Extraordinarily Ordinary

Where we were on 9/11 remains etched in our consciousness — meeting with an elderly woman named Hildegard. Those of my generation remember where we were when Kennedy was shot — Sr Monique’s 8th grade math class. My dad recalled spontaneous parades down main street in Hartington, Nebraska on Armistice Day, 1919.

Today, November 30, I vividly remember where I was thirty-five ago on this day — St. Francis Xavier Church on the St Louis University campus. I was a graduate student. It was Sunday. John Kavanaugh SJ was presiding at the popular campus liturgy.

In his welcome, John announced that Dorothy Day had died the previous evening. Like other moments indelibly etched in our consciousness, there was an audible gasp. We recognized the world would never be the same, grieving our collective loss.

Day was more than the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, she was the moral conscience of a nation. She spoke truth to power, not only regarding Viet Nam, but in the way our culture denigrates the poor and dismisses those on our peripheries. Visiting the U.S. these thirty-five years after her death, Pope Francis cited Dorothy Day (along with Thomas Merton) as exemplars of the very best American Catholicism has to offer.

We too easily assume those we want to call “saints” live with some super-human grace, operating on a different spiritual plain than the rest of us. Not only is that bad theology, it’s simply wrong! As David Brooks has pointed out in his current best-seller, “often enough they live in an even less ethereal way that the rest of us. They are more fully of this earth , more fully engaged in the dirty practical problems of the people around them.” (emphasis mine)

That was certainly the case with Dorothy Day. Brooks is only the latest to observe that “Day and her colleagues slept in cold rooms. They wore donated clothes. They did not receive salaries. Day’s mind was not engaged by theology most of the time, but by how to avoid this or that financial crisis, or arrange for this person to receive that treatment.”

Again, nothing super-human. Nothing ethereal, just down and dirty living the ordinary stuff of life with others. Brooks makes this point by quoting a 1934 journal entry in which she describes a typical day: woke up, went to Mass, made breakfast for the community, answered correspondence, did some bookkeeping, read a book, wrote an inspirational message to others.

Included in that day’s routine activity Day records that someone came looking for a special outfit for a 12 y/o girl, a recent convert came to share some spiritual writings, a Fascist appeared trying to incite discontent among the residents, an aspiring art student arrived with some drawing of Catherine of Siena, and on and on.

This sounds a lot like an ordinary day that passes with no special note, polar opposites of 9/11, the day Kennedy was killed, or the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month! Yes, there are the iconic images of an elderly Dorothy Day placing a single white daisy in the barrel of a heavily equipped police officer’s gun. Mostly, invariably, she just lived everyday as it came, doing whatever needed doing, attending to whomever she was with.

To emphasize the point, David Brooks cites the German medical missionary, Albert Schweitzer. He did not hire idealists for his medical mission in Africa. Nor did he want anyone with a righteous sense of how much they were giving to others, or those intent on doing something heroic for the world.

Brooks emphasizes that Schweitzer “wanted people who would perform constant acts of service with the no-nonsense attitude that they will simply do what needs doing.” Isn’t that the way it is for most of us, most of the time? Take it as it comes! Do what you can do, especially for those who need it most.

Thirty-five years later I am reminded to make this my routine, day by day.
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I enthusiastically recommend David Brook’s The Road to Character, New York: Random House, 2015 from which I took inspiration for this reflection. My quotes are from Chapter 4, locations 1855 and 1866 of the Kindle edition.

We Should Know Better

I’m really sad and disheartened this morning. A dear niece who is bright, funny and someone I deeply care about posted something mean-spirited on her Facebook page. There is simply too much fear-mongering and superficial solutions being thrown around these days. She should know better. So should we all!

My niece’s posting noted that the Tsarnaev brothers found guilty for the horrific Boston Marathon bombing were refugees. With the latest terrorist attack roiling Paris, you can figure out the intended political message of the “prepared” image she chose to re-post on her FB page.

(BTW, why do we have such an outpouring of moral outrage when 129 people are killed in France and so quickly “forget” nearly twice as many Russian citizens who were killed in the flight from Egypt? Could it be that the French are more like “us” and our generation has learned to demonize the Russians as our enemy? The recent massacre in Beirut hardly registered in our consciousness. Just wondering what this is all about!)

What I take as my niece’s “painting with broad strokes”, guilt-by-association or “extrapolation from the specific to the whole” is dangerous and unfair. In my opinion it’s also stupid and xenophobic!

My angry side wanted to post the following: “Does the fact that the son of your Dad’s cousin was sentenced to death for first degree murder mean that our whole family are felons and should be denied our civil liberties?” Is our whole family guilty by association and to live in shame?

In addition to a lifelong love for my role as uncle, I cherish the role of family historian and keeper of stories. It’s easy to forget our own truth or glamorize the stories. I want to remind my niece — and the extended family as well — of our heritage.  It is identical to many.

Centuries of exploitation by the British led our Irish ancestors to flee poverty and famine between 1842 and 1855. The failed social revolution of 1848, and repressive measures attempting to prop up remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, lead our German forebears to flee their homeland in 1850 and 1856.

At last count we now have 31 Governors feeding into what I call ignorance, xenophobia and fear-mongering. As our Governor Mark Dayton has said, Minnesotans are better than that. President Obama has also tried to call Americans to our better instincts all the while fully supporting French efforts to apprehend the terrorists and retaliate forcefully on ISIS in Syria.

Most of us call ourselves Christians. This Advent we would do well to pay special attention to the story of our salvation, our liberation from slavery to freedom. Let’s place the Flight into Egypt front and center this year. Let’s remember Jesus’ own “post” on the social media of his day. In the poor, the naked, the infirm, the homeless, those seeking refuge we see the face of Christ.  Or, we don’t!

If nothing else, we would do well to see our own!

Speaking of Elephants

Every once in a while something hits you up-side the head and you wish it hadn’t. Something challenges your enshrined values and you don’t want to yield your revered self-interest. Something written forty years ago surfaces and seems directed singularly at you.

That’s the case with a book on the formation of Thomas Merton’s prophetic spirituality I’ve just finished.  The part pestering me today is Merton’s assertion that “the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.”

Only after humbly accepting this truth are we prepared for real transformation. Merton continues:

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own particular truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.

That’s wonderful in principle and maybe in books.  But is it actually possible for any but the truly virtuous among us?  Somehow I remain entangled in a world that seems more nasty and complicated. How do we take such pious principles and give them flesh in the muddle of our real relationships — life as, and among, very imperfect people?

Last evening we watched a documentary on the criminal and civil prosecution of OJ Simpson. How does the family of Nicole Brown Simpson give expression to Merton’s ideal?

How do those who have experienced sexual abuse come to “love” their adversary? What does “love of our deluded fellow man” look like for them?

This week Minnesota Public Radio featured a marvelous piece on the Black Lives Matter movement. Where would we be if Rosa Parks had not said, “I’ve had enough — I’m not moving to the back of the bus!”

I’m resigned to the fact that there will always be “adversaries whom we wish to destroy.” I’m equally convinced that some adversaries like racism, violence, and all forms of abuse need to be challenged and destroyed.

I’m equally convinced that “Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.” Fine sounding words and much needed admonition from geniuses like Thomas Merton. But what about most of us who muddle with our fellows in delusion and sin?  How do we name and honor behaviors which are just inexcusable?

The way forward? Mutuality. Respect. Encounter. Remaining in community, conversation and relationship. These sound nice but can remain so much etherial babble. For me, maybe you, a good start in giving them legs is by talking about elephants in the room.

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The book referenced is In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Cistercian Publications.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN. 2015. p 136.   Both quotes of Merton cited above are from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image Books, 1966, #68.

The Final Word

People tell me I like to talk. Sometimes I talk too much. One of my core faults is always wanting to have the last word. Hidden in here may be one of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog.

Yes, I do like shake-’em-up conversations, especially with people who are more curious about next questions than needing to have pat answers. Sometimes I toss out strong opinions hoping to elicit an equally strong response.

Nothing is more disappointing than to have someone back-off. Well, actually, there is something more disheartening — that is to have someone recite pious palliatives, hide behind doctrinaire opinions or bolster their closed-mindedness by only getting their information from like-minded ideologues.

My ideal dinner party would be a table with Krista Tippet surrounded by five guests of her choosing from her Public Radio program, On Being. In a setting like that I would never have the last word. I would be more than satisfied if I could leave with a whole new set of provocative questions. But I digress.

The primary inspiration for this post was happening upon a sermon recently preached by a minister of the Uniting Church (Methodist/Reformed) in Swansea, Australia. His Scripture reference is the Beatitudes.

The very same text are the Gospel verses Russ and I have coincidentally chosen for our wedding service. As an exercise in not needing to have the last word, here is a link to a marvelous sermon preached by a Reformed minister half a world away… [link]

We would be honored to have his be the final Word preached at our marriage ceremony.

Whose Side Are We On?

Disclaimer:  You will not want to finish reading this post.

Did you feel it? Probably not! The earth beneath our feet shifted a bit from its old axis yesterday.

There are moments that are truly transformative — yesterday was one. America changed forever on September 11, 2001. When the history of the 21st century is written, I believe 9/11 will pale in comparison with all that July 9, 2011 symbolizes.

There were no catastrophic deaths; visible edifices did not crumble in flames. Like a poor girl from an obscure town on the fringe of an imposing empire giving birth in Bethlehem of Judea, what happened yesterday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia will likely go unnoticed by world leaders consumed with their presumption of power.

Like the irrepressible pressure that builds over eons causing the earth to quake — or the indomitable life-force within a tulip bulb that splits darkness, dirt and cold to blossom in Spring — forces building over centuries converged yesterday and found insistent and incisive expression.

It is as if the Book of Revelation found apocalyptic voice once again: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Here is a sampling. Beware, its tough reading — you will want to “zone-out”, stop once you get the gist, keep it at arm’s length if you succeed in making it all the way.

  • There is an unjust global system that results in exclusion. Individualism is at the heart of this injustice. The rule of money is fueling this injustice.
  • Keep fighting for justice — Focus on people and interpersonal encounter not abstract ideologies; be moved by their suffering.
  • A just economy is one that serves people —where the quest for profits dominates, the earth is destroyed, and there is an unjust distribution of goods.
  • The economy must foster conditions that are compatible with human dignity and that unlock the potential of each person by respecting all of their rights as a person and allowing each one to flourish.
  • A just distribution of goods is not a task for philanthropy or charity alone; there is a moral obligation to ensure this just distribution.
  • An inclusive economy enables all people to fully participate; solidarity and subsidiarity are only fully present when participation is real.
  • All people and states are interdependent; we need global and international action to achieve justice.
  • The Church is not innocent when it comes to the sins of colonialism.
  • Our faith is radical and countercultural.

Pope Francis chose remote Santa Cruz, Bolivia — hardly an epicenter of economic prowess or political prestige — for his prophetic exhortation.

Like a “voice crying in the wilderness”, Francis proclaims “the way of the Lord.” And let us not miss the poignancy of the location, Santa Cruz — are we not being invited to look upon the holy cross on which the Body of Christ hangs today?

I confess my tremendous resistance to paying more than pious lip service to Francis’ moral vision. Social and economic structures in which I am enmeshed serve my interests. I prefer not to see those who are excluded or on whose backs my security is built.

My hunch is most of us are in the same boat, heavily invested in the status quo. The more structures serve our personal interest, especially as we age, the more we resist change.  This seems to be the bane of the powerful, the truth of the ages!

But change we must. Change we will, willingly or not. Like the indomitable life force of a tulip or the irrepressible pressure of tectonic plates, the earth is shifting under out feet — and in this an always compassionate but insistent God is alive and active.

When the history of the 21st century is written, with whom and on whose side will we wish we had stood?
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I am indebted to Robert Christian at millennialjournal.com for his marvelous synopsis of Francis’ speech. The above sampling of themes are lifted from his post.  I heartily recommend his entire summary to you [link].

Interdependence Day

The Fourth of July… Independence Day!

My paternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary was July 6. Every year until my grandpa died we had a family reunion at the park pavilion of our hometown on the weekend nearest the Fourth. Many, many years have intervened. Yet, even while going out for ice cream last evening with my 52 year-old nephew, such enduring bonds of family console me.

Alleys! I never want to live in a neighborhood without alleys. Although we live on a block with a floating TGIF sign (who ever wants to host the weekly kid-friendly TGIF gets the sign from last week’s host and posts it in their yard on about Wednesday), most of our goings-on occur in the alley. That’s where we grow our raspberries — this time of year they come in such abundance neighbors know they are free to sample. That’s where neighbors stop for conversations so long the driver sometimes even turns the car off. If we need a tool or cup of sugar we could cross the street but we are more likely to cross the alley.

Last Monday we had dinner at the home of our pastor. The priest who will marry us is someone with whom we are more likely to share stories and laughter than Scripture and liturgy. And despite all the crap associated with clerical abuse (and it’s more than sex abuse), I have never been more comfortably Catholic in all my life. Things are breaking open, truth is being told, arrogant power is being challenged, we’re getting back to what really matters. All this suggests to me we are a much healthier church in 2015 than we were twenty years ago.

Minnesota may be a beautiful state but it’s really flat — the fifth flattest of all the 50 states as a matter of fact. No surprise, then, that water would be a really big deal here. Ten thousand lakes. Headwaters of the Mississippi. Lake Superior holding primacy of place. Yet, my special affinity is with Minnehaha Creek where Jeb the Dog takes me each day for a walk and where we mark the rhythm of the seasons. True to my Nebraska roots, I actually relax and resonate more with the farms of southern Minnesota than our state’s North Woods. In the past month we have been fortunate to enjoy them all — lakes, forests and farms.  Life is good!

It’s also been a great summer for Constitutional government — “We, the People of the United States, in order to form a [ever] more perfect union…” I am so grateful to live in nation where the Founders laid claim to certain inalienable rights and then crafted a system that would, as one Federalist writer wrote, “protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.” Or as Gerald Ford assured my generation upon the resignation of President Nixon, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.” For this — and on behalf of the millions of Americans who have health care coverage because of the Affordable Care Act — I feel incredibly blessed.

Fourth of July weekend — family, neighbors, faith communities, nature, our nation. Blessings all! Each worth celebrating! All to be cherished! We call it Independence Day but it’s our interdependence we celebrate and cherish most.

May we always remember from Whom these gifts came and for which they were given.

Defending Traditional Marriage

Who knew? As a gay man I did not. A lot of really smart and influential people also seem to be unaware of the facts.

Given what’s about to happen we would all do well to know the real facts before we jump to conclusions. Thanks to William Eskridge, professor of law at Yale, we no longer need to be uninformed. [link]

Authorities no less than Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted in Supreme Court arguments in April that every dictionary he checked that was published “prior to about a dozen years ago” defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “This definition has been with us for millennia. It’s very difficult for the court to say, oh well, we know better.”

Justice Samuel Alito asked: “How do you account for the fact that, as far as I’m aware, until the end of the 20th century, there never was a nation or a culture that recognized marriage between two people of the same sex?”

The main criticism from those who object to marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is that it “redefines” marriage contrary to the male-female definition “accepted for millennia.” Everyone, including most gay people, simply assume that premise is correct. It is not!

We are simply misinformed to say that the Western tradition had never entertained marriages between people of the same sex until the 20th century.

First and second century historians Suetonius and Tacitus document official same-sex marriages in imperial Rome.

Modern historians have found plausible evidence of such marriages among Egyptians, Canaanites and Hittites and on islands in ancient Greece.

The evidence is also overwhelming for non-Western cultures. In 1951 anthropologists surveyed 191 world cultures and found many examples of same-sex intimacy occurring “within the framework of courtship and marriage.”

Researchers have demonstrated that a majority of Native American tribes as well as many tribal people elsewhere in the world have recognized such marriages at points in their histories.

Anthropologists have also documented the phenomena of “woman marriage” in African societies, in which a wealthy woman marries another woman and then secures her impregnation, thereby generating heirs. Such marriages have been recognized in more than 30 African cultures.

There are other examples, but these show that there has been no universal definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples. Professor Eskridge asks the obvious question: What is the point of this history? He then draws some conclusions.

One obvious conclusion must be that “marriage” is an evolving, socially adaptive institution. In 1950, those who study human cultures defined “marriage” as a potentially procreative union of one man and one woman. But in the next 20 years, undisputed evidence of same-sex unions across dozens of cultures upended that definition.

By the 1970s, anthropologists had settled on an understanding of marriage as a social institution serving a variety of purposes — not just procreation and inheritance, but also personal relationships and alliances.

Was this a “redefinition” of marriage? In a way it was — it was the correction of a prevalent misconception of the facts. They brought to our attention that “marriage” has been much more inclusive and pluralistic than previously thought. Far from imposing their own definition, they help all of us come to a necessary “redefinition” that better reflects human history and practice across cultures.

Traditional marriage law in this country was one man, one woman because of an essential concern for the welfare of children. Thus, most states previously criminalized sex outside marriage, denied rights to illegitimate children, made wives legally subservient to their husbands and made it difficult to divorce.

Today we place no legal barrier to consensual sex outside marriage. Wives are not inferior. Children born outside of marriage are guaranteed “equal protection of the law.” Although divorce is never easy, “no fault” divorce certainly reflects a significant legal reform in the way we think about this foundational social institution.

We have seen in our own lifetime a fundamental shift in the way we define “marriage” to accommodate adults who love one another.  In this definition we are increasingly recognizing the many gay and lesbian couples not only make life-commitments, they are often conscientious parents of children as well.

To my knowledge the only traditional understanding we are unwilling to redefine is the legal right to marriage for the many couples — in our own families, sometimes our parents or our own children — who have no intention or capacity to procreate.

About the only group legally excluded from this human institution Americans call “marriage” is gay people. That’s been changing in the United States and around the world. And if we know our facts, well it should!

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I have quoted liberally from Professor Eskridge’s June 19 article in the Washington Post cited above. In addition to crediting him as my source, I want to express my sincere gratitude to the professor for “teaching” us what too many of us had not known.