nephew and my dear friend for showing me that goals can be achieved. In life, persistent hard-earned progress equals perfection!

It’s All in the Stories We Tell

It’s the stories, plain and simple. No doubt about it!

Happy May Day!  As a very young kid in Hartington, NE we decorated small baskets with crape paper, pipe cleaners and ribbons. After filling them with candy we’d sneak to our friends’ porches, place them near the door as we rang the bell only to dash into hiding before being found-out! Such childhood memories delight me still.

At school during the 1950s we learned something much more sinister that made us feel unpatriotic celebrating May Day with such frivolities. We were taught the frightening lesson that May 1 is International Workers Day, an occasion for atheistic communism to brandish weapons of unimaginable destruction and the inevitable march of Soviet Marxism to world supremacy. So much for adults destroying the imaginations of innocent youth!

Yes, it’s about stories — the kind of stories we tell ourselves and the stories we choose to believe! At the same time teachers at St. Cecilia Grade School taught us about International Workers Day, we were reassured that Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker in 1955 as a direct counter to atheistic communism. Of course, everyone knew that God and Joseph, foster-father of Jesus, are bigger and stronger than Karl Marx and Nikita Khrushchev combined!

Stories about May baskets, atheistic communism or even pronouncements of popes no longer charm or frighten me as they once did. But I still love our stories and get excited about what we choose to tell and believe. Stories about real people living real lives of incredible achievement, scaling unimagined heights, standing up to power, transforming the lives of others.  That’s a vital part of being Catholic I will never regret or relinquish — we have the best stories!

We take a lot of bashing about our devotion to the saints. Like the discipline we remember so well from Catholic school, such admonishment is probably deserved to keep us in line and on the straight and narrow. But kids need more than doctrine and discipline. We all need an abundance of inspiring stories with action heroes proving that good triumphs over evil and lives of exemplary valor are not only possible but more common than we think.

Here is just such a story… How many Americans do you think could name the current Cardinal Archbishop of New York? Too hard? Name any New York archbishop since the 1950s. Now, how many Americans do you think recognize the name Dorothy Day? Hmmm… Cardinal Archbishop or poor single mother, both from New York?

But hasn’t that always been the case? How many stories of heroic virtue and lives that truly changed the world are about the hierarchy or are about bishops? Isn’t it much more common that ordinary people living extraordinary lives is what inspires and transforms?  Beginning with a poor girl’s unplanned pregnancy in Nazareth, the great stories invariably teach that genuine reform more often comes from the bottom up than from the top down.

An indefatigable poor, single mother started the Catholic Worker Movement 82 years ago today. The many who love and cherish her story celebrate that Dorothy Day turned the Catholic Church — indeed, much of twentieth century America — on its head! She died 35 years ago. Ironically, Timothy Dolan, the current Cardinal Archbishop of New York is now spearheading her cause for canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church.

Imagine that!