Tomorrow, Tomorrow…

Could life get any better? Details aren’t necessary to make an important point — it’s not always like this! Stuff happens, sometimes very difficult and painful stuff. Something always happens to dump the apple cart — that’s just a fact of life, not pessimism!

All the more reason to remember sage advice — Take full stock of the good times, savor them, store them up! Hang on to them. File them away as a resource and consolation when times change, when tough stuff happens, when life ain’t so good. Sure as fierce February follows October splendor, seasons of our lives get harsh with regularity.

Only in retrospect does Parker Palmer celebrate the job he did not get for the way it prepared him for the career he eventually found. Omaha, where I grew up and will always be “home”, is reeling with news that ConAgra is moving its corporate headquarters to Chicago. Two-thirds of the way into the Synod on the Family, Vatican observers are describing it as a model of chaos and conflict. Challenges overwhelm us at times.  Loved ones die.

All the more reason to relish the good times so we will remember them in the tough times. Store up the spectacle of October for solace in the depths of winter. And my 65 years remind me to keep a light touch — grasping and clutching simply intensifies the eventual pain of letting go. Receive all as gift. Cling to nothing. Let gratitude be our only and constant refrain.

A final truth comes with Autumn spading of our backyard garden. Turning a year’s worth of household compost into the spent soil, earth yields an eternal truth — a plowed, over-turned field is better prepared to receive the promise of what has yet to be planted.

October’s Honesty

My sister Claudia hates autumn. “Everything is dying, coming to an end.” Me? October is my favorite month of the year! Yes, it can be fickle. Sometimes it even disappoints by failing to deliver. This year, however, it has been spectacular!

Of course, October marks a season of diminishment , a time of dying. Morning walks with Jeb the Dog are now begun in darkness. Though we have not yet had what our Dad would have called a “killing frost”, it is past-time to retrieve sweaters from the cedar chest.

But the blue of an October sky is never more crisp. Yesterday, foliage along the Mississippi demanded an audible gasp. Is there anything more whimsical than the varieties of squash awaiting us at the market? And, the air… a fire-tower sentinel along Lake Superior is likely to see all the way to the Alleghenies.

Still, Claudia is not alone.  Perhaps she represents the majority.  At 65 — certainly the autumn of my years — the sufficiency of harvest is now tempered by the harsh necessity of winnowing.

Parker Palmer, an iconic elder for my generation, also laments the way “summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death.” He confesses to being “drawn down by the prospect of death more than [being] lifted by the hope of new life.”

Palmer asks, “Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring—and she scatters them with amazing abandon.”

Yet, the recognition that I will not live to see to maturity the oak I planted last Spring sends an autumnal chill through my bones. Recognizing the same chill, Palmer admits he is rarely aware that seeds are being planted.

The courageous elder that he is, Palmer explores autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, and discovers a deep reservoir of hope and purpose. We easily fixate on surface appearances—on decline, decay, finally death.  Mature reflection throughout his 76 years moves Palmer to assert, “On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

He poses the inevitable, urgent question: “How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?” With the compassion, wisdom and clarity garnered only by a true elder, Palmer offers more than an answer. He frames the truth of our lives:

In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter… But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.

Yes, October is the most spectacular of months. Fickle, but full of promise.  No other month is as honest in its portrayal of life.  As foliage falls a penetrating vision reveals the truth of what lies ahead.
____________________
I encourage you to read Parker Palmer’s fuller reflection which inspired me.  They may be found of the Fetzer Institute website [here].

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.

Carol

Carol died yesterday. Although she bore the toll of battling four recurrences of breast cancer, and we knew this was in her future, no one believed it would happen so suddenly. We thought there would be more time. We all wanted more time. So did Carol — perhaps until the final hours when she knew the most loving thing was to let go.

Carol had an incredibly positive meeting with her oncologist recently where she learned that 90-95% of her cancer was being contained by a newly approved drug she was taking. She and Steve were planning a trip with friends to Italy in September!

Her husband of thirty years and their twin sons — both of whom live on the East Coast — had gathered in South Bend at the home of Carol’s sister as was their Fourth of July tradition. They were all at her side for her last day and hours when she was lucid and without pain. What a gift!

More than anything, Carol refused to let cancer define her life. We all want to say that and we sometimes even fudge the truth a little in our grieving. But with Carol it was absolutely true. Carol sought out people who could laugh. She remained engaged in social relationships. She was brutally honest about her physical and emotional ups and downs with a select group of intimate friends. Carol lived — until she died.

In that, she became gift-for-others. In that, Carol was ever the life-giver. The circumstances of her diagnosis and her death at a South Bend hospital were quite ordinary. There was nothing routine or typical about the way she left us, however — she left us better, blessed, believing in something more than our small, self-referential lives.

I have lost both parents, six of nine siblings, uncounted family and friends. Death always hits us in the gut leaving us empty, at a loss. Carol’s death is only the latest reminder that these holes in our hearts never go away. They recur and remain. And, neither do we want them to close. We reluctantly come to recognize such black holes of the heart to be a sacred space, a testimony to irreplaceable love.

Love endures. Love lives on in laughter, in relationships both intimate and communal. Love gives life, is always generative. Love ultimately gives its life for others.

Carol beat her cancer. Carol transformed and transcended the worst life could throw at her. She loved. She is loved.

Our hearts were ripped open a little more yesterday!  And that is as it should be.

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

______________
The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

My Sister’s Legacy

Why do I have it so good? So many others bear untold pain, suffer losses that would break me or become innocent victims of natural disasters. Why is my life so easy, blessed, charmed? Truly, I have done nothing to deserve what I have received and am culpable of wrongs for which I have been mercifully freed of consequences.

My nephew/godson, his wife and their six children, ages 4 thru 13, are visiting these days. I’ve long compared being an uncle, and now grand-uncle, to being a grandparent… you get to have all the joy, satisfaction and fun without any real responsibility! It’s like leap-frogging parenthood and getting to have your grandkids first!

Yesterday an especially tender moment occurred with 6 y/o Claire. Her mom was showing her my parents’ 1931 wedding photo explaining that these were her Dad’s grandparents. Claire eagerly inquired, “Are you Grandpa Denny’s brother?” I explained, “No, I am your Grandma Karen’s brother.”  Her demeanor shifted, “She died… that’s sad.”

It’s very sad… and, extremely unfair! Karen died at 58 of a rare sinus cancer. Though she lived to see the birth of her first grandchild, none of her eleven grandchildren have any recollection of her. Yes, Claire, it’s very sad! I miss my sister dearly.  You will never fully know your loss in not having Grandma Karen in your life..

Having Tom, Cheryl and the kids here is great (but exhausting) fun and a rare treat given they live seven hours away. Today we are off to the Science Museum before they head to the women’s World Cup in Winnipeg. Yet, there is the gnawing question: why do I get these avuncular pleasures and Karen was denied grandmotherly experiences she earned and richly deserved?

I have no answers. Why does the Vice President have to bury a 46 y/o son today? Why was a neighbor with young children recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness? Why do floods destroy homes and drown victims in Houston? What have I ever done to deserve such a charmed life? Why do I have it so easy?

Just as most of us live with unmerited good fortune we struggle with the question of undeserved suffering. We strain for answers when “facts” make no rational sense. We can never “make sense” of life or death! We only learn wisdom through the awful grace of God. Such unmerited, gratuitous wisdom is perhaps the greatest gift an uncle or a Grandmother can share with those we love.

Claire, all I can assure you is that love endures.  No matter what, you like the rest of us are held within an enduring web of love.  Yes, you can count on this, your Grandma’s love endures!

Faith Keeper

Absence from these pages for the past few days is the result of a full, frenetic schedule.  It’s not for a lack of something to say.  Quite the contrary.  National news as well as moral and spiritual issues abound and deserve comment.  They have to wait!

This is a week of two funerals while preparing for the exciting prospect of my nephew’s family — six kids ages 4 to 13 — descending upon us tomorrow.  Death and life, somnolence and exuberance — the polarities of a full human life!

My dear friend Jeffrey Cloninger is juggling the heights and depths of what it is to be alive as well.  From this familiar place of full-throttle living he shared a poem he crafted earlier this past weekend.  I am eager and grateful to share it with you as an expression of what our lives hold:

Faith Keeper

It’s June, and I can look West every evening
And know the hour by the setting sun.
But that’s easy, for even though it’s always too soon
Don’t we all know it’s coming.

Recently I discovered the sound of day’s end.
I wasn’t expecting it.
I didn’t know I could or even wanted to hear it.
And yet, late every winter, and every spring and summer night
It’s been there.

Even in the fall, amid the leaves once flush with life,
Now the color of dusk,
It prevails.

I wait.
It happens like clockwork, but the easy, non-machinated kind.
So common, so a part of the revolution of the hours,
For years I missed it.

How could I?
He announces himself with such flurry and excitement – heralding the
Bold dance of night: boundless opportunity in the space of darkness.

All at once
In call and answer
(Psalm and response)
He delights!

It is Cardinal.
Direct. Ebullient.
Perfectly joyful.

He goes on for a bit, as do I:
Making dinner, folding laundry, reading the mail.

Then, as it always happens,
His tune ends minutes before dark.

I will go first, Cardinal says.
Come, follow me.

        Someday, I will.

For now, I listen to the notes of what faith is
And wait patiently
For his song
On the light sides of the night.

As We Would Want It

“Make a fist! That’s right… a big, tight fist! Now, put it in front of your face… right up there near the bridge of your nose …right between your eyes. What do you see?”

With this simple exercise, Jeanne Bishop’s pastor helped her deal with the excruciating grief associated with the tragic death of her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child.

“What do you see?”

“I see a fist.” Jeanne replied.

“Good.” the pastor said. “Now slowly, slowly take that fist and move it down to your side. … What do you see now?”

“I can see everything, the whole world.”

“Do you see that fist, the one that once blocked out everything else? … It hasn’t change size or shape. It’s just as big as it was before. It’s just not here” — the pastor raised his fist back to his face — “anymore.”

With this very simple and accessible routine, Pastor John Boyle assisted a bereft woman to see that she could move ahead with painful memories, enduring love, the truth of her loss as “companions” by her side.

The pastor assured her, “You have had a loss. You will never get over it. But you will get out from under it.”

When grief is fresh it feels raw and all-consuming. This in testimony to the depth of the relationship lost. It appears to block out the rest of our world, like the fist in front of our nose. With time it subsides — in its own time and as it serves its good purpose. The chasm created by the loss never leaves but moves to another place, always by our side.

Memory, love and loss — our ever-present companions. Over time, life becomes as we would want it. As it should be!
___________
References and quotes are from pages 44-45 of Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015.

Boundless Grief, Boundless Love

Lisa was the apple of her father’s eye. It was a bitter blessing, therefore, that she could be at his bedside when my brother died. My own experiences of loss prompt me to remember her often during this past month. Grief is damn hard!

As we took our inevitable leave on the afternoon of the funeral, Lisa and I embraced to express our grief, enduring affection and mutual need for consolation. Experience reminded me of what was in store for her — the seeming finality of what feels like an ultimate goodbye, the bottomless pit that would likely open as she drove the fifty miles to her home in Sioux City, how those miles committed to memory from so many happy occasions could now appear foreign, inhospitable, estranged.

I felt compelled to say something profound, at least avuncular. But there are no words! Yet, I mumbled something, fumbling to say what Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed so well:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love…
it is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it,
but on the contrary, God keeps it empty
and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other,
even at the cost of pain…
the dearer and richer the memories,
the more difficult the separation.

That’s been my experience. Perhaps it will be Lisa’s. The challenge for me has been to leave the emptiness empty, open, raw as it is! I know the futility of trying to anesthetize the pain with alcohol. We are prone to fill the void with consumption or consumerism of all sorts. We easily seek diversion and distraction aplenty. Yet, what’s buried alive stays alive. If in our desperation we attempt to deaden our irreplaceable loss, our profound and personal “emptiness”, the void remains only a vacuous insatiable hole.

The unimaginable, the painful bitter route of grief unencumbered, becomes our source of blessing if we can remain open, embracing loss as life’s ultimate assurance of love. Bonhoeffer wisely concludes:

But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy.
The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh,
but as a precious gift in themselves.

Of this I am certain… Lisa remains the apple of her father’s eye!

Give It a Rest

My brother Gene died four weeks ago today. He was the sixth of my nine siblings to die. Some might think a person can develop a skill for saying goodbye or burying a loved one. You cannot! In fact, grief compounds and becomes cumulative. But so does grace!

Although I began kindergarten in Omaha, Gene moved back to our family’s hometown and married a woman from Hartington, NE in 1961. We gathered at Holy Trinity Church for his funeral, the same church where I was baptized in 1950, the same church where we had gathered for the funerals of our father in 1993 and our mother in 2007. Although they had moved from the town in 1955, such is the significance of this community in the life and lore of our family.

Imagine my consternation when the pastor paraded up the center aisle five minutes before the service was to begin, made a dramatic genuflection in front of the altar, then turned stage right to the sacristy for vesting. Honest to God, he was wearing a full-length black cape and berretta, that square, stiff cap with a tassel-like fur-ball on top that used to be worn by ecclesiastics in the Catholic Church. I gasped, then gulped. I should not have been surprised when he appeared from the sacristy attired in black vestments. I was more disheartened than shocked.

This was my brother’s funeral. I had some pretty important decisions to make. It was attitude adjustment time. This was not the first time I’ve had to hunker down in the face of such clerical falderal. But, this is the funeral of my brother — the stakes are singular and significant. Somehow I resolved not to allow this hierarch’s clerical peculiarities to steal this moment of prayer from our family.

Something happened! Grace? Actually, the priest’s homily was quite good for someone who had come to the parish so recently and had few opportunities to really get to know my brother. When he prayed I found that I could readily pray with him. When his ridiculous black cape billowed in the frigid February wind atop the cemetery hill I discovered compassion — aspiring to gratitude — for this innocently naive cleric.

Since, I have been thinking a great deal about the differences between conformity and community, between unity and uniformity. How my ego craves for what I know to be right, true and best.  How I squirm when not in control, when things are not done my way!  Grace nudges me to recognize the broad assortment of ways to be Catholic, no less Christian.  This, as God wills it to be!  When my stubbornness and pride rail as they will, I must ask, “What really matters?” Now I ruminate about how Gene would answer that question today.

This is the church into which I was baptized. This is the community in which our roots run deep. Here I find family, home, communion. We now have four generations buried in that cemetery. My plot is right next to my parents, twenty feet from our grandparents.

In the end, I would want it no other way. It is here that someday I will finally be laid to rest.