Don’t Tread on Me!

A funny thing happened one day at the Cedar County Court House. My sister-in-law who had a title and abstract company randomly discovered that the officiant had failed to sign her marriage license back in 1961. Were she and my brother legally married? Is she really my sister-in-law?

By the time of her discovery she and my brother had four children and were pillars of the community. My sister-in-law founded and was the sole owner of the title company. My brother had served numerous terms on the city council as well as mayor of our hometown. Both were strong supporters of the local schools and highly visible in their church.

The parish secretary had dutifully recorded their marriage in church records. There was no doubt they were sacramentaly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. But the priest whom the state had authorized to serve as its representative, much like a justice of the peace, had failed to sign the legal document prescribed for civil marriage. Were they legally married?

This family story highlights something I also know from my years as a pastor. Most couples and wedding guests are totally unaware of the dual function a priest, minister or rabbi serves in contracting marriage. Most people have no idea that after the ceremony — usually in the vesting room, back of church or sometimes at the reception — the “wedding coordinator” has to chase down the officiant and honor attendants to sign the marriage license as prescribed by the state law.  The parish secretary then dutifully mails the license to state officials.

This is a pretty important clarification as many states consider “religious freedom” exemptions for everyone from photographers and cake bakers to county courthouse officials. It takes on even greater significance as we await a Supreme Court decision which two-thirds of Americans presume will open civil marriage to same-sex couples.

Let’s be clear, no one is saying that churches, synagogues or mosques should be required by civil law to accept, host, or bless gay unions, or any other marriage they may find objectionable. In fact, quite the opposite!  What goes on among religious people, and in religious spaces, is constitutionally as well as theologically sacred.

Jay Michaelson of the Religious News Service makes this point in a commentary [link] that should be required reading for all Americans. He bolsters his point with his personal experience growing up in a synagogue which refused to perform interfaith weddings. Does that violate the civil rights of the couple wishing to be married? Well, it does affect them, but the couple’s right to get married wherever they want is trumped by the synagogue members’ rights to freely exercise their religion.

But the courthouse is not a religious space, and the magistrate is not acting in a religious capacity. She is doing her job, which she took an oath to do. Photographers and cake-bakers are another matter — there are usually many more to choose from.  Michaelson gives more examples.

Suppose two divorced people marry one another. Some Catholics may believe that to be against God’s law. But a Catholic magistrate is not a Catholic priest. He’s not performing the sacrament of marriage. He’s acting under secular, state law.

Or suppose a black man wants to marry a white woman — it was illegal in Nebraska when my brother and sister-in-law got married for a white person to marry either an Asian or an African-American! The US Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional in 1967. Was that ruling incorrect? Should marriage clerks with sincere moral objections be able to refuse to perform their civic function?

My guess is we will be seeing many more “religious freedom” laws considered regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the right of every American to enjoy the freedoms and privileges — as well as responsibilities — of civil marriage with the person they love.

As a Catholic I am very well aware — nor am I asking that my church to violate — its teaching about the Sacrament of Matrimony. I cherish that tradition and affirm the church’s teaching. I have had the honor to be the minister of that sacrament and signed many state-issued marriage licenses.

I have also had the experience of teaching American Government to juniors and seniors in high school. Just as most Americans attending a church wedding conflate the sacred and secular roles of the officiant, most Americans are functionally illiterate of the constitutionally enshrined principle of Separation of Church and State.

As an American I want this nation to live up to the promise and protections of our Constitution. As a Catholic I am aware of her teachings and continue to find my spiritual home among its members. As a gay man I claim and expect my government to keep its role separate from my religion and ensure my Constitutional right to Equal Protection of the Law.

Sorry, there isn’t a courthouse clerk in America who should have the right to deny me a marriage license because they have a religious objection. If they have a problem with that perhaps they should take up photography or cake decorating — at least then my taxes would not be subsidizing their religious practice.

The Resolute Face of Love

Yesterday was picture-perfect, just the sort of day for a graduation party in the yard. We were present to give testimony to Nathan’s achievement and as manifestation of the rich web of relationships and roles it takes to raise a child. Either is a sufficient reason for celebration.

The strong web of community endures even when we are unaware, overlaps with surprises that delight us. Here’s one… Bob & Maura, friends from the Church of St. Luke were at the party. We hadn’t seen each other since the graduate was a preschooler!  I had forgotten that Bob had been the college roommate of Nathan’s dad.

We shared the sort of three-minute update friends do after a break of thirteen years. What are we up to now? Weren’t those great days! In our case we grieved the sorry state of the church we love — a frequent topic for many of us in Minneapolis-St Paul over the past few years.

But as our perfect summer Sunday afternoon provided, as Nathan commences with his move to Seattle University, our circumstances inspired optimism, gratitude, hope, confidence. Despite our collective pain and considerable grief at what has transpired in our church over the past thirteen years, we remained oddly enthusiastic and happy.

Our sentiment was appropriate to a festive occasion.  In our hurried recap yesterday Bob, Maura and I had actually expressed an odd sort of satisfaction with our church.  Silence and secrecy kill — at lease now “the boil had burst, the festering pain finally exposed.”

We agreed that healing happens once facts are faced and truth is told.  In an odd sort of way, we acknowledged that we are actually a much healthier church in 2015 than we were in 1995. For institutions as well as individuals, recovery of mission and purpose can slowly but definitively commence with public confession of our sin.

Little could we have anticipated this morning’s news!  It came as a bolt of lightning, as a sudden shock, a welcome but totally unexpected surprise.  Though eagerly longed for by a long-suffering community, the resignation of Archbishop John Neinstedt does not elicit any sense of gloating.  Actually, a deep resonant grief underpins my profound gratitude which in turn inspires an abiding hope.

Vindication — and there is most assuredly a sense of vindication and justice in the refreshing news — feels kinder, gentler and much more merciful than either I would have ever expected or prescribed.  This morning’s deep emotions are less about a scandalous abuse of power and the excruciating pain inflicted, though there is plenty of that!  The deeper anguish now surfacing is for all that might have been, for a future that should have been!  This is the loss that we must truly grieve.

This morning is party cloudy in MSP, not nearly as picturesque as yesterday afternoon with Nathan. There will surly be cloudy days, some long nights and even a few storms ahead for Nathan and for all of us.  Once again we are reminded of what’s really important, where we stand and to whom we belong.

This is all possible because — ultimately — we rest securely within an intricate web of community that celebrates milestones, tells the truth, remains present amid grief, heals those in pain, cherishes our young, and cares for any who are vulnerable.  This is all possible because we rest in the resolute love of God.

What an ideal “village” in which to raise a child… what a graced way to experience “church.”

Giving It a Rest

Lighten up! Give it a rest! Chill out, would you?

Okay, I hear you. Yes, the last few post have been pretty “heavy”… diminishment, suffering, excoriating an Archbishop. If Kneading Bread had an editor (maybe it needs one!), I would likely be cautioned that such serious fare is sure to kill readership — as if our cultural gospel truly is “Don’t worry; be happy!”

But we cannot get away from the big questions, can we? Life just keeps happening, prescribing a menu not of our choosing. Even the spiritual-but-not-religious types cannot avoid what the Buddha taught in his Four Noble Truths — the first of which is essentially, “Life is suffering!”

Dukkha is the Buddhist term commonly translated suffering, anxiety or stress. The Buddha is reputed to have said: “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” So much for those who want to bail on Christianity because all this stuff about “the cross” is such a downer! Well folks, it seems that “unsatisfactoriness” is here to stay and we better learn to deal with it!

An encouraging thing happened yesterday in the form of a comment made to my post. It really brought a smile to my face, delighted me, really helped me lighten up! My nephew, Terry made more than a comment to my post. His comment expressed the heart of what I was trying to say, and he did it much more simply:

I am glad I persevered to the end. Rohr describes the absolute bedrock of faith where one can voluntarily leap into the unknown sea of suffering. Fearless! If the human condition (suffering) is only a mask, than what lies beneath? I believe Rohr would say God’s love, unflinching and unchanging. Perhaps others would say darkness or nothingness. When it comes to this universal question of meaning, I am comforted by the writings of the two Richards above. Vielen Dank! (that’s German for “Thank you very much.”)

When I was a kid, my parents taught me — and my nephew Terry’s mother — a prayer that asked God to give us a break from life as “this vale of tears.” That’s certainly not in vogue any longer in our 21st century spiritual-but-not-religious or don’t-worry-be-happy culture. Isn’t there a consumer good to satisfy our every want, a pill to alleviate every discomfort?  If there is not, we want there to be one.

Sorry, folks! Life is pretty much what Jesus, the Buddha, my nephew and all the great wisdom traditions have been saying.  Our choice is pretty much what we make of it!  What is our response? How will we live? What is beneath all of this? Love… unflinching, unchanging? Darkness? Nothingness?

I’m putting my bet on God. Not as a life insurance policy! Not as deus ex machina. Not as a begrudging, reluctant savior who condescends to pull us from the muck! But on a God alive, manifest in creation. A Word made flesh. God-incarnate. Emmanuel, God-with-us. One who gets up, close and personal, in whose image is made very single person on this earth — no exceptions!  My bet is firmly placed on Love.

When it comes to all this, the simple Shakers had it so very right…

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho’ my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it,
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

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!