Suffer? Good God!

Odds are high you won’t read this post. When you discover the topic you will likely stop and hit “delete.” None of us want to face it. None of us like it. All of us wish it would disappear — but it won’t.

So we stifle it, ignore it in every way we can, pretend it isn’t lurking over our shoulder. Some of us even resort to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and anesthetize its pain.

(Now would be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to persevere to the end.)

We are going to Germany for two-weeks at the end of September. My maternal grandmother was an Irish girl from South Boston but the rest of my heritage is German. Not far below the surface throughout what we expect to be a wonderful trip will be a nagging question: How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so corrupt that it perpetrated the horrendous evil of the Holocaust?

We all wrestle with suffering — especially when it is unmerited and random. Why do some children endure such violence and misfortune when others do not? Why does Beau Biden die of brain cancer at age 46? Tornados destroy entire communities and sometimes randomly kill neighbors. None of this makes sense!

I’ve wrestled with the topic of suffering but more often than not simply ignore it and distract myself with my privileged life and bask in my own relative good fortune. Yet the reality nags, taunts and festers at the edges of my consciousness.

Maybe this explains why so many of us shun public transportation. A simple bus ride across downtown Minneapolis exposes a human side of life we would rather ignore or deny — like choosing not to read this post any further and summarily hitting “delete”.  But, don’t!

Last week the New York Times offered a rare but really well thought-out op-ed [link] on the topic of suffering. Titled The Value of Suffering, author Pico Iyer will appeal even to the many who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Too often faith-leaders retreat into conspicuous silence on the question of how any could possibly profess the existence of a good God in the face of such unmerited and seemingly unmitigated suffering. A rare exception is Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who courageously wrestled with the challenge the horrific Asian tsunami presented to Christian assertion of God’s benevolence. [link]

What gives me courage to finally take on this bedeviling topic, though it regularly gnaws at the edges of my consciousness, was a post today on Richard Rohr’s blog. [link]

His is not the final word — if by that we mean some rational explanation that dismisses all questions or doubt. However, it’s about as good as it gets. Rohr gets about as close as anyone to expressing our “truth” in a way that thinking-people will comprehend.

If you have persevered this far, I certainly hope you are curious enough to check-out the links to the New York Times and Rowan Williams articles above. Even if you choose not to check out these other sites, rest assured it doesn’t get much better than this from Richard Rohr:

Both [saints] Francis and Clare … let go of all fear of suffering; all need for power, prestige and possessions; any need for their small self to be important; and came to know something essential–who they really were in God and thus who they really were. Their house was then built on “bedrock,” as Jesus says (Matthew 7:24).

Such an ability to really change and heal people is often the fruit of suffering, and various forms of poverty, since the false self does not surrender without a fight to its death. If suffering is “whenever we are not in control” (which is my definition), then you see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God. Then we become usable instruments, because we can share our power with God’s power (Romans 8:28).

Such a counterintuitive insight surely explains why these two medieval dropouts–Francis and Clare–tried to invite us all into their happy run downward, to that place of “poverty” where all humanity finally dwells anyway. They voluntarily leapt into the very fire from which most of us are trying to escape, with total trust that Jesus’ way of the cross could not, and would not, be wrong. They trusted that his way was the way of solidarity and communion with the larger world, which is indeed passing away and dying. By God’s grace, they could trust the eventual passing of all things, and where it was passing to. They did not wait for liberation later–after death–but grasped it here and now.

Questioning the Inevitable

You have probably noticed. Regulars here will remember that I turn 65 in August. I’m wrestling with that inevitability. Mostly, how can this be? Once again “old people” were right — it descends upon us faster than we can imagine.

Getting an AARP card at 50 is dismissed as a playful hoax, especially now that the organization has dropped “association of retired persons” from its moniker. Most 50 year-olds are at the height of their careers. Many parents are paying far more in college tuition for their kids than contributing to their IRAs.

Even at 60 I was full-throttle in my career. The occasion was marked with a great celebration in our back yard with 60 of my closest and dearest friends. Awards were given to the top five winners of the “How Well Do You Know Richard?” trivia contest. Organizers regaled us with a hilarious skit, “Richard, This is Your Life!”

But 65 is different! More and more people in elevators, fellow customers in stores, even neighbors out walking with their dogs now unreflectively refer to me as “Sir”! I can no longer claim to be taking “early” Social Security. And try as I might, I must not ignore those infernal mailings from the federal government assuring me that I am being automatically enrolled in Medicare.

Don’t get me wrong! I want to be 65! The age is not the issue. It’s just that tables are turned on us so fast. No longer do I feel a creation of my past. As more trappings and traits of who I was are stripped away I discover the irrefutable truth of who I am at my core. It’s as if the future has grabbed the initiative and is now apprehending me like an unknown suitor I am powerless to resist.

My perfectionism and need to “control” will surly be one of my last personality traits to succumb. Even aging is something I want to do well, as it should be done, perfectly if that’s possible. With that in mind I was drawn to a six-month project by writer John Leland who will chronicle six New Yorkers over the age of 85 as they move into their futures. [link]

Leland recounts the popular schtick — old age is presumed to be “a problem to be solved. People’s bodies broke down, their minds lost function, they drained billions out of the health care system.” That more than a stereotype, its my fundamental fear.

About five years ago I started to resent people who would say something inane like, “You don’t look 60!!!” I retained my composure by quietly telling myself, “They don’t know of what they speak! What is 60 supposed to look like?”

Here’s what I’d really like… to be part of a massive rewrite of cultural presumptions. As Leland’s series intends to chronicle, what if we began thinking of our elders/ourselves “not as a problem, but as an asset, a repository of memory and experience?”

Research actually shows that people in their 70s and 80s, far from wallowing in despair, are happier than their younger counterparts. What do “we” know that younger people do not? For almost all of human history, societies turned to the oldest people for advice and wisdom. Now, that wisdom too often sits unheard, devalued, unexpressed.

Rather than seeing ourselves as “old”, what if we initiated a cultural movement — one by one — to reclaim our full stature as wise elders? Note well, I am certainly not suggesting that we perpetuate the status quo in which too many of us pretend to be “young.” That’s precisely the trap which holds us bound and the foolishness that’s sure to frustrate.

Growing old isn’t easy! Some wise elders have even counseled me that it was even harder than they had imagined.  But still, how do we choose to proceed? No one does it perfectly. One requirement appears to be yielding control, as hard as that is for my personality-type.

Of one thing I am pretty certain, growing old well and embracing an invitation to become a true elder, is not essentially a medical problem or even determined solely by our psychological makeup. Rather, I am convinced it’s fundamentally a spiritual challenge, invitation and opportunity.

As I hurdle toward my birthday in August I am increasingly drawn to a prayer poem by the late Elizabeth Rooney, an Episcopalian from Wisconsin who seems to have fully embraced her elder-hood. I intend to take her spiritual wisdom with me into the years ahead:

Oblation

I hope each day
To offer less to You,
Each day
By Your great love to be
Diminished
Until at last I am
So decreased by Your hand
And You, so grown in me,
That my whole offering
Is just an emptiness
For You to fill
Or not
According to Your will.

_______________

You may learn more about Elizabeth Rooney, a “late-in-life poet” [here].

More than Happiness, May They Know Love

Exhausted but so very content, grateful and filled with hope… awash with memories!  After a morning at the Science Museum and a picnic lunch we said our goodbyes.

Tom, Cheryl and the six kids then packed into their SUV for a long drive to Canada. Parental strategy was to get the kids really tired so they’d be content sitting engrossed with their digital devices until falling asleep for the remaining seven hours en route to Winnipeg.

Our time together was less than 48 hours but the experience provided stories that will be recalled, retold and perhaps embellished for years to come. You heard one about 6 y/o Claire expressing sadness about her Grandma Karen’s death in my post yesterday. Here are a couple more:

With watermelon juice dripping onto our backyard deck I asked, “Where are you staying in Winnipeg?” One classically adolescent response flashed forth, “In a hotel!” Then Martha, who will be nine in August claimed her ground in the conversation, “Do you mean that literally or metaphysically?” Before I could close my gaping mouth twelve-year old Aidan harrumphs, “I think she meant metaphorically!” Honest to God — you cannot create better dialogue than this! My jaw is still ajar.

The kids requested Asian food for dinner so we headed off to our favorite buffet. The selection never disappoints; the colors are tantalizing; seeing is so much easier than reading a menu; and let’s get real, the price is right. After surveying the many heaping plates spilling onto our table, I randomly glanced to the left. There at the end was 4 y/o Evelyn adeptly digging into her choices with chop-sticks! Honestly! At her age I didn’t know rice came any other way than pudding with cinnamon — and you ate with silverware!

Saying our goodbyes, Tom again reiterated his request for us to come to Omaha to celebrate my 65th Birthday with them in August. That conjured a sobering thought I had quieted numerous times these days. I love these kids! Yet as I wipe watermelon from my chin, delight in their dexterity with Asian cuisine or stand in awe of Aidan and James building a geodesic dome (without instructions) at the Science Museum; I struggle with the fact that I will not live long enough to see what truly becomes of these children who mean the world to me.

All I have is hope! I have hope because there are families and children like these. I have hope their global awareness and insatiable curiosity will make the world a more peaceful and just planet than the one my generation is leaving them.  More than happiness, I hope they know love.

I hope they will learn every bit as much as they can. Then, I hope they use their considerable intelligence to serve others and not just themselves. I hope they become so grounded in their family, neighborhood, school and churches that they spontaneously create better cities, nations and a global community in which each and all have a place at the buffet table.

Personally, I hope — I really do hope — that I can remain intellectually curious, psychologically nimble, embracing of a changing world, letting go of my need to control, define or judge. I strive to embrace something more than optimism — rather, I hope always to rest in the assurance that others are now in charge.  Someday, I hope to yield to the One who is the Other.

Finally, here is what I really hope these children know more and more throughout their lives:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails… now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1Cor 13:1-13)

My Sister’s Legacy

Why do I have it so good? So many others bear untold pain, suffer losses that would break me or become innocent victims of natural disasters. Why is my life so easy, blessed, charmed? Truly, I have done nothing to deserve what I have received and am culpable of wrongs for which I have been mercifully freed of consequences.

My nephew/godson, his wife and their six children, ages 4 thru 13, are visiting these days. I’ve long compared being an uncle, and now grand-uncle, to being a grandparent… you get to have all the joy, satisfaction and fun without any real responsibility! It’s like leap-frogging parenthood and getting to have your grandkids first!

Yesterday an especially tender moment occurred with 6 y/o Claire. Her mom was showing her my parents’ 1931 wedding photo explaining that these were her Dad’s grandparents. Claire eagerly inquired, “Are you Grandpa Denny’s brother?” I explained, “No, I am your Grandma Karen’s brother.”  Her demeanor shifted, “She died… that’s sad.”

It’s very sad… and, extremely unfair! Karen died at 58 of a rare sinus cancer. Though she lived to see the birth of her first grandchild, none of her eleven grandchildren have any recollection of her. Yes, Claire, it’s very sad! I miss my sister dearly.  You will never fully know your loss in not having Grandma Karen in your life..

Having Tom, Cheryl and the kids here is great (but exhausting) fun and a rare treat given they live seven hours away. Today we are off to the Science Museum before they head to the women’s World Cup in Winnipeg. Yet, there is the gnawing question: why do I get these avuncular pleasures and Karen was denied grandmotherly experiences she earned and richly deserved?

I have no answers. Why does the Vice President have to bury a 46 y/o son today? Why was a neighbor with young children recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness? Why do floods destroy homes and drown victims in Houston? What have I ever done to deserve such a charmed life? Why do I have it so easy?

Just as most of us live with unmerited good fortune we struggle with the question of undeserved suffering. We strain for answers when “facts” make no rational sense. We can never “make sense” of life or death! We only learn wisdom through the awful grace of God. Such unmerited, gratuitous wisdom is perhaps the greatest gift an uncle or a Grandmother can share with those we love.

Claire, all I can assure you is that love endures.  No matter what, you like the rest of us are held within an enduring web of love.  Yes, you can count on this, your Grandma’s love endures!

Remember, Lest We Forget

Anniversaries are important. Most are deserving of celebration. Some are to be remembered lest we ever forget. We are approaching just such an anniversary.

On July 1, 2014 Commonweal magazine broke the story that Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis had been under investigation for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians and priests. Ten men had signed affidavits filing their official complaints.

Rumors of Nienstedt’s misconduct was not news. I had heard such allegations as long as ten years ago. What made this story news was that ten men had now spoken up, telling their story and registering their complaint with officials. Once Commonweal broke the story, we learened the Archdiocese had hired a law firm in late 2013 to conduct what the Archdiocese then promised to be a full and independent investigation.

Let’s be clear, the allegations against our Archbishop were made by adult men. We are not talking about pedophilia or sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults. The better comparison is with disgraced Cardinal Archbishop Keith O’Brien of Scotland. At least five men – three priests, a former priest and a former seminarian – accused O’Brien of either sexually harassing them or pressuring them into sex, in allegations that went back to the 1980s.

O’Brien admitted “there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal.” He was discretely “disinvited” from participating in the conclave that elected Pope Francis. In March 2015 it was announced that he had renounced the “rights and privileges” of his office but gets to keep his prestigious title.

Regular readers of Kneading Bread know that I have frequently reiterated what rank-and-file Catholics know all too well… the root cause of our sex abuse crisis in the church is the culture of clericalism, hierarchical arrogance and preoccupation with protecting power and privilege. Readers will also recall that I have called for Neinstedt’s resignation in these posts on at least three occasions.

On July 7, 2014 I wrote: It’s long past time for more than a little honesty in our church. We are in urgent need of changing the sieve that keeps secret the tragic truth poisoning our church family. Honest confessions are long overdue. Actually, we need far more than “a little” honesty.

We have a right to integrity and transparency. We have a right to hold those who claim positions of moral leadership to be persons worthy of emulation. We have the right to know the truth about any who claim authority to teach moral truth.

Ten official affidavits complaining of harassment and/or misconduct does not sound like behavior among “consenting adults.” We have a right to know the truth about these ten complaints and for those in authority to act appropriately.  If there is nothing to hide, then what’s there to hide?

All abuse is perpetrated by a culture that holds its victims hostage within silence and secrecy. This is true of abuse within families, schools, civic organizations or churches. What makes the allegations against our Archbishop so egregious is that he presumes to provide moral leadership and teach moral truths. Hiding behind a wall of silence and secrecy perpetuates the abuse.

This “culture” of silence and secrecy — delay strategies to bury the story, keeping a low public profile, hoping we will forget — further victimizes this Archdiocese and this community which deserves, expects and has received far better from Catholic leadership.

Peter Day, a priest of the Archdiocese of Canberra, Australia recently wrote a passionate call for reform in light of the sex abuse scandal roiling his country and the whole church. He implores us to fully acknowledge what we all know — too many of our shepherds have acted like the “hired men” in John’s Gospel “who abandon the sheep when they see a wolf coming … leaving the wolves to attack and scatter the sheep.” (Jn 10: 12)

Day further exposes what we all recognize but feel powerless to change: “Underpinning this hired men culture is an all-too pervasive clericalism in which men feel set-apart, vainly pursuing the trappings of power and prestige — acting like corporate CEOs hell-bent on protecting the company brand instead of like shepherds willing to lay down their lives (and their reputations) for their sheep.”

But we are NOT powerless. We are not pawns. We are The People of God.  From half-way around the world, Peter Day expresses our local reality and our need. “In the pews, in the villages, in the schools; people everywhere, are longing for us to simply face facts, to face the truth with humility — that’s what good shepherds do.”

July 1 will be the one year anniversary of Commonweal exposing the charges made against our Archbishop. Months ago the media asked the Archdiocese about the disposition of the allegations. Archdiocesan officials admitted that the law firm had completed its work but the investigation was continuing so no further information could be shared.

July 1 is an anniversary we must not forget. Media should again ask Archdiocesan leadership. Editorial boards must clearly express the needs and expectations of the community.  Parishioners would do well to inquire of their pastors about the disposition of the charges against one for whom we pray by name at every Eucharist.  Civic leaders have a right to inquire about any who would claim high moral profile in our community.

Powers that be will want us to forget. Summer in Minnesota offers a wealth of diversions and many pleasant distractions. But, remember we must! “In the pews, in the villages, in the schools; people everywhere, are longing for us to simply face facts, to face the truth with humility — that’s what good shepherds do.”

We want, need and deserve a better shepherd. Archbishop Neinstedt, its time to do the right thing!

__________________

The article by Peter Day is from Global Pulse Magazine [link]. This is a new journal covering stories and offering opinion from around the world on Catholic topics or issues of moral import. I am not sure whether you need a subscription to access the full story. I paid $12 for an annual subscription and eagerly recommend you consider the same.

Faith Keeper

Absence from these pages for the past few days is the result of a full, frenetic schedule.  It’s not for a lack of something to say.  Quite the contrary.  National news as well as moral and spiritual issues abound and deserve comment.  They have to wait!

This is a week of two funerals while preparing for the exciting prospect of my nephew’s family — six kids ages 4 to 13 — descending upon us tomorrow.  Death and life, somnolence and exuberance — the polarities of a full human life!

My dear friend Jeffrey Cloninger is juggling the heights and depths of what it is to be alive as well.  From this familiar place of full-throttle living he shared a poem he crafted earlier this past weekend.  I am eager and grateful to share it with you as an expression of what our lives hold:

Faith Keeper

It’s June, and I can look West every evening
And know the hour by the setting sun.
But that’s easy, for even though it’s always too soon
Don’t we all know it’s coming.

Recently I discovered the sound of day’s end.
I wasn’t expecting it.
I didn’t know I could or even wanted to hear it.
And yet, late every winter, and every spring and summer night
It’s been there.

Even in the fall, amid the leaves once flush with life,
Now the color of dusk,
It prevails.

I wait.
It happens like clockwork, but the easy, non-machinated kind.
So common, so a part of the revolution of the hours,
For years I missed it.

How could I?
He announces himself with such flurry and excitement – heralding the
Bold dance of night: boundless opportunity in the space of darkness.

All at once
In call and answer
(Psalm and response)
He delights!

It is Cardinal.
Direct. Ebullient.
Perfectly joyful.

He goes on for a bit, as do I:
Making dinner, folding laundry, reading the mail.

Then, as it always happens,
His tune ends minutes before dark.

I will go first, Cardinal says.
Come, follow me.

        Someday, I will.

For now, I listen to the notes of what faith is
And wait patiently
For his song
On the light sides of the night.