Happy Birthday, Karen!

Karen would have been 70 today. I’ve been thinking about her a lot — not just because it’s her birthday but because that’s what we do with people we love. We think of them every day, often numerous times through the day.

We saw the movie, Loving the other night (highly recommended). It recounts the story of Mildred & Richard Loving, an interracial couple married in 1958 who were arrested for violating the Commonwealth of Virginia’s prohibition against mixed-race marriages. The movie is a must-see!

Karen was very much with me in the theater. I kept thinking, “This wasn’t all that long ago. I remember!” Karen would have been 21 when the US Supreme Court overturned statutes in 27 states that prohibited marriage between people of different races. It’s of little consolation that our home state of Nebraska had removed its explicit prohibition of whites marrying either Blacks or Asians in 1964. Karen was 18!  As inconceivable as it seems today, it really wasn’t all that long ago!

The special reason Karen was so present through the movie is because she was on the forefront. Her summer jobs during college were in recreation programs for kids living in Omaha’s public housing projects. She regularly tutored disadvantaged kids through a program at Duchesne College. Her African-American “little sister” was a regular visitor to our home. Her first job out of college was teaching English at an inner-city public high school. She helped GIs get their GEDs during the four years her husband was in the Army.

But Karen was no bleeding heart liberal. And this gives me hope amid our nation’s current political climate.  Karen was a self-proclaimed “Rockefeller Republican” much to the consternation of this “Bobby Kennedy Democrat.”  Karen’s sense of justice was strong but it wasn’t motivated by political ideology.

Karen did what she did because it was the right thing to do. She understood that we are only as free as the most disenfranchised among us. She also did what she did because she was a young woman of deep faith. Sitting in the movie theater I recognized that legislation, court decisions and partisan politics — though vitally important — are not what truly endures. No, ultimately it is all about love. Only love endures. Karen loved others, often at her own expense.

“So, Karen, thanks for teaching me this and so much more about what really matters! Yes, it really wasn’t all that long ago. And as inconceivable as it may have seemed at the time, life really does go by faster than we would have ever imagined — maybe not the search for justice but at least our meteoric roles in making the world a more loving place.”

The only words that come close to honoring the loss of one so dear are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp a year before Karen was born:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

Happy Birthday, Karen! Your love endures — everyday, in numerous ways, in a multiplicity of faces.

Mom’s Wisdom

Especially when I was an adolescent sulking about one thing or another Mom used to say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it.” My 65+ years has confirmed, yet again, her profound wisdom.

Today I happened upon something that reminded me of Mom’s counsel. It came from someone I’d never heard of, a 14th century Flemish mystic named John Ruusbroec. What immediately grabbed my approval and appreciation is that he wrote in the Dutch vernacular, the language of the common people of the Low Countries rather than Latin, the “official” language of the Church and academic texts.

Like my Mom’s down-to-earth sensibilities, Ruusbroec had the ability to say profound things with words ordinary folks could understand. Here’s his zinger which stopped me in my tracks, “You are as holy as you want to be.” Whoa! That certainly places responsibility where it belongs.

But here’s the glitch… my 65+ years assures me that, left to my own devises, I am incapable of becoming the “good person” my perfectionism wants me to be. I am slowly accepting that I will never be the virtuous person of my dreams. If Lent showed me anything this year, it was that I am incapable of being my own savior. Rather, I am quite powerless when left to my own devices.

But isn’t that in direct contradiction to Mom’s wisdom and what Ruusbroec counseled? In my robust willfulness I would have thought so. But if the passion, death and resurrection means anything it means following the example of Jesus, “Not my will but yours be done.”

There is something — Someone! — greater than me. There’s a counter-cultural challenge if I’ve ever heard one. Salvation comes in letting go to the One who has the power, and the will, to save us.  Ouch!

Yes, life is pretty much what we make of it. I am as “holy” as I want to be. But my power, my ability to make any of this happen is grounded in my willful choice to let go! This is a slow process, a very slow process. It takes a very long time, actually more than a lifetime!

I’m concluding that our goal is not to “be” holy. Rather, we become holy — and not by ourselves or on our own.  The best any of us can do is to die trying.  That is probably the most important lesson Mom ever tried to teach me.

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I came upon the quote by John Ruusbroec in Befriending Silence: Discovering the Gifts of Cistercian Spirituality by Carl McColman, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame IN, 2015, p 124.  Thanks to Carl McColman as well for inspiring my reflection, especially pp 118-119.

It’s a Dog’s Life

Jeb the Dog occupies center stage in our lives. We have become the dog owners we vowed never to become. Jeb knows he’s loved and reciprocates in kind. Not only is Jeb a terrific companion. Those who have pets, especially dogs, will understand that he is also a great teacher of what’s important in life.

One consequence of being so loved is that Jeb is a very happy, content animal. If you look in the dictionary for “a dog’s life” you will find Jeb’s photo next to the definition. Jeb doesn’t bark. Yes, he can and it’s quite robust. He just doesn’t. In fact, we do not recall hearing him bark any time during 2015.

Among the many virtues Jeb models exceedingly well are patience, forgiveness and gratitude. This morning his barking habits, or lack thereof, converged with something I was reading to shed new insight and some much-needed wisdom…

“Dogs bark at everyone they do not know,” says Herakleitos [Greece, 530-470 B.C.] — a ritual played out with liturgical precision over the airwaves every morning, filing not only radios, but hearts and minds, “with static.”

We desperately need more wisdom today! Thomas Merton wrote in 1968:

Instead of taking care to examine the realities of our political or social problems, we simply bring out the idols in solomon procession. “We are the ones who are right, they are the ones who are wrong. We are the good guys, they are the bad guys.”

Senseless, obnoxious and continuous barking supplies a perfect metaphor for our toxic Presidential campaign, unconscionable shutdown of naming a Supreme Court justice, and the intractable horror of all that ISIS symbolizes. We are in a perilous position and our “best” seems to be incessant barking like a pack of junk yard dogs. We are living with a cacophony of paralyzing static!

Christopher Pramuk perfectly frames our predicament: “Why the rhetoric, machinery, and obscene liturgy of war — with its collateral damage of rape, torture, imprisonment without trial, destruction of cultures, infrastructures, and hopes for future generations–ad nauseum? Pramuk cites Merton’s prescription:

[Because] we do not have mercy, or yielding love, or non-resistance, or non-reprisal. …We do not see the Child who is prisoner in all the people, and who says nothing.

Jeb the Dog embodies patience, forgiveness and gratitude. He reads his situation really well. Yes, Jeb can bark. He just chooses not to. Rather, he chooses to meet everyone who comes his way as a friend with the expectation they will have a treat to give him.

There is great wisdom to be learned from Jeb the Dog. He really knows how to live!
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Merton and Pramuk quotes are taken from Sophia, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Thomas Pramuk, A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN (2009) p 200. Original source for first Merton quote is Faith and Violence, p 154. The second Merton quote: Emblems of a Season of Fury (1963), p 63.

That Persistent, Inconvenient Necessity to Yield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspiring to Wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Escape


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Disney Effect

The resonance came as a surprise! Something about China captured my imagination and interest at a deep, visceral level. I’ve had the very good fortune of visiting many more countries than I could ever have imagined as a kid. But China was different, unique, unforeseen despite my eagerness to go.

Lingering impressions continue to resonate during these days since my return. The Great Wall, the terra-cotta warriors of Xian — so much about this ancient culture — predates the birth of Jesus. How could such an impactful immersion in another culture not color the way I experienced Christmas this year.

Certainly an especially impactful ingredient was going with my 14 year-old grandnephew. Except for James, it was a pretty “mature” bunch of 25 in our tour group. Seeing his jaw drop, attempting to keep up with his pace, witnessing his insatiable curiosity, marveling at his perfectly expressed one-word sentences enhanced my experience beyond measure.

What is it about the young and old together? Unbridled energy, their sponge-like capacity to absorb facts catalyze with our more sedate wisdom and broader perspective regarding the singular and the paradoxical. We need both! Each is exponentially enhanced by the other. Call it the “Disney effect” — that which grandparents report when they accompany their grandchildren to Disneyland.

Much of this came rushing back today when reading one of my favorite blogs. Kayla McClurg offers a fresh, relevant and insightful reflection on today’s Gospel from the Common Lectionary. Yes, the finding of Jesus in the Temple brought me back to my China adventure with James.

Perhaps you will recognize a familiar but unforeseen connection in your relationship with the indispensable young people in your life:

The common idea is that children have much to learn from us, and should be always taking our direction and listening to our wisdom, but we adults have much to learn from and about our children as well. What a difference it makes to pause and listen. What might they be trying to communicate through their wayward words and actions. What looks like mischief might be an emerging creativity; what sounds like ‘talking back’ could be the clumsy beginnings of deeply felt expression; what seem to be displays of disobedience might be signs of their listening to inner guidance. Or not. We can never be sure. We can only be companions to the mystery, a steady presence, guiding by walking alongside.

“Why were you searching for me?” Jesus asks his bewildered parents. “Did you not know where I must be?” To really know the children in our lives is to search continually for them, to lose sight and then to rediscover who they are now. It is to want to know them more, to ask them what matters most, to listen at least as much as we talk. To know them is to enter the temple of their lives and care about their worries and wonders. Because children are not only our future . . . children are our right now. We need each other. What they see and say matter. We are called to do God’s business together.

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Kayla McClurg’s full reflection from which her quote is taken may be found [here]. I recommend her blog, Inward/Outward.  You may sign-up to receive weekly emails with this link.