Forty-Eight Hours Before the Wedding

Do you believe in serendipity?  Its more than coincidence.  More than luck, even.  Serendipity surprises us unaware with the appearance of valuable connections or pleasant experiences we had not anticipated nor could have even sought.  Serendipity is a lot like sheer grace.

Participating in “Prayer at the Fair” — the Sunday morning ecumenical service at the Minnesota State Fair — presented a marvelous moment of serendipity.  I am still savoring a poem by Maya Angelou days later:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

__________

Maya Angelou’s poem is entitled Touched by An Angel and is readily available online and in the poet’s collected works.

Who’s Invited? Who’s Not?

I saw and looked away. I could not look again. I could not even bring myself to read the accompanying story — I knew. We all know. The world knows too well! But not now, please!

We are planning our wedding! We want nothing to detract or conflict with our special day. The silver’s been polished. God forbid the weather be less than perfect!

Our special day leaves no room for too-much of what our world knows too-well. Individually and collectively we have perfected the fine art of distraction, denial and diversion. Not now, please!

The heart wrenching image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on a Turkish shore, has been emblazoned in our consciousness. How are we to celebrate our marriage, mark this happy occasion with family and friends? We are here to commit our selves to one another in love, seek the blessing of the church.  Ominous images impinging on our celebration? No, not now!

Then, what’s the point? If not now, when? We are masters at slicing, dicing and segregating our loves and our lives. And, it doesn’t work! Our “gated communities” too often leave us more isolated, private and alone.

Is not marriage about unity, openness to life, self-giving? Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was not on our invitation list — he needs to be. Not to dampen our celebration but to keep it real, full and consequential.

I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.

With these prophetic words, British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is summoning all of Europe to reaffirm its Judeo-Christian heritage in light of the current refugee catastrophe. Is this not the fullest and finest expression of love, to love precisely the one who is not just like you?

Will the world be better off because two people promise to love one another for the rest of their lives? We hope so. Perhaps it will be — provided our love is big enough, all-embracing enough, other-centered enough, life-giving enough.

Aylan Kurdi, as our young ring-bearers bring wedding bands to the priest for blessing, you will be remembered. Your spirit will summon us to look, to see and never look away again from what we dare to pledge in love — even unto death.
_______________
You may read Rabbi Sacks’ superb article from The Guardian [here]. Special thanks to Susan Stabile for posting it on her Facebook page today.

For the Love of Strawberries

A story is told of Bertha and Abraham Maslow… like many couples who marry at a young age — she was 19 and he was 20 — they struggled financially as their daughters Ann and Ellen arrived. As Abraham completed his degree at City College, the young family indulged simple pleasures within their constrained budget.

A favorite family outing was to go to one of the many city parks in their New York neighborhood where Abraham and Bertha had both grown up. During strawberry season the parents would splurge on one carton and carefully divide the berries among the four of them.

The parents would generally nibble on only one strawberry. Being the ebullient young children Ann and Ellen were, the girls would quickly gobble down their full share oblivious to their parents restraint. Abraham and Bertha knew their children would soon be back asking for more of the juicy, sweet treats.

Years later, after he had become one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century, Abraham would recall moments like these in the city park, “Bertha and I learned that strawberries never taste better than in the mouths of our children.”

My unexamined assumption is that the Maslows were Jewish. Their religious affiliation does not matter — their human experience as parents points to something foundational to all the great world religions — a deep, down unity and goodness girding all creation, the felt experience that all is bound up in the Holy, and we are “wired” to participate in this Love.

Contemplative practices of all faith traditions entice, nudge, cajole us to embrace a single-hearted unity with all creation — what my friend Ellen Swanson likes to call “community without conformity.” The Maslow’s strawberries — indeed the simplest of all genuinely human encounters — open for us what is nothing less than a mystical experience, we find God in all persons and all creation!

The mature spiritual life takes us beyond the prescriptions of what is “right,” “moral,” “just,” or “equal.” We are set free from the prescriptions for every step we take or move we make because some authority has “said so” or “others are watching.” We ourselves become the dance; our living becomes the loving; we are swept off our feet by the One who is Love.

The Maslow family came to appreciate this Love through strawberries. Jesus speaks of this in many ways, at many times and ultimately with his life — “unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die…” We find our life by losing it. Those who would save their life will give it away.

Love, life, God are never so wonderfully tangible as when shared in selfless communion with family, neighbors, whomever is hungry among us.

Some Assembly Required

Mike is a retired school counselor in his mid 70s. We know him best as the grandpa of the kids next door. He’s over regularly to live-trap and “relocate” pesky chipmunks, sweep up the acorns from the yard’s stately oaks and otherwise do those tasks full-time parents don’t have time to do.

Mike likes to talk. Man, does he like to talk! Fortunately, the Englishman who came to Minnesota to get his PhD, fell in love and stayed. He’s bright, knowledgeable and curious about many things. Recently, Mike was telling me about his decision to resume more regular church attendance.

Mulling over eternal verities or ultimate questions about meaning and purpose was conspicuously absent in Mike’s priorities. What was most striking were not questions about death or an after-life. Rather, Mike was primarily focused on quality of life now! He explained how social engagement and sense of community are essential for maintaining mental health and physical vitality well into our senior years.

Such nuggets of wisdom from elders I would want to emulate get noticed by 65 year-olds like me. Same way with my 85 y/o bother-in-law, Al. He’s always been popular in our family. Now six years into their seconds marriages, he and Elaine are modeling for the rest of us what its like to age with grace, gratitude and charm.

This past week I took a sour cream raisin pie over to share with them. A longstanding claim in our family is that Mom’s double-crust recipe is far superior to any meringue version others may tout! After our self-congratulatory remarks (and second helpings) we engaged in easy, wide-ranging conversation as we always do.

What I noticed throughout Al’s animated story-telling was more than a sugar-high from dessert. He was engaged, grateful and enthusiastic as ever.  This time he kept apologizing for going off on tangents. Every story had about five subplots and as many asides. But his were not the untethered wanderings of a feeble mind. They were exuberant reminiscences of people, places and times we shared in common. A perfect accompaniment to my mother’s double-crust sour cream raisin pie.

Not all our stories are easy or happy. My sister died in 2007. Now Al and his wife talk openly and lovingly about their first marriages. Though family circumstances prevented him from graduating from high school, Al remains as curious, wise and insightful as any philosophy professor I had in college. Twenty years his junior, I have always aspired to be like Al — now more than ever!

These disparate conversations with Mike and Al suddenly converged yesterday as I drove east on 50th Street. On the marquee of the largest Lutheran congregation in the world these words foretold this weekend’s sermon: “Some Assembly Required.” Immediately I chuckled at the clever play on words.

My conversations with Mike and Al suddenly struck me as profound as any sermon a pastor will be preaching at Mount Olivet. Life — and I would hold the spiritual life — is not like putting together a swing set or gas grill. As useful as the owner’s manual is for putting things in place and for their upkeep, such instructions are woefully inadequate for conveying the function and purpose enjoyed in life’s many conveniences — and dare I say, coping with life’s inevitable annoyances.

Yes, some assembly is required. Yet a full life, a purpose-filled life, a life the likes of which Mike and Al model for the rest of us demands more from us. We are nudged and enticed to move beyond the verb, “to assemble” according to the prescriptions of even the best user’s manual. We are invited, even wired, to engage assembly as the noun it is, as community — that full, rich, diverse assortment of characters that make us who we are.

Yes, some assembly is required. Here we carry the stories that enrich and define us, the memories we treasure, the tales that will one day be told about us. In the gathered assembly we reverently hold what’s most valuable and sacred — communion with one another.

A Thing of Beauty

There is an exception to every rule!

Previous posts have confessed my compulsion with having the last word. Neither do I want this site to degenerate into a Twitter-like roster of cut-n-paste stories Yours Truly finds of interest. But there are times…

Coinciding with the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Catholic Relief Services unveiled a 3-minute video on our stewardship of creation. Actually, three minutes and four seconds!

Click [here] to have your eyes opened, your heart touched and (hopefully) your living inspired.

It’s a thing of beauty — the Earth and the video!

Tomorrow is NOW

Today’s the day! Today is the day set aside for special prayer, awareness and action on behalf of creation. The Orthodox Church has been commemorating this day since 1989. The rest of us Christians are taking a little longer to wake up to our need for practical conversion and spiritual transformation in the way we relate to God’s good creation. Better late than never!

Yesterday’s post suggested a few ways to make our commemoration of the day less “churchy” and more “grounded.” It was based in the conviction that we don’t need more prayer; we need more action. We don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer (more about that later).

Here is another simple exercise… I just completed it myself. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home points to numerous ways world organizations, nations and communities can move forward and the way individuals — believers and people of good will — might see, think, feel and act.

Here is the fruit of my personal “examination of conscience.” In other words, where I felt a special need or where I felt I could immediately adapt my behavior. Again, they are what I am attending to today — you will certainly come up with a different assortment. The references in parentheses indicate paragraphs in the encyclical where more is said about this suggestion:

— Reduce, reuse, recycle. Preserve resources, use them more efficiently, moderate consumption and limit use of non-renewable resources. (22, 192)

— Stop blaming problems on population growth. The real threat is excessive consumerism and waste. (50)

— For genuine change, put the common good first. (54)

— Be consistent. Pro-life, environmental and social justice movements are all connected. (91, 120)

— Make public transportation a priority and a more pleasant experience. (153)

— Plant a tree. Take mass transit. Car pool. Turn off the lights when you leave the room. Chilly? Wear a sweater. Little things add up. (211)

More than anything, here’s my ultimate favorite. It’s a practice we had at home as kids. What a transformational consequence of prayer it would be if we paused to thank the Creator for our food, for the earth that provided it and for the laborers who brought it to our table.

— Say grace before meals. (227)

In all honesty, here’s the one that presents the biggest immediate challenge at our house. We are much too tied to our iPhones, iPads and “mindless television”:

— End the tyranny of the screen, information overload and distractions. Watch out for media-induced melancholy and isolation. Cultivate real relationships with others. (47)

Above I claimed that we don’t pray ourselves into right action as much as much as our actions ground our prayer. I promised more about that later. Well, here goes! This is the suggestion (admonition?) that calls for my deepest personal conversion:

— Get down from the ivory tower and stop the rhetoric. Get to know the poor and suffering; it will wake up a numbed conscience and inspire real action. (49)

We will all mark this World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation in ways that are meaningful and practical for each of us. If you’d care to reflect on the forty or so suggestions that come from Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home, you can access the list [here].