‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
This winsome melody of the popular Shaker tune filled our space and perfectly expressed the sentiment of the moment. We had gathered to celebrate friendship and send Susan and Claudia forth to their new home in Rhode Island. Love and letting go are polarities of life.
In most other times and settings — times like ours — such lilting tunes seem better left to a more sentimental time. Too often today we feel disconnected from community, kin and country. These are not simple times. The weight of scandal and complicity within core institutions of church and politics ensnare us, rendering us desolate. Seems ours are not “times of love and delight” this Shaker melody celebrates.
Today at Tuesday morning prayer group, someone expressed a petition with the clarity and precision befitting of a Shaker meeting. He asked for the grace “to live well in these in-between times, times when we witness the dying of that which is already dead; but a time that yields no clarity, offers no assurance of that which is laboring to be born, the new life in us that desires to be lived.”
The prayer was perfect, poignant, one might even say pregnant! Isn’t that where we find ourselves — amid the discomfort of these in-between times, witnessing the death of that which is all but dead, powerless to deliver that life which comes in its own time, as it wills!
This is not only the place we find ourselves — this is the only time we have! As with all times, this is a moment of gift, our time of grace. This morning’s petition finds fulfillment in our living precisely within these contradictions, amid the tension, our labor pangs, holding the poles of paradox, in our ever-present now, the only time we are given…
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
I’ve sat at this keyboard for 30 minutes trying to compose a compelling opening sentence to get you to read what I have to say. I don’t know how to begin! What I have to say is a simple and heartfelt corrective to misconceptions and an injustice I have perpetuated (however unintentionally). Please hear me out!
Virtually everyone in our family knows that our cousin (my first cousin’s son, Pete) has been incarcerated in Nebraska for the past 41 years, 23 of which were on death-row. I reached out to Pete a couple of months ago and we began a mutually satisfying email correspondence. All this came to an abrupt halt after I shared with Pete two blog posts I had written a few years ago in opposition to the death penalty. I had referenced him with the presumption of his guilt.
Pete politely but curtly asked that I give him the courtesy of not contacting him again. I had no clue of the pain my naively well-intentioned posts had caused him. We have had no correspondence since.
I had never taken a close look at the evidence in Pete’s case or the specifics surrounding his conviction. His trial was conducted just as I was preparing to enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1978. That was the last time I have lived in Nebraska. But I do not mean these as an excuse. The truth is I remained blissfully ignorant of the facts, “bought” the findings of the jury trial and placed unfettered confidence in the veracity our judicial system. I was wrong to make these presumptions.
Over the last couple weeks I have taken a much closer look. I’ve concluded that Pete’s conviction was the result of a legal system desperate to wrap-up an unsolved two-year old murder case, an unscrupulous assistant county attorney, nefarious interference by the victim’s family, and the contrived testimony of a key witness manipulated by fear and a desire to save his own ass. I now believe Pete is not guilty and wish to correct the falsehoods I have presumed and spread over the years.
I come to this conclusion for various reasons. Here are a few that I found compelling:
Pete had inadequate legal representation from the start. Though he benefitted from the skillful defense of Dave Lathrop (counsel to the other man charged with the murder) after the cases were combined for purposes of trial. Pete’s court appointed attorney was inept and would later be arrested and convicted of drug offenses and child molestation.
The so-called “testimony” of the prosecution’s key witness had been thrown out as tainted, “poisoned” or otherwise unreliable by the judge in evidentiary hearings prior to the trial. It was reinstated by the Nebraska Supreme Court in what appears to me as an internally contradictory argument.
Subsequent appeals by court appointed attorneys were urgently and understandably focused on protecting Pete from imposition of his death sentence rather than digging into the case for further exonerating evidence.
Advocates for those unjustly imprisoned have for decades shown special interest in Pete’s case. My review of the facts was greatly assisted and inspired by New York writer and advocate, Doug Magee. He has poured over Pete’s case for more than thirty-years and comprehends the facts, and untruths, like no other. I owe him a special debt of gratitude for kindly but clearly correcting my ignorance.
In early 2014 the Innocence Project of Nebraska, the state affiliate of the highly successful national Innocence Project, agreed to take Pete’s case. Even though there is no DNA evidence (a mandate for their advocacy), evidence of Pete’s innocence was simply too compelling for the Project to ignore.
So what do I believe? I believe Pete was framed! The victim had his enemies. He was known for shady deals and had even done time in federal prison for a kickback deal. There was talk in the media of a hit-man from Phoenix in town around the time of the murder. I’ve concluded that this — combined with an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney, the manufactured and coerced lies of the key “witness”, and the illegal and corrupt dealings of a private detective hired by the victim’s family (their third) — is a much more reasonable explanation to the murder than the travesty of justice seen in the Pete’s trial. I believe Pete was scapegoated by an unscrupulous legal system that wanted a conviction — any conviction — to close a high profile murder case from its books.
So what now? Well, first of all, we need to know the truth. Scripture says, “The truth shall set you free.” Well, what do you think? Does it? Our 64 year-old cousin has been incarcerated for more than 40 years for something I no longer believe he did. Will the truth set Pete free? If not, how truly “free” are the rest of us?
Please remember this story as you would all significant family stories! I ask all of our Nebraska relatives and friends to be especially vigilant. Learn the truth. Speak the truth. Correct falsehood. Decry every injustice that would be perpetuated in our name.
And, of course, share this message with any others you think would be interested in it or have a need to know.
Purchasing a tombstone is inevitably a sobering experience, especially when its your own. That’s what I did during the last week of 2017. Seemed practical… with no children, who’s going to do it? Besides, it gives you the opportunity to select what you want. Or, better, what I don’t want — no “Praying Hands”, thank you very much!
I’ve often mused that I wanted my epithet to be “He made good soup.” It’s simple, descriptive, accurate. Conjures hospitality, creativity, frugality, a melding of many pieces into one grand symphony. Mom worked miracles with her clean-out-the-refrigerator soups as Dad awaited his next paycheck. What better could be said about someone’s life?
My cremains will be interred in a plot next to my parents in a Nebraska town of 1600 people where we haven’t lived for more than 62 years. We have four generations of family in that cemetery. Though I haven’t lived in Nebraska for more than forty years, the prairie remains my home and where my soul, even now, finds rest.
There is a fitting and delightful irony in that my final resting place will be more than 300 miles from where I now live but less than a quarter-mile from the house where my parents lived when I was conceived.
Proximity has never characterized our relationship! A lively sense of adventure and curiosity necessitated that I move on, travel the world, shed the provincialism I naively ascribed to my origins. Even being interred next to my parents was unimaginable for a time. As required in adolescence and young adulthood deep existential longings beckoned me beyond, always on to new horizons. Parents symbolize origins; I sought the world, and as much as of it I could get.
Parents frequently become a convenient and easy receptor for all we want to leave behind, their deficiencies an easy target for our ire. After all, we recognize at some deep level they are the only ones we get and that’s never going to change. For better or worse we are irrevocably hitched. So we let ’em have it. They’re always our parents!
If we are especially fortunate we may find an abiding confidence that they may even love us unconditionally (even if not in the way we’d prefer). Though I have no personal experience, I’ve come to wonder whether the best parents can hope is for their heartache to be balanced with the consolation and joy children periodically deliver.
Perhaps herein lies the real gift — in our living we discover that anguish and joy are not an either/or proposition. Rather, they converge into a single, swirling vortex. In that swirling rough’n’tumble we discover as good a definition of love as any.
Here’s something I do know. In our youth a certain insatiable longing and expansiveness necessarily drives us outward and we need to dispose of the identity our parents and origins conferred upon us. Like the vast Nebraska prairie we envision limitless space and fix our eyes on the expansive horizon, ever captivated by whatever lies beyond. We eventually move from being pioneers to becoming homesteaders of our own.
Then, there comes a time we discover our deepest longings, most profound hungers, insatiable appetites cannot be satisfied. They need not be satisfied. Oh, we may try! But the horizon always recedes beyond us! The especially privileged among us will attempt to find satisfaction in what will ultimately be found insufficient to the need. Acquisitions of all sorts easily slide into consumerism or fetishes at best and obsessions or addictions in more desperate extremes.
Perhaps one key reason children and parents inevitably clash lies in the fact we engage one another at two different stages of life. One driven by an expansive, limitless trajectory; the other drawn deeper into an awareness of life’s complexities. We are destined to reside in different universes though never apart.
To the uninitiated, the Nebraska prairie appears barren, flat, featureless. Life on the plains carries a certain emptiness, longing, loneliness. That is precisely what beckons my soul. But cannot this be said of every place of human habitation? Ultimately, wherever we reside, we must find satisfaction beyond our dreams, beyond place, beyond selves.
The Nebraska prairie is the place where my soul finds rest. One way or another, we are all drawn deeper than we could have seen or imagined into discovering our most authentic selves. Horizons expand beyond the geographical. Life transcends the individual. Our trek paradoxically takes us, not just beyond, but ever deeper — deeper into emptiness, longing, yearning.
Fulfillment comes when we enter, or are plunged, more deeply if not willingly into that vast expansiveness. The hard and perplexing invitation to a full and happy life lies not in our futile efforts to fill an existential emptiness. Rather, our happiness and wholeness is discovered when we welcome, probe and embrace the wisdom this womb-like cavern holds for us. Therein lies life’s destiny and fulfillment.
My parents’ memorial sits inconspicuously atop a windswept hill in Nebraska. Mine will stand aside it — same size, same shape, same granite stone. Only difference being that Mom and Dad’s “Praying Hands” will be replaced by my simple cross. My husband asked, “Will your monument say, ‘He made good soup’?” My response, “No, it says something even better and more distinguished… ‘Son of Arthur and Gertrude’!”
My two Godson nephews have been instructed to simply place my cremains into the ground. The only graveside service I request is that they read aloud the conclusion to T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. In part it says:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Eliot’s poem Little Gidding may be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html
That’s all it was… dumb luck! Desperate to get a gift in the mail for a dear friend, I simply happened upon an obscure reference to For the Time Being by the distinguished 20th century poet, W.H. Auden. I’d never heard of it and concluded its very obscurity would appeal to my erudite friend. Besides, he is really smart and works at a prestigious university — my gift would make me look smart by association!
But that, too, may be post factual reconstruction. My initial motivation had little to do with erudition or even personal insecurities beneath my need to look smart. I was inspired by the fact that this famously gay poet had in midlife returned to Christianity. After the death of his mother and breakup with the man to whom he considered himself married, Auden dedicated this Christmas oratorio to his mother and wrote as emotional catharsis as much as testament of faith. Seemed like a good read for a long winter’s night!
It was not personal genius that led me to Auden’s oratorio. Rather it was dumb luck — what some might call grace! And, Auden far exceeds my mundane expectations. Nowhere does his probing and provocative rendition of the Christmas story settle for sentimentality or trite piety. His is the tempered faith of one who has struggled with life and whose own journey to Bethlehem was harsh, long and fraught with doubt.
We say that Christmas is for children, and that’s true. But there is nothing childish, cuddly or cozy about the original story. It must pass the test of time; its truth must endure through turmoil and trials that assail us. In this it must surpass any question of historicity and reveal an even more timeless truth. Few of us risk looking beyond the caricature of a sweet, unassuming, adorable babe. Auden takes the plunge!
And plunge we must — again and again. Hardly a child any longer, this Christmas marks my 67th journey through the season (and I’m counting on many more). Dumb luck led me to discover Auden’s oratorio — the unimagined, graced vehicle revealing Christmas as fresh, true, wondrous, here-and-now despite my 67th journey over the terrain. A few examples suffice…
Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are patently patriarchal, some would say stiflingly patriarchal. But is the real problem with the text or with our blind, sterile reading? Without premeditated agenda or argumentative intent Auden holds in bold relief the voiceless, befuddled, slow to catch-on Joseph in what even the Gospels cast as a secondary, supportive role. Mary, then as now, holds center stage.
Add to this the “silencing” of Zechariah when he dismisses even the potential for his wife to give birth in her old age. With fresh insight these Gospel narratives are hardly paternalistic. Rather they cast Mary and Elizabeth with the lead roles in a drama featuring what only women can do — give birth, bringing forth a savor. Patriarchy is set aside and assigned a supporting role! The text has been there all along. Why haven’t I recognized this?
The shepherds and magi are similarly flush with fresh meaning in the poet’s telling. Shepherds readily personify the settled ones, those who express the best of the past, keeping the home fires burning. The magi are persistent seekers, quick to leave the safe and familiar to discover what is beyond. Both have a place.
Neither is better. Each expresses our human capacity — indeed, our need — to recognize in this vulnerable, innocuous infant the incarnation of God-With-Us, Word made Flesh. That is the perennial invitation, to see the child for whom it is. Yes, to sit right down in the incredulity of it all. To say yes to the inconceivable.
We come to manger-like places all the time; asked first to actually see what is there, then to affirm that which we see as sacred. Never meant to resolve the mystery with tight, conclusive answers. Rather, we are invited to inch ever more deeply into the the truth our lives and the sometimes messy world which enfolds us.
The most we can offer is our intent, mustering a resolve to seek, follow and love the Mystery we recognize but cannot comprehend.
Such is our dumb luck, not genius, utter grace.
For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio by W. H. Auden. Introduction and edited by Alan Jacobs. Princeton University Press, 2013.
The bottom is about to drop out! We’ve been living on borrowed time. Still reluctant to face reality, it is what it is.
It’s not as if we haven’t been warned — today’s high in Minneapolis is to be 57; tomorrow’s temp is forecast to be 22! The redolent release of Fall is past. We are in for a full-bore collapse into the depths of winter.
We Minnesotans pride ourselves in being of hearty stock. Each year we enter this season with a conflicted mixture of reluctance and pride, reenactment of a familiar script and rehearsal for an even bigger drama that lies ahead.
Natives counsel new arrivals to our state with sage advice — learn to play in it; skating, cross-country skiing, show-shoeing, ice-fishing, “walk” the lakes. Those of Scandinavian descent advise the rest of us, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Through Minnesota’s own expression of “natural selection” those of less hearty stock concoct veiled excuses to bail. Their loss!
What the uninformed protest as “harsh” Minnesota winters actually preserves our famed North Woods. Quail and other wildlife need snow cover to burrow into for cozy quarters. You haven’t truly relaxed until you know the solitude of cross-country skiing across of a frozen lake encircled with verdant pine, sentinel birch and the silhouettes of naked bur oak. A good hard winter is also nature’s best defense against the devastation of Emerald Ash Bore and the invasive Asian beetle. Then there is the hearth — that place where hearts are warmed, friendship deepens, and love finds expression.
So why such resistance? Why this talk of the bottom falling out? Why such reluctance and resignation? …a hunker-down survivalist stoicism? …the insistent urge to escape? Some seem captive to the sparseness of winter, afflicted with tunnel vision, willing to wallow in a life of hibernation. They appear constitutionally incapable of embracing beauty, recognizing promise, and plumbing life’s depths.
But is not this hardness of heart an unyielding refusal to change, a fear of any disruption to preferred routines, a denial of the passage of time, a poverty of imagination? We can too easily and stubbornly hold the promise for any potential future in a straight-jacket of our own making.
You need not be a privileged Minnesotan to embrace the offering of this sparsest of seasons. Our lives are also lived according to passages not made of uniform chronology. At any time of year we may bear the brunt of loss, the trauma of a potentially terminal diagnosis, the breakup of a relationship. Thankfully not all disruptions to the way things are, or want them to be, are as harsh or traumatic. We must engage them all to their depths if we are to fully live.
Mary Oliver lives on the easternmost tip of Cape Cod and has long been our most loyal chronicler of life’s fury, simplicity, sparseness and sublime beauty. Her poem, On Winter’s Margin captures both the timeless potential and promise of this most contradictory of seasons:
On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.
With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;—
They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.
Many are familiar with my banana story. A few years back on April 5, my mother’s birthday, I was slicing a banana over my morning Raisin Bran. A warm consolation suddenly transported me back nearly 60 years. I was a little boy and Mom was slicing a banana over my breakfast cereal. She gave me half. To my protestations of wanting the whole banana Mom simply said, “Richard, you can have your share but you need to leave some for the others.”
This morning her words again hit me with a jolt. Sitting in my recliner, French Roast in hand, I felt a sudden, final “drop” of an elevator settling upon arrival on a lower level. For years I have been focusing on only half of her wisdom — “you have to leave some for the others.” That’s essential counsel for a 5 year old, especially given Mom’s challenge of feeding ten kids. But Mom was also saying, “You can have your share.”
These days — and many decades beyond 5 years old — its easy to deflect our loved ones’ queries about what we want for Christmas. “Oh, honey, I don’t need a thing! A pair of socks or underwear would be just fine.” How deflating is that to their holiday spirit! The temptation to take less under the pretense of appearing “loving” lurks just below the surface in many of us. Such pseudo-humility still leaves its focus on me. More insidiously, it risks gutting our inherent value as persons.
It’s taken decades for me to glean the gentle, compassionate wisdom elders have been quietly modeling. To be truly humble means to be grounded, like humus, in the richness of our true selves. Humility has little to do with making ourselves less than we are. Rather, humility lies in the honest acceptance of our true selves as blessed creatures with legitimate desires and needs — as well as faults — woven into relationship with others within this magnificent creation.
Yes, in a consumerist culture fixated on “self” and “stuff” there are enormous pressures to buy, binge and indulge. Powerful forces easily subvert moderation, balance, equilibrium. Needs get inflated, desires distorted. But for mature people intent on doing good, the more pressing danger is much more complicated and fraught with peril — that we make too little of ourselves!
Mom unwittingly conveyed another bit of essential wisdom. Born before women had the right to vote, cultural norms continued to constrain her options and proscribe her self-initiative. Weighed down by ten kids (as her tenth child I have a distinct right to state this), Mom was further coerced into putting others first.
This morning, over my cereal, I hear her saying, “Richard, you have to have a self before you can give it away.” In this, too, she remains one of my best teachers and most humble human beings I will ever know.
Too many are still prevented by social norms and unjust structures from discovering and celebrating the fullness of their God-given dignity. Is there any question about what should be on our Christmas wish list?