Giving It a Rest

Lighten up! Give it a rest! Chill out, would you?

Okay, I hear you. Yes, the last few post have been pretty “heavy”… diminishment, suffering, excoriating an Archbishop. If Kneading Bread had an editor (maybe it needs one!), I would likely be cautioned that such serious fare is sure to kill readership — as if our cultural gospel truly is “Don’t worry; be happy!”

But we cannot get away from the big questions, can we? Life just keeps happening, prescribing a menu not of our choosing. Even the spiritual-but-not-religious types cannot avoid what the Buddha taught in his Four Noble Truths — the first of which is essentially, “Life is suffering!”

Dukkha is the Buddhist term commonly translated suffering, anxiety or stress. The Buddha is reputed to have said: “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” So much for those who want to bail on Christianity because all this stuff about “the cross” is such a downer! Well folks, it seems that “unsatisfactoriness” is here to stay and we better learn to deal with it!

An encouraging thing happened yesterday in the form of a comment made to my post. It really brought a smile to my face, delighted me, really helped me lighten up! My nephew, Terry made more than a comment to my post. His comment expressed the heart of what I was trying to say, and he did it much more simply:

I am glad I persevered to the end. Rohr describes the absolute bedrock of faith where one can voluntarily leap into the unknown sea of suffering. Fearless! If the human condition (suffering) is only a mask, than what lies beneath? I believe Rohr would say God’s love, unflinching and unchanging. Perhaps others would say darkness or nothingness. When it comes to this universal question of meaning, I am comforted by the writings of the two Richards above. Vielen Dank! (that’s German for “Thank you very much.”)

When I was a kid, my parents taught me — and my nephew Terry’s mother — a prayer that asked God to give us a break from life as “this vale of tears.” That’s certainly not in vogue any longer in our 21st century spiritual-but-not-religious or don’t-worry-be-happy culture. Isn’t there a consumer good to satisfy our every want, a pill to alleviate every discomfort?  If there is not, we want there to be one.

Sorry, folks! Life is pretty much what Jesus, the Buddha, my nephew and all the great wisdom traditions have been saying.  Our choice is pretty much what we make of it!  What is our response? How will we live? What is beneath all of this? Love… unflinching, unchanging? Darkness? Nothingness?

I’m putting my bet on God. Not as a life insurance policy! Not as deus ex machina. Not as a begrudging, reluctant savior who condescends to pull us from the muck! But on a God alive, manifest in creation. A Word made flesh. God-incarnate. Emmanuel, God-with-us. One who gets up, close and personal, in whose image is made very single person on this earth — no exceptions!  My bet is firmly placed on Love.

When it comes to all this, the simple Shakers had it so very right…

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho’ my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho’ the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it,
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?

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.

There Comes a Time…. Then, What?

It is said that when Alfred Nobel’s brother died, media mistakenly reported that it was Alfred and printed his obituary by mistake.  We’ve all heard of people who write their own obituary. But, what would it be like to read your obituary written by the public media?

One apocryphal account should be true even if it is not. It holds that Alfred was so shaken by publicity surrounding his premature demise that he became determined to be known for something other than being the inventor of TNT.  Thus, after his death in 1896 his estate created the Nobel Prizes — of which the Peace Prize is the most prestigious.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with a local Focolare community. This “domestic church” movement was founded by Italian Chiara Lubich from amid the devastation of World War II. With death an immanent possibility, Lubich came to a deep reverence for “Jesus forsaken.” She recognized the intimate connection between Jesus’s passion and death with the unspeakable human suffering she and others were enduring in 1943.

It was not the magnitude of Jesus’s suffering that mattered — his suffering does not save. The immensity of Jesus’s love — first for the one he spoke of as Abba and us by inclusion — is the source of our salvation! Lubich spent the rest of her life, until 2008, living and leading others in her simple but onerous spirituality of bringing great love to others, especially to people and situations seemingly forsaken.

With this as backdrop I have begun reading We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying by Bruce Kramer with Cathy Wurzer. This dangerously beautiful book tells the story of Kramer’s diagnosis in his early 50s of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He died just last month.

As Susan Allen Toth expressed so well, “Kramer turns his diamond-hard diagnosis like a prism, reflecting light and joy in surprising places… invite[ing] us to consider how we live in the face of impending death or unwanted change.”

One turn of the prism is to the presumption with which we all live: “If only I could eat correctly, exercise enough, hold all things to moderation, devote myself in equal measure to my family and my job, I would have a great chance of living past ninety and looking back on a life well lived.” He recalls joking that he wanted his epitaph to be: “He died racing semis on his bike.”

Kramer writes: “I know what you are thinking — that you don’t need this right now, you don’t want to think about it, that you have plenty of time.” He acknowledges that we are “totally correct in thinking this way, until…” Call it the thief in the night or whatever you wish. That “until” will inevitably come!  Ultimately, we must accept that we cannot “fix” our lives.

Kramer had the inevitability of death foisted upon him. He was “pulled into the essence of what it means to be a living human being.” He reluctantly mustered the ability to recognize that he was “just aging exponentially faster than most… accept[ing] the fact that fixing is a lie.”

Like Alfred Nobel, Chiara Lubich and so many other noble saints among us, Bruce Kramer had the courage and fortitude to look death — his death — squarely in the eye and to ask, “How are we to live?” I am still in the very early pages of the book. However, I know already it is one that I hope you go out and read immediately.

Kramer frames our perennial human dilemma: “Out of the emptiness that was once the surety of my life came the question, what will you be from here to eternity?” He continues: “Therefore if I threw in my lot with trying to fix this, I would only be frustrated and bitter, and while I might glimpse the old normal Godhead from time to time, the person I wanted to become could not fix this.”

Again, the person Bruce Kramer wanted to become could not “fix” this!  Then, what?  How are we to live?

__________

We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying, Bruce H. Kramer with Cathy Wurzer.  University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2015.  Quoted material is from pages 17-21.  The quote by Susan Allen Toth is from the dust cover of the book.

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.

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!