At Long Last, Hope!

A 60-year-old woman battles a fourth recurrence of cancer and is told by her oncologist that the chemo she has been receiving for the past few months has been ineffective.

A 52-year-old man living in a Catholic Charities residence for chronic alcoholics asks, “Where’s God? I’ve pleaded… on my knees! Why won’t God take away the pain?”

With excruciating grief etched across his face, a father kneels aside his bloodied deceased son. They had gone to their masque in Yemen for Friday prayer when it became the target of a suicide bomber.

To such as these the cliché, “There is always hope!” easily sounds stupid and saccharine if not insulting!  Those who proffer such platitudes either don’t know what they are talking about or they live in huge denial of what this Holy Week is all about.

Many of you know that after twenty years of confronting anxiety and depression I went public in July 2014 with my story of sexual abuse and the compounding anguish of being dismissed by Jesuit leadership. Today I want all to know that a nasty, brutal chapter of my life has found healing and closure.

Jesuit leadership really “stepped up to the plate” and I feel validated, vindicated and reconciled. My deep respect and affection for the Society of Jesus has been affirmed. They eventually responded with the best of what I know them to be capable.

In the often nightmarish ordeal I came to learn something about hope. Just weeks before my twenty-year struggle found resolution, a good friend said to me, “Give it up, the Jesuits aren’t going to do anything.” She of all people should know better — and so should the rest of us!

A woman with cancer, a man with chronic alcoholism, a parent grieving the senseless death of a child, victims of sexual abuse… we need more than pious platitudes or cheap grace. That’s what Holy Week is all about.

At some point or another we will all be bought to a place where optimism crumbles, expectation for easy solutions shatters. We are left with raw, stark, desperate hope! We discover nothing more than a fire-tempered conviction — discovered by a frantic clinging to life — coming from a source other than ourselves.

During my twenty-year ordeal wrestling with the demon of sexual abuse I was never optimistic. In fact, quite the opposite! There was too much pain, too many brick walls, blind denials, freaked-out stares and others battening down their defenses.

As with the dejected friends returning home to Emmaus, I too was tempted, “Just give it up! They’re not going to do anything.”  Yet over time, and wholly separate from my best effort, I ran up against a deep source of energy and conviction from a place certainly other than myself.

Today I would describe this as an insistent gift, a tenacious pulse
that I did not always welcome or experience as consoling. It was
beyond me and, frankly, sometimes a burden I did not wish to carry, a thorn in my side, even a royal pain in the ass. Yet it recurred — despite my impermeability, resistance, fatigue or resignation.

Today I call this involuntary impulse, Hope! We do not profess Faith, Optimism and Love! Each of the theological virtues comes as a pain in the ass from time to time. In that, we learn they are not of our own creation but truly gift.

Recurring cancer, chronic alcoholism, terrorist fanaticism, sexual abuse bring us face-to-face with our abject poverty, structures that defend — even enshrine — personal sin or an impervious culture that seems down right hostile.

Yes, we desperately need and await a savior — not of our own conjuring, not even of our own capacity to imagine. Very much from within our creation, though not of our making. Hope makes its tentative appearance when we — even reluctantly, even wishing it were otherwise or according to our plans — hazard to trust that what we really need will all be given.

Appearing amid the brokenness of our personal and collective lives, hope appears in a way and at a time not of our choosing. It is most assuredly not anything we can provide ourselves. Despite my protestations of personal autonomy, even to say “I accept” the gift sounds increasingly dissonant and much too volitional.

Ultimately, we are brought to our knees. At some time or other we are brought low by the death-dealing that life throws at us. We are invited to our knees during Holy Week because this is the truth of our lives — despite our best efforts, ALL is gift. But, ALL will be given.

This is what we are urged to encounter this week — God giving ALL in Jesus. We are invited to accept our radical inability to save ourselves, or even our ability to protect those we love from life’s death-dealing. We are compelled to recognize the inadequacy of easy optimism and pious platitudes. The very most we can muster is to receive God’s gift — always given as a gift of self!

Our eyes are opened.  We like others before us recognize this in telling our stories, in bread blessed, broken, shared — amid the dejection, the real stuff of our lives, where we most need to be saved.

Born Again (Again)

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to be radically changed, to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives.

The Scottish poet, Edwin Muir, at the end of the Second World War, wrote a very personal prayer-poem on the Transfiguration. Muir captures in words what we seek and the world needs during this season of grace.  He writes:

  • But he will come again, it’s said, though not
    Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
    Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
    And all mankind from end to end of the earth
    Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
    Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
    Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
    Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
    His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
    Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
    Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
    In a green springing corner of young Eden,
    And Judas damned take his long journey backward
    From darkness into light and be a child
    Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
    Be quite undone and never more be done.

Christ, You and Me

Forty-nine children made their First Communion this weekend at Christ the King. Unlike 1958 when I made my First Communion at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, all the kids processed in with their parents. Most had a Mom and Dad but kids with only one parent were equally radiant. Families have enough challenges – great to see them so prominently celebrated!

Fr. Dale did his typically fine job of speaking directly with them during the homily. He recalled the childrens’ Baptisms and how the first question parents were asked is “What name do you give your child?” He bridged that with God also calling each of them today, uniquely, personally by their special name. Later, each child heard her or his name called forth inviting them to full communion at the Lord’s Table.

Without explicitly referencing St. Augustine’s frequent exhortation, “Be what you see! Receive what you are – Body of Christ!” Dale eloquently made the same point to the children. In receiving the Body and Blood of Christ (yes, he actually said “into your bellies”) the children were praised for the way they are now commissioned to be Jesus’ real presence in the world today.

We used the regular readings for the Third Sunday of Easter. Rich in their own right, they were freshly poignant in the context of First Communion. In the Acts of the Apostles a recently fear-filled and disloyal Peter was now courageously proclaiming Christ. Given what Dale had said to the kids, isn’t that what all who are called to the Table of the Lord are commissioned to do — give strong voice to our encounter with the Risen One?

The well-worn story of disciples returning home dejected on the road to Emmaus also carried fresh vitality. Previously, my attention has focused almost exclusively on their recognizing the Risen One in the Breaking of the Bread. Yes, a perfect text for First Communion!

But in the context of these families – with beaming grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents in abundance – and Dale’s “sending-forth” of the children, something else hit me with fresh urgency. The dejected disciples turned around. They did not proceed home. They went back to Jerusalem to proclaim what they had experienced. They reconnected with community!

I, perhaps like most, struggle to find a faith community that is truly nurturing and feels like “home.” Like the families who processed in for First Communion, univocal definitions or one-size-fits-all no longer works in our homes or our churches.  Yes, we need new and differing models to give full expression to the Body of Christ.  As wonderful as St. Cecilia Cathedral was for my family in 1958 that model doesn’t cut it any longer.

But of this I am sure… we are all hungry, Christ calls each of us – every single one of us – uniquely by name, we all have a place with others at the Table, we are collectively sent to be Christ’s real presence for the world’s healing and flourishing, and we cannot do this alone but are continuously called back into the life-giving pulse of community.

Christ is risen! Yes, risen in you and me – or not at all!

Eric Ohena Lembembe

Remember that name… Eric Ohena Lembembe.

Last evening was the first I heard the name. We were guests at a neighbor’s home to learn about The Advocates for Human Rights. We were duly impressed by all we heard.

The Advocates is a Minnesota based network that investigates and exposes human rights violations, represents immigrants and refugees seeking asylum, trains and assists groups that protect human rights, and uses research, education and advocacy to engage the public and policy-makers in human rights work. I encourage you to check-out their website [here]. 

Eric Ohena Lembembe was a human rights worker in Cameroon. Somehow international reporting of his torture and murder in July 2013 escaped my attention or failed to register in my memory. Imagine… the courageous and tragic story of Eric Ohena Lembembe was retold and honored in a neighborhood gathering last evening in south Minneapolis.

Mr. Lembembe was a well-known gay rights activist, who led an organization which campaigned for people with AIDS in the central African country. Under Cameroon law homosexuality is illegal and punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. His killing followed several attacks on the offices of human rights defenders in Cameroon, including those working for gay rights.

In his last blog post before he died, Lembembe – who had recently contributed to a 55-page report on prosecutions of gay people in Cameroon – described attacks on gay and lesbian groups, and criticized the lack of action by the authorities to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.

The Advocates actively collaborated with Mr. Lembembe. Last evening friends spoke of him on a first-name basis. To this day police have failed to investigate his murder. Though his body was found in his home with his feet broken and his face, hands and feet burned, the cause of death on his official death-certificate remains blank.

A representative of Human Rights Watch has aptly observed: “It’s extremely ironic and really sad that Eric seems to have been killed by the same violence he was speaking out against.” Again, we are reminded of a recurring, tragic pattern of our lives.

Last evening, at the home of neighbors right here in south Minneapolis, I had my Easer faith confirmed… He who has died, LIVES!

Eric Ohena Lembembe, we remember!

__________________

I have relied on The Guardian and their July 2013 [report] on Mr. Lembembe’s death.

Out and About

I’m feeling a little defensive! I know the church celebrates Easter for eight days. My encounter with the Risen One isn’t happening in church. In the past I would have dutifully prayed with the Scriptures assigned for each day of the week in the Lectionary. No more! Regulars here may recognize that this week I could be accused of giving more credence to Earth Day than to Easter. They would be right!

I shouldn’t feel defensive! My Ignatian roots compel me to “Find God in all things.” Christian faith is all about “sacraments” – outward tangible signs, gestures and “stuff” that manifest grace. Earlier this week I referenced the Genesis creation accounts and recalled that Christians profess faith in One so intimate with creation that God becomes incarnate in Jesus to bring all creation to fulfillment in Christ. If any Scripture resonates through my ecological Easter it is Ephesians 8:19-24:

Creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed…. that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.

I guess I’m in good company. Dejected disciples recognized Christ on their trek back home to Emmaus and in the act of sharing bread. The great apostle Paul encountered the Risen One en route to Damascus. Thomas and the rest of the gang come to Easter faith hidden away behind locked doors. And the very first among them all, Mary of Magdala thought she was seeing the gardener.

Why would it be any different for us? As the angel said to those coming to the tomb, “He is not here! He is Risen.” Why do I feel defensive about One who is out and about, showing up in places and with folks we wouldn’t expect (or maybe even approve of), in places we would least expect but where we need Him most!

Time to Give It Up!

What did you do for Easter? We had a wedding of dear neighbors on Saturday evening so we missed the Vigil Service. We went to 9 a.m. Mass at Christ the King and then our three generational family gathered at our niece’s house for a dinner of roast lamb and glazed ham. A novel twist to the time-honored Easter egg hunt greeted the kids this year – an age-appropriate math problem was inside each egg and the kids had to solve it before getting their “prize”. It met with mixed reviews!

What did you do for Lent? Perhaps you gave up alcohol, dessert or meat on Fridays. Some try to attend Mass more frequently during the week. Of course, we were conscious of Ash Wednesday and probably willingly wore the ashen smudge on our foreheads. Some of us still have palms, now faded beige and crunchy like pretzels, from little more than a week ago.

Notice how differently we answer the two questions – What did you do for Easter? What did you do for Lent? Mike Jordan Laskey poignantly poses the difference [link] in his posting on the Millennial blog: “‘What are you doing for Lent?’ is a probing spiritual question. It requires a 40-day answer, and implies action and discipline. ‘What are you doing for Easter?’ is a polite piece of small talk. It has to do with a day’s plans. We celebrate well, and then it’s ‘almost summer’ and things begin to wind down.”

Why is this? Why do we feel a religious compulsion to really get-into Lent and so easily slide past the spiritual patrimony of Christ’s resurrection from the dead? I have my opinions, merely a hunch. Seems to me most people are excessively burdened by shame, a pernicious sense of inadequacy or insecurities about self-worth. The rigor of Lent can too easily feed into these attitudes. Easter is about grace, virtue and who we are in the fullness of our human potential – Imagio Dei, created good and intended for intimate relationship with God.

Laskey reminds us – and sadly we do need to be reminded – that Easter is a 50-day season, ten days longer than the Lenten marathon! I would also point out that our celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead is liturgically drawn out over eight full days – recall our Christian roots in the Jewish feast of Passover. Go to church next weekend and it will still be “Easter Sunday”!

Christians by definition are called to “pivot” from death to life! It is as if the Risen One encounters us feeling dejected on our respective way back home to Emmaus or with the persecuting Paul en route to Damascus: “Stop! It’s time to give it up! Let go of your death-dealing and live!” More than any Lenten practice of prayer, almsgiving or fasting perhaps our most urgent human need is to answer the question: “What are you doing for Easter?”

Here are a few ideas to prime the pump:

Paul identified nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  Focus on more fully developing one of them for the 50-days of the Easter season.

Pentecost 2014 will be celebrated on Sunday, June 8 – fix that date in your mind, mark it on your calendar. Actively anticipate the coming of the Spirit by opening yourself more fully to what the Spirit may wish to do with or in you. A fancy spiritual word for this is discernment. Whatever word you use: What does God wish to call forth in you at this time and place in your life?

Integral to Paul’s encounter with the Risen One on the road to Damascus was his blinding recognition that in persecuting others he was persecuting Christ. Where do we see the Body of Christ suffering, persecuted, dying? Will we extend compassion, healing and restore God’s good creation?

It is time to give up shame, sin and self-doubt! Christ is Risen!

Wonderful in Our Eyes!

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad. Alleluia.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad. Alleluia.