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.

Antidote for What Ails America

“Vulgar! He’s simply vulgar.” comments my neighbor from the driver’s seat of her car as we enjoyed a spontaneous conversation in the alley. Shocked, appalled, outraged are equally good words to describe our reaction to the rise of Donald Trump. Now I’m getting scared, simply scared!

Polls suggest the actual election of Trump to be our President is still remote. But as improbable as that may be I’m still feeling overwhelmed, grieved and frightened. Why? Because that which Donald Trump personifies will not be resolved on Election Day. Neither will resolution be achieved by the election of Hillary Clinton.

It will likely come as a profound disappointment to the man, but what we are witnessing ultimately isn’t about Donald Trump. No, this isn’t about slapping the “Trump” brand across 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue! Rather, it’s about the deep pain, festering resentment even, that resides in homes across America. And this national despair cuts across gender, race and socio-economic groups.

So what are we to do? Build higher walls to further insulate ourselves? Move to Cape Brenton Island, Canada? Buy a gun? Fear, resentment and desperation may be the source of such considerations. But they merely exacerbate the problem we must address.

So, what are we to do? Well, first of all we must never give up. Somehow, we simply must restore trust in one another to reweave the social fabric of our nation. There is no easy fix. This will not happen on Election Day 2016. No, our work is much more arduous and will take more than our lifetime. But begin we must.

But, what? What can we do that will make any difference? Yes, vote! But that’s hardly enough to counter the vulgarity that has overtaken America. Yes, it would be easy — but an abrogation of personal responsibility — to assume this is about an election and the “majority” expressing its collective will on November 8. That’s simply delusional.

Conservative pundit David Brooks has his finger on the pulse of America and points us in the right direction:

…first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable.

As is often the case with matters that really count, our answer resides within a huge paradox. Rather than building walls, leaving the country or buying a gun our way forward opens by doing the exact opposite. The antidote for what ails America lies in tearing down walls, reinvesting in our communities, disarming ourselves.

Sounds a whole lot like once again becoming brother, sister, neighbor to one another; caring for the orphan, widow and outcast; welcoming the stranger; loving our neighbor as ourselves.
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You may read David Brooks’ insightful and provocative much more extensive analysis at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/opinion/if-not-trump-what.html?_r=0 

Back Room on Display

Sometimes there are no words. This is such a time. We are left aghast at humanity’s capacity to inflict new forms of evil, cruelty and hate.

The horror we are witnessing in Paris is, tragically, not a new or infrequent phenomenon. Each incident leaves us outraged, exasperated. Every recurrence holds the frightening potential to deaden our emotions, erect new walls around our self-enclosed enclaves, and pretend the violence is worlds away. This cycle must stop — both the death-dealing acts of terrorism as well as the head-in-the-sand retreat into denial and isolation.

Sometimes there should be no words! This is such a time. Rather, we must dig deeper and firmly resolve to discover a new capacity to inquire, comprehend and respond with the best in our human nature. This is a time for radical, un”reasonable” love.

Ironically, Hinduism — the most ancient of all the great world religions — is celebrating the feast of Diwali, the annual celebration of light, life and community. Perhaps this is sheer coincidence as the world convulses amid this latest act of death-dealing terror. Perhaps this year, especially this year, ours is a time to recall the teaching and nonviolence practiced by that most famous of Hindus, Mahatma Ghandi.

This is a time to be especially circumspect with our words and judgments. Coincidentally, I was reading about Christian d’Cherge and his fellow Trappist monks when I learned of the Paris massacres. You may recall that d’Cherge and fellow monks lived in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors in Algeria. Their’s was life of radical, un”reasonable” love in the image of Jesus Christ.

Christian d’Cherge grew up in Paris, served as a priest for six years at Sacre-Coeur atop Montmartre before joining the Trappist order. Early on the morning of March 27, 1996, he and six monks were kidnapped from their Algerian monastery, held for ransom and ultimately killed by terrorists in May of that year.

This is not a time for complex reprisal or threatening invectives. This is a time for honest inquiry, sincere efforts to comprehend and responses that spring from the best of our human nature.

Upon his January 1971 arrival amid Muslim neighbors whom he would befriend as an expression of his Christian faith, d’Cherge wrote in his journal these few but poignant words: “They are believers and respectful of all religious people, provided that what is in the back room corresponds with what is in the display windows.”

May all people of faith live with such correspondence, integrity and respect. Now, more than ever, may what we place on “display” through our words and actions manifest that which is best in the “back room” of whatever faith we allegedly profess.
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The quote of Christian d’Cherge is in translation from his native French: The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria by John W. Kizer. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002. p. 39.

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.

Too Late Wise

“Y’know life can be really hard!” A dear friend was summarizing a conversation we had recently. Each of us could recite a long litany of challenges family and friends are facing — death of a spouse, chronic physical pain, frustrating dead-end careers, relapses in addictive behaviors, unspeakable betrayal in relationships, the list goes on.

All this was washing over me as Jeb the Dog took me to Minnehaha Creek for our late afternoon walk. We’ve had a marvelous summer, gardens are well-tended and the world looks lush. Weeks away from summer solstice, the sun now casts a perceptively different shadow. Jeb remains enthusiastic in his obligation to mark designated trees but he too seems to recognize the waning season.

With head cocked, Jeb grieves the absence of once plentiful ducklings from the water. A fresh silver maple now obstructs the creek’s easy flow, sad consequence of the previous night’s storm. Mary Oliver’s lament in her brilliant poem, The Summer Day rippled within my heart, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

In a few days Medicare kicks in. That more than the fact of turning 65 shocks me into heightened reflectivity. Like every Minnesotan’s experience of summer, it all happens too fast, passes too soon! There is no time for regrets. Precious time is now better spent remembering, gathering wisdom from what has been, harvesting all that is needed for approaching winter.

Upstream from where the silver maple diverts the free-flowing creek, Jeb plants himself as a sentinel surveying this place he knows so well. Feet squarely set, he appears oblivious as his chest creases the fast-moving current. A rock we know so well for its musical ripple when the creek dances with a normal flow has been smothered by the swarming storm water.

Again, Jeb becomes my best teacher. With legs squared and eyes fixed on the approaching torrent, he ponders our familiar terrane and the changes transforming our daily routine. Like the now silent rock that lies submerged by the storm, his resolute posture tells all I need to know. Do not fear deep water or the rushing torrent. Stand resolute in the middle of it all and let the waters flow over and around you.

As I officially join the Medicare generation on Saturday and turn 65 mid-month, what wisdom is to be gathered? Is there a harvest to be gleaned from these fast flowing years? By necessity, a new modesty seeks to take hold — I am far less certain about everything for which I once asserted a cocky self-confidence. I recognize a propensity to attack paper tigers like Papal infallibility all the while laying arrogant claim to my own.

If age smooths certain edges, it yields strength and confidence as well. Jeb resolutely squared himself midstream. Just as the stationary rock provides rippling melodies when the creek is running its normal course, so too it remains planted and ready to resume its role once the surge subsides. So too with us — I cannot imagine how we are to remain centered amid life’s litany of challenges without resolutely planting ourselves in a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation.

I increasingly cringe at the “wisdom” and “advice” I so wantonly gave whoever would listen. No longer do I claim to speak for God. In fact, I am coming to recognize the God I claimed to serve was too easily an idol of my own fashioning, one I tried to direct and contain. The Risen Christ breaks boundaries, defies our categories and shows up where we least expect — sometimes among those of whom we would not approve.

Finally, I am getting a glimpse into what Benedict of Nursia taught in the sixth century. This preeminent exemplar of western monasticism prescribed that any who would presume to offer spiritual counsel to others should know how to heal their own wounds first (RB46.6). Only when we have felt the full force life’s torrents wash over us may we presume to understand those who feel overwhelmed or are mired in despair.

Of this I am certain… those to whom I have been consistently drawn for solace or counsel somehow communicate they too have known the overwhelming mercy of God. They too are familiar with life’s torrents and human frailty. They know what it is to feel submerged or planted amid life’s rushing currents.  They simply stand firm with legs squared in the assurance that we are loved — beyond measure, beyond ourselves, beyond time.

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.

The Resolute Face of Love

Yesterday was picture-perfect, just the sort of day for a graduation party in the yard. We were present to give testimony to Nathan’s achievement and as manifestation of the rich web of relationships and roles it takes to raise a child. Either is a sufficient reason for celebration.

The strong web of community endures even when we are unaware, overlaps with surprises that delight us. Here’s one… Bob & Maura, friends from the Church of St. Luke were at the party. We hadn’t seen each other since the graduate was a preschooler!  I had forgotten that Bob had been the college roommate of Nathan’s dad.

We shared the sort of three-minute update friends do after a break of thirteen years. What are we up to now? Weren’t those great days! In our case we grieved the sorry state of the church we love — a frequent topic for many of us in Minneapolis-St Paul over the past few years.

But as our perfect summer Sunday afternoon provided, as Nathan commences with his move to Seattle University, our circumstances inspired optimism, gratitude, hope, confidence. Despite our collective pain and considerable grief at what has transpired in our church over the past thirteen years, we remained oddly enthusiastic and happy.

Our sentiment was appropriate to a festive occasion.  In our hurried recap yesterday Bob, Maura and I had actually expressed an odd sort of satisfaction with our church.  Silence and secrecy kill — at lease now “the boil had burst, the festering pain finally exposed.”

We agreed that healing happens once facts are faced and truth is told.  In an odd sort of way, we acknowledged that we are actually a much healthier church in 2015 than we were in 1995. For institutions as well as individuals, recovery of mission and purpose can slowly but definitively commence with public confession of our sin.

Little could we have anticipated this morning’s news!  It came as a bolt of lightning, as a sudden shock, a welcome but totally unexpected surprise.  Though eagerly longed for by a long-suffering community, the resignation of Archbishop John Neinstedt does not elicit any sense of gloating.  Actually, a deep resonant grief underpins my profound gratitude which in turn inspires an abiding hope.

Vindication — and there is most assuredly a sense of vindication and justice in the refreshing news — feels kinder, gentler and much more merciful than either I would have ever expected or prescribed.  This morning’s deep emotions are less about a scandalous abuse of power and the excruciating pain inflicted, though there is plenty of that!  The deeper anguish now surfacing is for all that might have been, for a future that should have been!  This is the loss that we must truly grieve.

This morning is party cloudy in MSP, not nearly as picturesque as yesterday afternoon with Nathan. There will surly be cloudy days, some long nights and even a few storms ahead for Nathan and for all of us.  Once again we are reminded of what’s really important, where we stand and to whom we belong.

This is all possible because — ultimately — we rest securely within an intricate web of community that celebrates milestones, tells the truth, remains present amid grief, heals those in pain, cherishes our young, and cares for any who are vulnerable.  This is all possible because we rest in the resolute love of God.

What an ideal “village” in which to raise a child… what a graced way to experience “church.”