That Persistent, Inconvenient Necessity to Yield

Those who know me know I like to be in control. Those who love me do so in spite of my controlling tendencies. Call it Lent or simply “getting older”, whatever the reason, I’ve recognized it’s exhausting — even more, it doesn’t work!

Those of us in recovery of one sort of another are familiar with the adage: Let go, let God. It’s wildly popular and often repeated. But how deep do these facile references actually go? Nice words. Wise words. They give the illusion of actually doing what they suggest.

Somewhere in the last day or two I read something that has nudged me, became a burr in my saddle, won’t leave me alone. Adding intrigue to this insistent recollection, I cannot recall where it came from. Reviewing likely sources on various blogs or online sources has been to no avail. All that’s left is its recurring, persistent nudge.

The nagging invitation is quite directive: move from control to consent. Yes, it’s as plain and beguiling as that! Maybe this is what my brother Jerry came to know in his later years. His continuous refrain, almost to the point of annoyance, was: Life on life’s terms!

My husband — one of those people who loves me despite my propensity to be controlling — often repeats a favorite phrase that gets at this same hard-won wisdom: It is what it is! Here, too, his refrain captures the simple necessity to let go, to receive life on life’s terms, to move from control to consent.

This year the convergence of Lent and the fact of growing older seems to be conspiring to teach that there really is no alternative. Yielding, letting go, consenting to all that life brings our way ought not be done begrudgingly, reluctantly, fighting life’s natural progression at every turn.  That’s exhausting and doesn’t work in the end.

Surely the ultimate expression of inconvenient necessity to which Lent nudges us is Jesus in the Garden: Not my will, but yours be done. Yielding, letting go, consent to diminishment that appears even as death!

But this is only half the story. We also need to be reminded that this sort of consent is within human capacity and profoundly life-affirming. No one challenges or consoles us more than Denise Levertov in her magnificent summation of Mary’s singular fiat, her “let it be” —

She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Maybe this year we can each take one more courageous leap — yielding control, giving consent, letting go, saying yes to life on life’s terms.

If you are in any way like me, you may recognize this inconvenient nudge as an invitation to more fully embrace the fact that God is God and we’re not. Finally, we might yield sufficiently to see this as a good thing — in fact, as our very salvation.
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Levertov’s quote is from her poem, Annunciation in A Door in the Hive, New Directions, New York, 1989, pp 86-88.

Aspiring to Wisdom

Have you noticed? The world has gotten better — all the problems have been solved. Really! My brother and I have been together for ten days now and pretty well taken care of all the world’s troubles. No need to thank us — we’ve enjoyed doing it.

Mornings typically begin at Starbucks. We take the New York Times and Orlando paper delivered to his doorstep. But we never seem to get to them. Rather, the state of our world is so dire we need to attend to these matters first.

Yesterday was special. After services and a pot-luck at Bear Lake United Methodist Church featuring Black Gospel singers from Alabama, my brother and I settled into twin recliners in front of the fireplace. This time we ruminated on family, our ancestors, favorite relatives, reasons they were the way they were and we are the way we are. Three and a half-hours passed like thirty minutes!

This morning, specifics and details have coalesced into an all-embracing sense of gratitude and contentment. That’s pretty amazing given the characters, personalities and circumstances we rehashed, the achievements claimed, wounds recalled and losses remembered. Let’s just say Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham and the Viscount Downton, has nothing over on us.

Here’s what’s becoming clear after these days of trying to make sense of this thing we call “life”… We cannot always “think” our way into knowledge. Some explanations are simply beyond words yet we know them to be true.  Perhaps this is what St. Augustine, fourth century bishop in North Africa meant as well — “The heart has reasons Reason knows not.”

Call it “wisdom” if you wish. My brother and I would like to think our machinations suggest we are more than just two senior citizens grousing in front of a fireplace. We’d like to believe these are the sort of conversations and conclusions true elders begin to formulate.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we’ve concluded for certain: It’s not that some of what we “know” is irrational, it’s that some things are simply beyond reason… such as love, self-sacrifice, mercy, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile.

In the end, this remains the hope in which we aspire to live.

No Escape


During this two-week Florida escape from February in Minnesota, my brother and I reenact cherished rituals which mark our relationship as special. One favorite routine is to provoke the other with a familiar question, “Anybody ever call you arrogant?”

No answer is needed. It’s our playful way to admit a character defect to which males in our family are especially prone. Simply getting it out into the open has the effect, we hope, of moderating a trait that will most likely remain a lifelong struggle. In any case, it expresses our fraternal bond and gives us a good laugh.

Another well rehearsed routine captures another fact about our lives. One of us will randomly toss out, “You know, life sure is good.” To which the other knows to respond, “It can be!” That’s often expressed along with another dictum well engrained by our parents, “Ya’ know, life is pretty much what you make of it!”

Yes, we are truly blessed. We’ve got it good. It would be easy to mistakenly conclude that somehow we’ve earned our good fortune or deserve the ability to so easily escape winter’s fury. As two white, well-educated, senior citizen, American males we too easily find ourselves on third base and presume we hit a triple!

Folks like us may have a unique and special need for Lent. Perhaps a first indication is that fact we are disposed to so easily ignore it. Lent reminds us of our deficiencies, our dependencies, and asks us to take an extended look at our persistent character defects.

Despite the insulation power and privilege provide, we are asked to admit the truth of our lives. We are reminded of our membership in the vast human family that doesn’t have it nearly as good. Lent exhorts us to be honest about who we truly are. Lent is about deepening the bond of love within our extended human family.

Again today, I am deeply moved by a reflection that hits me right where I need a good shove.  On her blog, Inward/Outward, Kayla McClurg writes:

[Lent] certainly is no escape route, no fast track out of Jerusalem, that ancient icon of hope and pain. It is a narrow path, a lowly path, right into the deepest, darkest heart of the human dilemma—our desire for God alongside our consuming hunger for things that will never satisfy, our fear and bluster, our imprisoned souls. Like a mother hen, how God longs to gather us in under her wings. If only we were willing, or at least willing to be willing, we might begin to learn the Jesus way, a more humble way, a way to be utterly free.

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You may access Kayla McClurg’s full reflection [here].

Reagan was Right!

Never imagined I’d ever be saying much good about the man. But given the recent brouhaha about the morality of building walls — What, for God’s sake, has our nation come to? — President Ronald Reagan sounds refreshingly relevant.

Walls never work as an instrument of national policy. With renewed appreciation and complete agreement, I recall the iconic Republican conservative saying some thirty years ago in Berlin: “Mr Gorbachov, tear down this wall!” Amen to that!

Whether Presbyterian Donald Trump is or isn’t a good Christian is none of my concern. (Actually it is, but not here!). Neither was it of interest to Pope Francis if you read what he actually said during his press conference onboard the return flight to Rome.

President Reagan, however, was certainly on solid ground politically and in terms of the Judeo-Christian roots of this country. How so? Somewhere over the thirty years between Reagan and Trump’s rhetoric we have become rabidly individualistic, selfish, even nasty.

Somehow we need to rekindle the best of our Judeo-Christian heritage — not that which is exclusionary and divisive, but that which celebrates our common humanity, builds solidarity and takes solace in mutual reliance on one another.

This is the message of the Bible right from the start.  Genesis, Chapter 1 — humankind is created in the image and likeness of God. All of us, no exceptions! Yes, this is the first principle and foundation of Judeo-Christian teaching.

We profess this to be equally true of Muslims, Hindus, Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, Gays, the poor, the vulnerable, other nationalities, women as well as men — you name it! If you are human, you are created in the image and likeness of God!

Mr Trump, you are no more righteous, worthy or deserving than any you’d wish to wall out or deport. In fact, to the extent you fail to see the human dignity in any such as these, especially the least among us, you fail as a good American. For even our founding documents enshrined this truth as self-evident, all are created equal.

Mr. Trump, tear down your walls! What are you afraid of?  What is it you need to defend?  Could it be that deep down you harbor some lingering self-doubt whether you, too, really are created in the image of God?

Rest assured. Yes, you are — even you!

Transformed by Emptiness

It’s important for us to learn that imperfection is our natural state. For if we don’t, we will forever seek to fill the emptiness that cannot be filled with all manner of things, and mistakenly assume that we’re supposed to do something to change it. But what this emptiness calls for is acceptance and gentle perseverance with the lives we’ve been given. With acceptance comes peace and greater capacity to love.
+ Maryann Edgar Budde

We may not like it, but Lent is that necessary season for us to get in touch with our emptiness, fallibility and finitude. Sound too pessimistic or depressing for our feel-good culture? Well, perhaps it does — unless we grasp the great human paradox of death/resurrection. That’s the invitation!

As St Francis of Assisi — certainly the most popular Christian saint of all time — said so eloquently: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Francis was not just referring to our ultimate end-of-life demise. He was speaking about the seemingly infinite opportunities and requirement to “die to self” that consistently come our way.

Our friend, the current Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, expresses this invitation so well in the quote above. We got to know Maryann when she was the rector of St. John’s Church in Minneapolis. Today I can do no better than to recommend her reflection [here] for your prayerful consideration.

My Lenten Shake-Down

My spiritual foundations are being shaken to their foundations. On a practical level, I’ve presumed that God became human in Jesus because we had screwed things us so badly that God needed to “work our salvation” through the passion, death and resurrection. Today something else seems to be struggling to break through.

Steeped in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, my “fix it” mentality still deeply colors the way I have interpreted Jesus’ Incarnation. Even more, my presumption about the Son’s mission has pretty well determined the way I have “observed” the season of Lent — Jesus came to save us because we had created a mess and couldn’t fix it for ourselves.  We’d do well to realign ourselves with Jesus’ plan of action.

Though this traditional affirmation remains true, it’s not the whole truth. In fact, it’s only a sliver of the truth and can distort and impoverish a fuller understanding of Christ. That’s what seems to be rattling my foundations these days. It’s a work in progress — it’s God’s doing, nothing I can cause, simply a grace I hope to apprehend.

Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton has had me captivated for the past while. Masterful. Meant to be savored. Perhaps the most significant book I’ve read in the past five years. Not easy, but solid theology that is also spiritually satisfying. Reading something today caught me off guard and sent my head spinning:

The incarnation … was not an afterthought following a failed creation. Christ is the Word, the uncreated Image of God, who has already decided “from the beginning” to enter fully into humankind.

Okay, so what’s new? We’ve all heard that before. It’s simply another way of saying what Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians (1:15-17). Yes, I’ve “believed” this. I’ve even parroted it in my own words. Today these former formulations seem conceptual, abstract. True, but cognitive!

Here’s what flipped my apple cart, left my head spinning:

the heart of Christian spirituality [resides in] the discovery of our true selves already resting in Christ, not “out there” as a separate Object, but “as the Reality within our own reality, the Being within our own being, the life of our life.” (Merton, The New Man, p19).

With images of Pope Francis praying at the Mexico/US border yesterday fresh in my mind, Merton’s words stopped me in my tracks: “If we believe in the incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p296)

The church teaches virtually the same thing: “In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'” (Gaudium et spies, #22).

Again, I have long ‘believed’ these words. I have often parroted them. But have they really sunk in? Are they deep in my bones such that I see in others — each and every other, especially the poor and marginalized — the human dignity of Christ?

That’s my challenge as we enter this second week of Lent. God did not become human in Jesus as an afterthought due to our having screwed things up! Incarnation leading to salvation has always been God’s intention from the beginning. How do I get that truth in to my bones, give flesh to this “Word” in my life?

Perhaps we need to spend less time in our church pews and more time at border crossings, less time meditating on the crucifix and more time attending to the many forms of personal crucifixion people endure today.

Christmas and Easter are not dualistic polarities on a salvific timeline. They are the self-same singular impulse of a loving God from the very beginning. Don’t know about you, but this pretty well turns the table on many of my traditional Lenten presumptions and practices.

Getting my head and heart around this will take some doing, certainly more than the forty days of Lent.
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Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN (2009), pp 179-180).

Such is Our Duty

This time of year reminds me of a church discipline from childhood I’ve long discarded. It’s called the “Easter Duty,” the obligation each Catholic has to go to Confession sometime during Lent. In theory it’s a beautiful and sensible practice — preparing for a full-blown, no-holds-barred celebration of Easter.

Fact is, no one does it. I haven’t for years. But something is shifting this year, something feels different, something is quickening deep inside. The desire to again look at the directive, perhaps even to reincorporate it into my spiritual practice, is awakening. As with all new growth, it’s fragile and might be easily smothered.  But this year it seems I’m being urged to take a fresh look.

Numerous reasons might be cited. First, and most significantly, my experience as a “spiritual coach” for men in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction has a profound reciprocal effect on me. Everyone familiar with the 12 Steps knows the critical importance of the famed Fifth Step — that arduous encounter with another human being when we admit out loud the exact nature of our wrongs.  This is done after a fearless moral inventory.

One need not be a rocket scientist to see the close connection between the Fifth Step and the Easter Duty. Both traditions are inspired and come to the same conclusion. An honest, accurate and thorough admission — out loud and to another person — of our moral failures with acceptance of responsibility for the wrong we have done engenders the recovery, health, well-being and serenity we seek. Twelve-Steppers understand such acknowledgement is critical and  essential to their recovery.

So, yes, with restored resolve I intend to make my Easter Duty this year. But something more is stirring deep down within this quickening awareness. It’s as simple as the archaic aphorism that has also fallen out of vogue: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” In fact, I would amend that to say, “What’s good for the adult male goose is good for the gaggle of geese!”

Pope Francis prophetically leads the way in gestures like the one we saw yesterday. In a monumentally historic statement the Roman Pontiff and Russian Orthodox Patriarch jointly affirmed, “We are not competitors but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world.”

Like every courageous and prophetic acknowledgement of moral culpability and consequent responsibility to make amends, such acknowledgement is easily ignored, overlooked if not denied, and often subverted by powers-that-be.

Yes, I intend to make my Easter Duty this year. I propose the “gander” do as well — by this I mean Francis’ fellow bishops and all church hierarchs (not all of whom are ordained). Even more, “What’s good for us geese has got to be good for the gaggle.”

We will gather as one Body in Christ to celebrate the unmerited grace of God at Easter. What then might be our corporate, collective “Easter Duty”? …a collective, corporate, fearless confession of our wrong doing with “a firm purpose of amendment”?

Unquestionably, a good place to start would be for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to launch and fully fund a truly independent, unhampered and fearless “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” regarding clergy sex abuse. But this is only a first essential step, the litmus test by which we demonstrate our sincerity to enter into the “repentance leading to resurrection” offered us in the Easter Triduum.

In the absence of such resolve by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, there is nothing preventing leadership within local dioceses from embracing an authentic season of conversation, shepherding us through death to life. I can think of no better place than our own Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis for this to begin.

Is not this the repentance God seeks, “to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). Would this not be a Jubilee Year of Mercy, truly of Biblical proportions?

It is long past time for each and all of us to perform our Easter Duty!