Too Late Wise

“Y’know life can be really hard!” A dear friend was summarizing a conversation we had recently. Each of us could recite a long litany of challenges family and friends are facing — death of a spouse, chronic physical pain, frustrating dead-end careers, relapses in addictive behaviors, unspeakable betrayal in relationships, the list goes on.

All this was washing over me as Jeb the Dog took me to Minnehaha Creek for our late afternoon walk. We’ve had a marvelous summer, gardens are well-tended and the world looks lush. Weeks away from summer solstice, the sun now casts a perceptively different shadow. Jeb remains enthusiastic in his obligation to mark designated trees but he too seems to recognize the waning season.

With head cocked, Jeb grieves the absence of once plentiful ducklings from the water. A fresh silver maple now obstructs the creek’s easy flow, sad consequence of the previous night’s storm. Mary Oliver’s lament in her brilliant poem, The Summer Day rippled within my heart, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

In a few days Medicare kicks in. That more than the fact of turning 65 shocks me into heightened reflectivity. Like every Minnesotan’s experience of summer, it all happens too fast, passes too soon! There is no time for regrets. Precious time is now better spent remembering, gathering wisdom from what has been, harvesting all that is needed for approaching winter.

Upstream from where the silver maple diverts the free-flowing creek, Jeb plants himself as a sentinel surveying this place he knows so well. Feet squarely set, he appears oblivious as his chest creases the fast-moving current. A rock we know so well for its musical ripple when the creek dances with a normal flow has been smothered by the swarming storm water.

Again, Jeb becomes my best teacher. With legs squared and eyes fixed on the approaching torrent, he ponders our familiar terrane and the changes transforming our daily routine. Like the now silent rock that lies submerged by the storm, his resolute posture tells all I need to know. Do not fear deep water or the rushing torrent. Stand resolute in the middle of it all and let the waters flow over and around you.

As I officially join the Medicare generation on Saturday and turn 65 mid-month, what wisdom is to be gathered? Is there a harvest to be gleaned from these fast flowing years? By necessity, a new modesty seeks to take hold — I am far less certain about everything for which I once asserted a cocky self-confidence. I recognize a propensity to attack paper tigers like Papal infallibility all the while laying arrogant claim to my own.

If age smooths certain edges, it yields strength and confidence as well. Jeb resolutely squared himself midstream. Just as the stationary rock provides rippling melodies when the creek is running its normal course, so too it remains planted and ready to resume its role once the surge subsides. So too with us — I cannot imagine how we are to remain centered amid life’s litany of challenges without resolutely planting ourselves in a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation.

I increasingly cringe at the “wisdom” and “advice” I so wantonly gave whoever would listen. No longer do I claim to speak for God. In fact, I am coming to recognize the God I claimed to serve was too easily an idol of my own fashioning, one I tried to direct and contain. The Risen Christ breaks boundaries, defies our categories and shows up where we least expect — sometimes among those of whom we would not approve.

Finally, I am getting a glimpse into what Benedict of Nursia taught in the sixth century. This preeminent exemplar of western monasticism prescribed that any who would presume to offer spiritual counsel to others should know how to heal their own wounds first (RB46.6). Only when we have felt the full force life’s torrents wash over us may we presume to understand those who feel overwhelmed or are mired in despair.

Of this I am certain… those to whom I have been consistently drawn for solace or counsel somehow communicate they too have known the overwhelming mercy of God. They too are familiar with life’s torrents and human frailty. They know what it is to feel submerged or planted amid life’s rushing currents.  They simply stand firm with legs squared in the assurance that we are loved — beyond measure, beyond ourselves, beyond time.

Not Needing or Wanting, but Doing!

A friend relapsed last week — really sad! He’s burned a lot of bridges over the forty years of his addiction. He doesn’t have many chances left. Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, fatal disease and it will kill him.

He doesn’t want to die! So why doesn’t he quit? There is no cure for addiction but it can be kept in remission if — and this is a very big “if” — a person abstains from their chemical of choice. Even the best treatment centers in the world have surprisingly high relapse rates. My friend has been to a good number of these centers over the years.

His ex-wife called it quits years ago. His kids, siblings and parents have made it very clear they “just can’t do this any more.” Friends have moved on and no longer call. It’s all very frustrating. I’m ready to throw in the towel too!

A friend much wiser in AA than me listened when I needed someone to commiserate. Arlo admits having “hit a very low bottom” himself and knows of what he speaks. I needed what he had to share. It’s so shockingly simple. Still many never get-it because they live in the delusion that “the cure” is a matter on not taking your next drink — though necessary that’s just abstinence, not recovery!

Arlo retold a story that is bed-rock wisdom passed from one to another in the life-saving fellowship called Alcoholics Anonymous. He grabbed my attention when he contradicted what I assumed to be common-sense. He said, “Most people think the Twelve Steps are primarily for those who need them — they’re not!”

Recovering my composure a bit and marshaling my intellect, I thought I understood Arlo’s point. That presumption was quickly dashed when he continued, “In fact, most people think the Twelve Steps are for people who want them — they’re not!” That was my best answer. Now I’m confused; what’s he getting at?

Arlo explained with a down-to-earth example I could understand. “Say you want to lose twenty pounds. Say you need to lose twenty pounds. You go out and get your bike tuned up, buy new running shows, even buy a membership at a fitness center. You really want to lose those twenty pounds!”

We can want all we want. Fact is we’ve got to log some actual butt-time on that bike, put some miles on those new shoes and build up some sweat at the gym! As my mother used to say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!”

Arlo drove home the zinger, “The Twelve Steps are for those relatively few folks who do them, actually live the Steps.” Abstinence is simply the prerequisite to get the chronic, progressive, fatal addiction into remission. Recovery happens when we are intent on actually living the spiritual truths of the Twelve Steps.

Too many of us remain obsessed with the drinking part of alcoholism — the addiction still has us in its grip! That seems to be what happened with my friend. He remained fixated on not drinking. As essential as that is, it’s really not the solution!

Only when attention is turned to our character defects, making amends where needed, actually putting our spirituality into practice, and being of service to others do we get our lives back!

Millions need what the Twelve Steps offer. A high percentage of these — even those who attend Twelve Step meetings — want what they offer. Still relapse is all too common, too often tragic.

Yes, I’ve heard the AA truth about our need to “walk our talk.” I’ve even judged others by whether they practice what they preach. When it comes to any spiritual practice “Just say NO!” is insufficient — futile, self-defeating in fact.

“Just do it!” seems to be the wisdom hardest for most of us to understand and put into practice.  Seems to be the hardest part of any spirituality we profess.

Life in the Garden

Breathtaking! Absolutely amazing precision within a process that took more than nine years resulted in sharp photos of Pluto! OMG… literally Oh, My God! How many billions of years old is the universe? Consider what we have just seen for the very first time! Consider for a moment more, human ingenuity achieved this incredible feat.

That sharp black and white photo of Pluto’s craggy surface — much more complex, variable and revealing than scientists had anticipated — has been fixed in my imagination. This Pluto voyage completes NASA’s decades-long mission to investigate all the planets of our solar system. For a generation old enough to remember President Kennedy’s outrageously bold aspiration of a moon landing, NASA’s achievement is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Another image is becoming fixed. Slowly, as the stunning achievement of planetary exploration settles into our consciousness, something else becomes obvious. Each and all of the planets in our solar system appear to be devoid of life as we know it. Even the Mars probe has yielded scant evidence of water on the Red Planet or other conditions necessary for life.

That awareness could make us feel terribly alone. Or, allowing this evidence to seep into our consciousness could be awe-inspiring! Rather than a testament to our insignificance it may awaken an awareness of our inalienable dignity and moral duty. Think about it… our home truly is what Thomas Berry aptly coined “the garden planet of the universe.” The authors of the Genesis creation accounts could not have been more accurate than to say we have been placed in a garden and it is ours to tend and till.

Sadly, there is mounting evidence that we are killing it. Somewhere along the line we got the impression that Earth exists for our “use.” Just like our original forebears we became drunk with the original sin that we are the masters of good and evil. That we are as good as God! We have bought “the lie” that the Earth exists as a reservoir of passive resources for our economic exploitation. Supply is infinite and parts are replaceable! Slipping from the perch of inspired scientific research we fall into believing all we discover exists primarily for our commercial exploitation feeding an insatiable consumption.

Coincidentally, a storm ripped through Minneapolis the same weekend the spacecraft began sending back photos of Pluto. The winds tore through three lead branches of our seven-year old Hackberry on the boulevard in front of our house. City crews have marked it for removal due to the damage. We are heart-broken — it was itself a replacement for a diseased tree and was only now taking on the promise of its mature potential.

Our shredded tree stands as a gash and scar in our front yard — sentinel of a changing climate. Nature’s desperate attempt to communicate that something is terribly wrong with this picture. Scientific evidence is incontrovertible except for those who choose to live in denial. We cannot sustain our obsession with removing Earth’s bounty naively counting on more… always more!

Like the Tree that stood in the center of Eden reminds us, we live in a paradise.  But we live within limits as the Genesis account attests.  We have also been set in relationship with all other creatures brought into being by the one Creator. We are not God. Given for us to tend and till, neither are we sole proprietors for whom this Earth was created.

All is not right in our garden. With such incredible scientific feats revealing the truths of our universe, will our generation be the one to finally learn from the torn and shredded tree — the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Until Death Do Us Part

Too many are tormented. Too often our churches and moral leaders instill lingering shame instead of comfort and support. They just don’t get it!

Once again I sat across from a long-suffering faith-filled Catholic who was in a second marriage without an annulment of a first marriage. As a gay man, I get it! I know what it is like to be deemed “inherently disordered” if not demonized by a church in which I had eagerly professed vows as a religious and served as a priest.

As a family member, I get it! First marriages of two siblings culminated in divorce. Both married again. Neither sought the “benefit” of an annulment from the church. Neither have I sought official “laicization” (that is “return to the lay state”) from ordination as priest. Annulment and laicization legalities simply feel condescending and shaming. With my sibs I choose to have no part of it.

As a friend, I get it! The same sad story is all too common. Too many live with lingering doubts and troubling conflicts inflicted by a church they want to call home. Many tears have been shed, many doors slammed, many hearts broken. As one friend recently shared:

“Till death do us part” has been narrowly assumed to be physical death. In my experience, there is also mental, emotional, and spiritual death that can occur. I hung on to a 21 year marriage until I was so close to mental, emotional, and spiritual death that it has taken 21 years to get resuscitated.

As Scripture attests, those in high places are wont to impose heavy burdens on others they themselves would never carry. (Matt 23:4) In this — and so much regarding sexuality and marriage — the church leadership is simply wrong!

Married people know this! Your average Catholic knows this! The Synod of Catholic Bishops gathering for a second session in October have a rare opportunity to show they are beginning to get it. Perhaps as preparation they can meditate on the verse: “It is mercy that I seek, not sacrifice!” (Hosea 6:6; Matt 9:13 and 12:17)

But married people and average Catholics have our work cut out too. We “get it” but too many of us are still shackled by shame and doubt. Perhaps all who have been baptized would do well to reflect on the words Jesus heard at his own baptism in the Jordan and his disciples heard spoken at Jesus’ Transfiguration: “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased!” (Matt 3:17 and 17:5)

God does not say to those he loves, “Get an annulment, jump through these legalities to become acceptable.” To all who are baptized into Christ — and I would include all who have been created in God’s own image — God says, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”

With that as bedrock, we are prepared and commissioned to love as best we are able — until death do us part. In this God is more than well pleased.

Only Thing of Monumental Significance

The disappointing truth is that most of us are content with answers. “Give me the facts, ma’am, just the facts!” is a famous line from some detective show better left in the caverns of youthful memories. I guess this approach is fine if you are a police detective. Its a disaster if trying to live a mature spiritual life.

The current brouhaha about the Ten Commandment monument in Oklahoma leaves me scratching my head. What’s the big deal with the Ten Commandments? Christians know that Jesus assumed the role of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount. Why aren’t God-fearing Christians erecting monuments listing the Beatitudes? Better yet, how about Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms the standards for our Last Judgment?

My reluctant assumption is that a scary percentage of folks like black and white answers. This drive for clarity feels to me like rigidity, an obsession with control. “Tell me what to do or not to do” is the passive version.  “I’ll tell you what’s right and what’s wrong!” is the more aggressive and dangerous manifestation.  Looks like infantile paralysis to me!

When such moral certitude is pulled out from under us by life’s complexity, and it will be, too many throw in the towel on religion. “Bunch of hypocrites!” often becomes a simplistic and defensive excuse to summarily dispose of thousands of years of wisdom. Such a dismissive attitude is no better than the cold stone monuments some want to erect on courtyard lawns.

After reluctantly wrestling with the confounding complexity life throws at us we gradually soften, become more supple, proffer eternal truth with greater humility. We come to live the questions rather than seek answers. If we remain alert — and lucky — we escape slipping into moral relativism or synchronism (it doesn’t matter what you believe, it’s all the same anyway).

It does matter! It’s not all the same! Our questions are profoundly consequential — not because they yield clear, precise, fixed answers, but because they quicken in us the very decision-making dignity imprinted in us by God. We become morally mature, responsible adults created in God’s very image.

Remaining securely within the safety of laws, texts or answers — typically handed down by some self-authenticating spokesperson — is a popular way to go. Too many people refuse to take the first critical hurdle to spiritual maturity — they prefer the moral straitjacket of already having the “truth”. Complexities of living are addressed as reason to dig in their heels even more firmly — reciting threadbare principles over and over, shouting louder and more insistently if they must. Erecting monuments of cold, hard stone.

Sooner or later all this becomes indefensible! Life’s inevitable ambiguities don’t yield to simple, clear answers. Its exhausting having to constantly defend moral rectitude. Loud voices are in abundant supply and routinely dismissed. Life’s questions are simply too numerous, complex and spontaneous to be catalogued.

Still, the hardest thing in the world is for some to let go of their “answers”, especially those intended for others. To do so is not to question one’s faith but to maturely embrace and express it!

There is no judge seated aside a monument to the Ten Commandments at the Pearly Gates. As from a master-teacher, we already have been given the only question on our Final Exam. All answers are not the same. Our own answer matters, definitively!

Did you love?  Really, did you? …especially those we consider least (if we consider them at all)!

Suddenly, It All Looks Different

It’s like suddenly seeing the whole world with a pair of 3-D glasses.

Every once in a while something happens and everything seems different. Often we don’t see it coming. Life just “accumulates” until something shifts. The old way of seeing, doing, being doesn’t fit anymore. We just know the change in our bones! Doesn’t have to be dramatic. There’s no going back — we wouldn’t want to. Often its quiet, subtle — like falling in love.

This time it came in an innocuous Tweet. I read it only once. I don’t even know the context. There hasn’t been the need or even the inclination to go back and retrieve it. It simply made explicit what now seems conspicuous, true, enduring. The Tweet was quoting Pope Francis: “The church doesn’t need any more teachers, the church needs more witnesses.”

We spend our lives going to church, saying our prayers, paying stewardship pledges, taking kids to Sunday school, maybe even teaching Confirmation class. We “do” a lot of stuff!  But, doing somehow morphs over time into “being” different. It’s not that the old stuff isn’t important, it just doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore.

I cannot speculate what this looks or feels like for anyone else. One way I’m experiencing the change is in the difference between ministry and discipleship. The self-introduction (the About Me tab) that accompanies this blog speaks of my “desire to return to ministry.” That was absolutely true — but that now feels obscure, somewhat foreign, certainly obsolete.

When I get around to updating my bio for this site — even that editing doesn’t feel like a high priority now — I will revise “return to ministry” to a current “desire to live a life of more explicit discipleship.” Do you recognize the shift? If you do, great. If not, no sweat! What matters is that a new set of glasses has changed the way I’m seeing, what I’m seeing, and how I want to respond to the world.

We give a lot of lip service in church circles to conversion, repentance, transformation, being born-again, call it what you will. Some of us try all sorts of spiritual practices, follow proven routines and rituals, read the latest books (or blogs!) and even regularly go on retreat. These are praiseworthy, serve a purpose. But their value is good to dispose us to receive what we seek. That’s all they are — dispositional. They are not the change itself.

Change comes through the initiative of grace. It awakens, enlightens, transforms our whole world — like a new pair of 3-D glasses. Whether my new appreciation for the difference between ministry and discipleship endures is yet to be seen.  But its welcome, feels refreshing.

What’s the “shift” you seek?  Is yours also a move from “doing” stuff to “being” different in the world?  Whatever the change turns out to be, I’m certain we all need more of it.

As Through a Glass Darkly

She is her mother’s daughter, that’s for sure!

For a few years now I have listened to an acquaintance — rather than friend because I consciously keep her at arm’s length — grouse about her 85-year-old mother. It’s a long story spanning their lifetimes which has been recounted to me in brief snippets. Can’t she see what she’s doing? Why doesn’t she understand?

Not only is it a great principle of human psychology, it is an important function of literature to allow us to “transfer” or “project” our own selves onto the characters we envision or read about. Shakespeare remains masterful in creating figures onto whom we can dump or build our hidden selves.

Case in point… To Kill a Mocking Bird vies with Grapes of Wrath for my all-time favorite novel. I love the character of Atticus Finch for his demeanor, delivery and dedication to justice. Now, pre-release publicity suggests that Atticus comes off as something less that saintly or heroic in Harper Lee’s long-awaited sequel.

I don’t want to hear it! Already, I have concocted all sorts of excuses not to read Go Set a Watchman. I don’t want anyone to tinker with my well entrenched opinion of the virtuous Atticus! He’s my idol. He’s the one onto whom I projected my youthful passion for justice. NO, he cannot have feet of clay! I will hear none of it!

A few days ago I was walking where my “arm’s-length acquaintance” typically intercepts me. Her rants have become so tedious I sometimes take other routes to lessen the chances of an encounter. Again, she bad-mouthed her elderly mother and rolled her eyes in disgust to emphasize her frustrations.

What doesn’t she see? Why doesn’t she get it? She is her mother’s daughter! She is a master at precisely the obnoxious, tiring, off-putting manner she accuses her mother of personifying. Pointing this out to her would simply be met with denial — a lifetime of projecting our problems or faults onto others is not going to change because of anything I say.

Perhaps the most I can hope for is that I not be guilty of that which I accuse others. I, too, project and transfer my negativity and culpability. I am too often blind and fail to get-it. I, too, am heavily defended behind walls of denial.

Today, Kayla McClurg has a terrific [reflection] on the Gospel being read in many churches this weekend. She recognizes that when we don’t truly know ourselves, accept ourselves, or be our true selves we fail to listen and learn. When we fail to admit our faults and failures we live forever displaced from the center of our lives.

Even in tedious rants and people we would rather avoid, there lies the invitation to own our own stuff. To be the person on the outside the person we are inside. Yes, to project and transfer both our grandstanding and our greatness onto characters of Scripture and literature. But also to own the fullness of all that is reflected back to us.

When I was young I wanted to be Atticus Finch! Perhaps now that I am approaching 65 I do need to read Go Set a Watchman more than ever. It is a gift that Harper Lee waited fifty years to release her sequel — only now am I starting to recognize even the great ones have clay feet. We all do!

Those I deem to be tedious, tiring and troubling may simply be holding up a mirror for me to see more clearly. Truth is, I am also my acquaintance’s reflection. If not in exactly the same ways, then at least more than I want to admit.