Just the Way It Is

Really pissed! Obscenities and expletives I’d never say out loud or in public ricocheted around my head. Calculations whirled — 4 x $3.99; 2 x $8.99; not to mention what was lost from last year! Revenge surged in my veins. I’ll get those little bastards!

Four parsley plants; a Black-eyed Susan and a purple phlox; tarragon that had survived two Minnesota winters, all chomped down to the ground. That innocuous phrase about “multiplying faster than rabbits” is more than a charming metaphor. It’s an immediate reality with destructive consequences right in our backyard. Bastards!

Back on the farm they had ways of dealing with this sort of thing! I still cannot reconcile an unapologetic confession by my mother from her childhood. With the ability of barnyard cats to reproduce exponentially she had no qualms about depositing new litters into the rain barrel. “That’s just the way it was”, she’d explain.

Yes, it’s just the way it works! Nature flourishes within a balance. In our urban setting bunnies overpopulate because natural predators have been eliminated. The normal equilibrium of all created things has gotten out of whack. Cities bring in peregrine falcons to solve a pigeon problem. I simply need to do the same with our rabbit infestation.

Off I tromped to the neighbors to borrow the live-trap they had used to rid their yard of this nemesis. Noting the rain barrel near our patio I felt my mother’s youthful resolve pulse through my veins. “Just toss in a few sliced carrots and set the trap”, our neighbors counseled.

Jeb the Dog was the first to discover the success or our efforts. Thrown off his nightly quick-trip-to-the-backyard bedtime ritual, Jeb was frenetic. Sniffing audibly, he frantically danced around the sprung trap. I was pleased but less animated than Jeb at the end of the day. Besides, the rain barrel is empty. I’d deal with it in the morning.

French roast in hand, swaddled in my velour bathrobe, settled in my recliner aside an east window I commenced my morning ritual of catching up with world events on my iPad. Jeb nuzzled aside me on the floor. Rabbits were too much of a nuisance already to disturb my cherished routine or spring me from the solitary comfort of my morning universe.

“Enough is enough!” proclaims the British prime minister from the morning’s headline. Terrorists had most recently struck in the heart of London. Such tragic events are intended to jar us from our routine and sense of equilibrium. They had. Swift and firm retaliation was necessary and promised. Twelve persons had been arrested. There would be more. That’s just the way it works!

Returning to the kitchen to refill my coffee, a plate of decadently delicious brownies a neighbor had brought over last evening caught my attention. We spoke about things neighbors do — about how they were to become first-time grandparents in little more than a month, for example. And as they do with good friends and neighbors, our conversation turned to more painful matters of the heart.

The criminal trial for the man charged with motor vehicle homicide in the death of our neighbor’s sister, brother-in-law and niece begins this month. She finds it necessary to be present for the out-of-state trial. Its been two years since her family’s tragedy. This neighbor wants the man to know they forgive him; they “only want him to get the help he needs.”

In such morning light bunnies eating parsley pales into meaninglessness. I chuckled with the recognition that I’d set the trap three feet from our statue of St Francis of Assisi. We had somehow allowed too much of our garden to become mere ornamentation.

How do our worlds become so small, insular; our hearts so petty or trivialized? That’s the real tragedy — a sort of waking death while still alive, a terrifying reality that never makes the headlines. I went outside and opened the trap door.

Later today I will return it to the neighbor’s garage. I resolve to celebrate Jeb’s frenzied chase of bunnies under the bushes and delight in nature’s “balance” that rabbits run faster than dogs. I concede to pay 99 cents for parsley at the store, trying all the while to embrace my place in the bigger picture.

“Enough is enough” has meaning whenever we get really pissed, want to call others nasty names, or strategize revenge. These are times to stop, breathe and smile at ourselves. Could it be the bunnies thought I was a dear neighbor delivering an equivalent plate of brownies?

Still there are times we need to cry. Too much in our world is out of balance. Tragedy strikes all too randomly in a world that chooses not to be neighborly, chooses hate over relationship, revenge over reconciliation. Sadly, we all can become real bastards when the circumstances are right.

Again it’s time to stop, breathe and take the time necessary to regain our sense of balance and equilibrium — that place from which we see ourselves in the larger scheme of things, desiring only that we all get the help we need, setting one another free.

 

 

 

 

Hardest Thing I’ve Done

We pass the spot every time one us takes the dog for a walk. About thirty yards to the south, we see her house whenever we are coming or going. It’s the place where my husband fell on the ice and broke his ankle. Moments before he’d stepped out to take the dog for a quick walk so we could make a movie matinee. Six weeks later it still fills me with rage and resentment.

No, I’m not angry that he fell — accidents happen. I resent our neighbor for ignoring him on an icy sidewalk in front of her own house. She passed by within feet of him — twice — without saying a word. Not even a polite, “Are you okay?” These many weeks later I’m still seething about the three people in the car who were dropping her off just as I was arriving in response to my husband’s call for help. Not one of the chauffeurs even acknowledged that someone was obviously down and hurt on the sidewalk right in front of them.

The only offer of help came from a different neighbor who ran out of a house from across the street. Seeing an ankle at an awkward angle and recognizing the signs of shock, he wisely advised us to go directly to the ER rather than Urgent Care and took the dog after helping lift my husband into the car. The compassion and generosity of this neighbor doesn’t begin to quell the seething resentment I hold toward the other.

As with so much anger, I haven’t spoken a word about this to anyone. It just festers. My husband sings my praises for my patience, kindness, generosity and good care shown to him. He’s even told others that he lives with a saint. I silently take it all in.

Another thing we haven’t spoken about is that all the wonderful qualities he praises in me can just as easily be the shadow side of my persistent desire to be in control and to be seen as perfect. As the 1930s radio hit The Shadow introduced every episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Yes, it does.

Not far below my carefully crafted persona lurks a robust ego and a heart capable of all manner of revenge. That’s ever-present as I wish that our neighbor would fall on the ice so I’d have the chance to obliviously walk by her. It flashes forth as I plot nasty vendettas each time I walk the dog past her house. It’s barely constrained while rehashing all sorts of nasty gossip I know about the woman. This virulent undertow reveals my vengeful side, belies a deep familiarity with eye-for-an-eye morality.

After all, I’m certainly justified and in the right! Am I not? My efforts over the past six weeks have been pretty decent and generous. Yet, we must also be honest. My motives can be much less virtuous than they appear. Yes, I have tried hard and do think I’ve been a patient, generous, attentive care-giver — a loving and supportive husband. I am a good guy — though sainthood is probably down the road a piece!

Here’s what I’d like my husband to know… on this morning’s walk with the dog past our neighbor’s house on the sidewalk where he fell, I noticed that her Sunday paper was much closer to the street than her porch. It’s been this way many Sundays so this was nothing special. But today I paused, suppressed my raging thoughts, leaned over, picked it up and tossed the paper to her front door.

“Honey, just so you know, that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do during the past six weeks.”

Grandma had a Grandma, Too!

Going to Grandma’s house was never much fun. I didn’t have the words then but now I’d describe her as austere, rigid, stoic, an old woman for whom life had been a disappointment. Memories make me wonder if she was ever truly happy.

There are no photos of her smiling, no family stories of joviality, no warm hugs like those we enjoyed from our other Grandma. A snapshot taken in front of the house on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954 shows a couple standing at attention, conspicuously separate from the other, Grandma taller than our retiring Grandpa.

Dad always sympathized with his Dad. He’d recall from time to time, “There was no question who wore the pants in our family.” More than once, Mom said, “It’s really a shame that a son would feel that way about his mother.” Well after Grandma died in 1967 Dad would rehash such memories. For a long time they seemed to still hold him bound.

One account suffices to capture how these memories could slide into resentment. At the height of the Depression, Mom and Dad were struggling farmers trying really hard to hold on to the farm (they succeeded). Grandma, on the other hand, made a big production of buying a new fur coat. Mom and Dad were buying the farm from Grandpa and Grandma and knew they dare not be late with a payment. Dad was desperately trying to feed an ever-growing brood not buy his Mom a new fur coat! Really, what kind of Mother or Grandma would act like that?

Well, this week — fifty years after Grandma’s death — a flood of insight, compassion and affection has taken me off-guard. It came in the form of an even older family story unknown until it seemingly appeared out of the blue through the wonders of the Internet. It’s an obscure story recorded in her native German by a Franciscan Sister from LaCrosse, Wisconsin that tell of events from 1826. The story is about Grandma’s grandma!

Sister Colomba, OSF tells how her mother, Anna was born to Johanna Druffner on July 26, 1826 in Rottweiler, Schwarzwaldkreis, Wuerttemberg, Germany. Her father is listed as unknown on birth records. The family would dismiss his anonymity with the facile explanation that “he had an accident in the forest.” But Sister Colomba tells more!

Citing a man with knowledge of that time and place, Sister’s story recalls “a rover who would work for a farmer, get a daughter in trouble, and escape into the woods.” According to her source’s account this happened on numerous occasions with numerous young women. When area farmers concluded this was the same man perpetrating these crimes, “they went searching for him in the woods.” There is no report that they found him, just a curt note simply stating he was never seen again.

Other genealogical sources combine to profile a woman who knew a lifetime of hardship, sadness and loss. Grandma’s grandma would leave her homeland, marry at 23, spend seven unsettled years with her husband in Philadelphia, all before moving on to rural Iowa. She would bear ten children, five of whom died in infancy. The sole photo we have of Anna and Wilhelm presents a sinewy, intense, tough woman peering somewhat blankly into the distance.

Widowed at 60, Anna lived for a time with her son, William on the home place. The story further explains that she “kept wandering away because she wanted to go ‘home’.” Eventually, Anna found her way to LaCrosse where her daughter’s Franciscan community reserved seven rooms on the top floor of their hospital “for people who needed a home.” There she died in 1908 and was buried, a final resting place separate from her husband who was buried near their farm in Iowa. She was 81. Grandma was now 24, married, had just given birth to her second child, building a home with Grandpa in Nebraska.

Scripture says the transgressions of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation. We say this more colloquially, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “He’s a chip off the old block.” It’s been nothing short of revelatory for me to discover that the Grandma I didn’t like very much had a grandma, too!

A kind of liberation comes with this deeper appreciation for why Grandma may have been the way she was. What is still reverberating is the realization that I am alive as the consequence of a rape. Still unsettling is the awareness that one of my distant grandfathers likely killed the father of his granddaughter, my Grandma’s grandma!

Driving down the wintry parkway yesterday, ruminating over these new-found facts, sifting through sundry emotions, a fresh warmth and unforeseen love began to take hold. That previously tedious and obscure Gospel account of Jesus — the one about so-and-so being begot by so-and-so — came to mind. Jesus’ own genealogy contains harlots and murderers too. Ours is precisely the humanity God chose to embrace.

In retelling the story of our salvation, it remains essential that these accounts and people be remembered, named, and in so doing, embraced. I’m coming to believe this is what real love looks like!

Faithful Citizens Have No Choice

As we catapult toward the end of a nasty and divisive election cycle there is much healing that needs to occur.  Will we be instruments of this healing or further division? Do citizens of good faith have an alternative?

I preached the following homily at our church on Sunday.  It was based on the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in Luke 18.  I offer it here as one contribution to the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called:

So, which one are you? The much maligned Pharisee? Or, the humble tax collector? With whom do you spontaneously connect? Such resonance is a good indicator for how God wants to engage us.

So, let’s dig a little deeper… Like us, the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people – generous, committed, devout. This particular Pharisee has reason to express gratitude — he’s got it good, better than the majority of other people. He knows it. He’s grateful. Like us, he lives his faith; he gives back – tithing time, talent, treasure.

What God is up to becomes more apparent when we dig as well into the character of the tax collector – the humble, honest, honorable tax collector. Do you catch the irony – Honest? Honorable? …Tax-collector? The oxymoron still packs a punch after 2000 years.

It’s said that Rabbi Simcha Bunem carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: “For my sake the world was created!” On the other: “I am but dust and ashes.” The Rabbi would take out either slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder for himself.

Yes, we are imagio dei, created in the image of God, created for relationship, capable of great things. Our faith also counsels, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And if we need any reminder, we don’t need to look too far to see just how ungodly, fractured, and capable of incivility we can become.

So, “Which one are you, Pharisee or tax-collector?” — good to ask at times. However, this is NOT one of those times! With the devout rabbi we recognize we are not one or the other — we are BOTH! Perhaps the more relevant question is: “WHO are we?” And even more: “WHOSE are we?” TO WHOM DO WE BELONG?

Look around…! We’re a little depleted on MEA weekend. But to all who are visiting, Welcome! We’re really quite a friendly, likeable bunch. Whether you’ve been here for 50 years or this is your first visit, you’re at home here. You belong! We’re an odd mix of saint and sinner — so we pride ourselves in “open communion”. Knowing who we are, we recognize ALL are welcome at the table Christ sets. God wants all of us to be in communion.

Today, the pairing of the Pharisee and tax-collector challenges us to go deeper, to discover and embrace this radical communion to which we are called. Yes, open communion is great for making our Catholic or Methodist relatives feel welcome when they visit. It’s may even assure “seekers” and the “unaffiliated” they will find spiritual companions among us.

But what happens if we learn the person ahead of you will be cancelling out your vote? Are we open, inviting? Are we truly respectful of those who hold differing opinions …even about the NRA? …or Planned Parenthood? WHO are we then? Around WHOSE TABLE are we gathering then?

Remember the pairing of Pharisee and tax-collector . Remember the rabbi’s wisdom. Gospel truth, the truth of our lives — mature faith — is never a matter of either/or; right or wrong, yes or no! In Christ, it is always BOTH/AND; always bigger, always more inclusive then we could ever muster on our own.

Look around …who do you see? Who are we? We’re more homogenous than many of us would prefer. Yes, we’re mostly like-minded, but we are hardly clones. We must never become a cozy enclave – comfortable and complacent has nothing to do with the One around whose Table we gather.

Look around! Who do you see? We are Episcopalians – not to the exclusion of others but with and amid others. As Episcopalians we come with distinguishing gifts, a certain identity – not better, but needed; not to the exclusion of others, but for the benefit of others. Within Christ uniformity stifles, differences enhance! All are welcome; everyone has something essential to share.

Never in my recollection, rarely in our nation’s history, have we been so fractured as a people. As Episcopalians we are not set above or apart from any of this. But we do come with certain DNA that distinguishes us from others within the Body of Christ.

At times it’s stressful, painful. Maybe even excruciating. But it’s not in our DNA to build walls – we prefer bridges! We don’t shut out tough conversations – we initiate them. That’s who we are! We’re wired to see Both/And rather than Either/Or! Pharisee and tax-collector are polarities within which we live.

Are these not the precise gifts our nation desperately needs? – the gift of holding the tension, living in the gap, walking into chaos, embracing differences, taking on our collective brokenness? This is the gift of our communion in Christ.

When we come to this table, we come with our particularities and our peculiarities, our giftedness and our poverty. In breaking bread together, in sharing one cup, we are changed, healed, reconciled, restored as one human family.

Like proud Pharisees we thank God for our good fortune. Like the awe-struck tax collector, we pray: “Lord, have mercy!”

Our church has served this nation well. The gifts we have been given are needed now as much as ever – provided we are faithful to WHO we are, WHOSE we are, and who we BECOME when we come here!

AMEN!

What’s In Our Backpacks?

We all carry deep wounds — painful regrets about things we’ve done, festering resentments about what has been done to us. A fable retold by Carl Richards captures these burdens and the heavy cost of not letting go of them…

Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk; she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then, she didn’t even thank you!”

“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”

If you are like me, you easily identify with the young monk. We may glimpse the wisdom of the older monk and desire to live accordingly.

The incriminating insight for me is the shocking recognition that I also behave like the prissy princess all too often — another burden I carry and need to set aside.

This truth is something I will carry with me and try to unpack again and again.
_________________________
Carl Richards credits Jon Muth’s book Zen Shorts for his story. Carl Richards’ fine essay appeared in the August 23 New York Times and can found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/23/your-money/the-cost-of-holding-on.html?_r=0

 

A Prayer for the World

Came upon this today and it gave expression to my heart’s longing.  Perhaps it will touch yours as well…

A Prayer For The World
Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges,
the bitter hatreds held and nurtured over generations.
Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect.
Then let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows.
Let the warmth of the sun heal us wherever we are broken.
Let it burn away the fog so that we can see each other clearly.
So that we can see beyond labels, beyond accents, gender or skin color.
Let the warmth and brightness of the sun melt our selfishness.
So that we can share the joys and feel the sorrows of our neighbors.
And let the light of the sun be so strong that we will see all people as our neighbors.
Let the earth nourished by rain, bring forth flowers to surround us with beauty.
And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward to heaven.
AMEN!

Rabbi Harold Kushner – 2003

View From the Exit Ramp

Sometimes we need to look at life upside own or inside out! We all see things from our own perspective, with our values about right and wrong. We may discretely temper our public proclamations about the way the world should be. All the while, our biggest blind spot is probably presuming we see clearly, accurately, rightly.

Case in point: the disheveled guy standing at the end of the freeway exit holding a cardboard sign. Before I’m even close enough to read his printed text I have come to all sorts of conclusions. Many of these are moral judgments about the man’s character, most of them harsh. And, I already know how I will pretend not to see him.

Experts say that genuine empathy — being able to truly see the world from the perspective of the other — is really quite rare and a very sophisticated moral exercise, something that takes a degree of emotional maturity many do not possess.  Scratch just a bit below the veneer and much of what we do is still really “all about us.”

We tout trite phrases about walking in another person’s shoes. We may even volunteer at food pantries or tutor immigrants. This is all good, even praiseworthy. But can we ever really get into the other person’s skin, see the world with their eyes, feel what life deals them with their heart?

We are given a ubiquitous invitation — that guy at the end of the exit ramp! They are only one of many opportunities we have to look at life upside down, inside out or from the other side! Of course, we resist such a challenge. It’s hard. Even more it may threaten our worldview, our closely held values and expose ways we’d have to change.

Here’s my fantasy… after sprouting a four-day beard growth, I get into the clothes I reserve for yard work or painting the house. With “Homeless. Please help!” printed on cardboard I would go stand at the Xerxes exit of the Crosstown freeway for three hours during the evening commute.

It remains just my fantasy. Who among us would do such a thing? Could we even imagine ourselves doing such a thing? Even if I overcame my resistance, I’m pretty sure it would still be about “me” — will my neighbor’s see me? What would they think? What if I got assaulted? Even if I somehow took the risk, I’m sure I’d still be light-years away from genuine empathy — really getting inside the skin of the person whose desperation places him in this position.

Yet, even such arm-chair speculation yields something… Perhaps it’s more than desperation at work on the exit ramp. Perhaps it takes courage to stand there with cardboard sign in hand absorbing the moral judgment of drivers returning home from work. Perhaps it takes trust to presume our needs will be met because others still care enough.

Yes, there are all sorts of nay-sayers, objections and skeptics. “They are imposters! Get a job! They will just spend it on drugs. There are agencies who take care of this sort of thing.” The excuses are endless.

Again, we do well to look at things inside-out, upside-down, get out from behind our own skin for once, open ourselves to the genuine experience of the other, apply the very same moral standard — both critical and gracious — to ourselves as we do to the man holding the cardboard sign.

Someone once said, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)