Doing What We Must

How did I ever managed to keep a job? At the end of each day there remains so much left undone! Retiring two years ago seems to have only shifted treadmills. I only have a husband and a dog — how do other people do it?

We can identify sources, suggest reasons, even assign blame. One thing for sure, it’s a whole lot bigger than any one of us, my particular family or our “plugged-in” digital culture. It would be futile to try rolling back our lives to some idyllic past that exists only in our imagination. How, then, do we live well within the truth of our lives?

One wake-up call came via David Gregory’s new book, How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey. You may recall Gregory as a former White House correspondent for NBC and then moderator of Meet the Press. Married to one of four federal prosecutors who gained the conviction of Timothy McVeigh, he and Beth Wilkinson are the parents of three young children. They certainly ride the crest of our frenetic, digitalized culture.

It took this Jewish author, wrestling with the salience of his faith and values they want to pass on to their children, to remind me of something foundational: Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.  Wham — keeping Sabbath ranks right up there with (in fact it gets higher billing than) not killing, stealing or committing adultery.

That having been said, an important proviso needs highlighting. Pope Francis offered that essential reminder in a different context this week. Our “obedience” is not a ploy to earn or deserve God’s love. No, mature obedience is our generous response to finding that we are already loved by God.

We keep Sabbath, not to placate a vengeful God, but in faithful gratitude for having been created in God’s own image and called into Covenant relationship. That spirit comes through in the simple meditation David Gregory reads around the family dinner table on Fridays:

As I light these Shabbat candles, I feel the frenzied momentum of the week slowly draining from my body. I thank You, Creator, for the peace and relaxation of the Shabbat, for the moments to redirect my energies toward the treasures in my life which I hold most dear.

All Ten Commandments prescribe elemental parameters for who we are, practical reminders of what went wrong in the Garden of Eden — we too easily think we are God, or at least need to act as if we are gods. Yes, regularly pausing to take a breath seems impractical, impossible, foolish — and that is precisely the point!

Keeping Sabbath is not just a Jewish thing; it’s a human necessity. It prescribes that we at least slow down, if not stop. We are reminded to let go, look around, remember and savor creation. Shabbat is time to observe, perhaps to see; to listen, perhaps to hear.

On the sixth day of each week we too look over all God has made, and we see that it is very good! We remember who we are, as a person, as a people, as creatures within a most splendid creation.

We do so in obedience to a Covenant that binds us in love only to set us free.

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How’s Your Faith? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey by David Gregory.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. My reflection was inspired by pages 65-68.

Pope Francis’ comments about obedience were made during a homily at a weekday Mass earlier this week.  My source was a post on Twitter.

Seeing Each Other’s Naked Hearts

Not much time! In a rush! Participating in a great two-day symposium and need to be back for a 9 a.m. conference. No time to write. So here are a few thought, themes or quotes so far…

Christianity has always drawn on sources outside itself to better express/understand itself. Examples: St. Augustine with Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas with Aristotle. You could say that with contemporary liberation theology and Karl Marx but that is too laden with political baggage to be helpful for a popular audience right now.

The apostle Thomas arrived in present-day India in 52 BC. That’s before Christianity arrived in Rome. Think about that and consider implications if you dare!

Relationship is constitutive of God (e.g., God as Trinity). Religious dialogue is a journey of friendship rather than a convergence of ideas.

Even the tent of Abraham is too small to contain (constrain?) God.

Diversity and difference are NOT a deficiency or an unfortunate reality. Diversity and difference are in fact a blessing intended by God. Differences endure because they speak wisdom.

When it comes to knowing God, we are all seekers and servants.

If you care to pursue education, you commit yourself to being a global citizen, not an accidental tourist!

And, here’s one of my favorites… a quote written for a different context and applicable to so many aspects of life. Hearing it in the context of inter-religious, multi-faith dialogue is a good reminder that what we are ultimately talking about is living richly, fully, in community. It’s a quote from Tennessee Williams:

Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. That’s how it is in all living relationships except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts.

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The symposium is titled: Christian Faith in a Multi-Faith World and is sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Inter-Faith Learning, a collaborative endeavor of the University of St. Thomas and Saint John’s University which shares a common curriculum with the College of Saint Benedict. The center sponsors programs at these three institutions and elsewhere throughout Minnesota, carrying out its mission to promote dialogue, friendship and service among people of various religions.

Lead As You Care to be Led

Jeffrey A. Krames is clearly a go-to sort of guy on the topic of leadership. As vice president and publisher of a McGraw-Hill’s business division, Krames edited and published more than 275 books. Perhaps he’s known best as the author of the 2005 leadership classic, Jack Welch and the 4 E’s of Leadership. He knows excellence when he sees it and the qualities that undergird a leader’s effectiveness.

Jeffrey Krames is Jewish — all the more significant that he would add to a very long list of books available about Jorge Mario Bergoglio by authoring Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis. In his Prologue he explains that “this is not just another leadership book. It is a deeply personal one.”

Krames makes it quite clear that his book is not confessional; his interest is other than Catholic faith or theology. Precisely as the descendant of Holocaust survivors, Krames celebrates Francis as a leader “who places enormous value on respect, dignity and humanity in every shape, color and form.”

Thankfully, the book is addressed to ordinary folks who may have no professional training in business, management or administration but still find ourselves called to a variety of leadership roles. Isn’t that all of us?

Here are the twelve lessons of leadership Karmes derives from observing Pope Francis:

  • Humility — “I’ll stay down here.” after being elected Pope and expected to mount a dias to receive the electing cardinals.
  • Immersion in the group your lead — “Smell like your flock.”
  • Honest assessment of people — “Who am I to judge?”
  • Reinvention — the church needs to “surge forth to the peripheries.”
  • Inclusivity — “Walk through the dark night” with your constituency.
  • Shunning insularity — “Self-sufficiency is evident in every false prophet.”
  • Pragmatism — “Live on the frontier.”
  • Care in decision-making — “I am always wary of the first decision.”
  • Decentralization — “I see the church as a field hospital.”
  • Being where you are needed, acting as it is needed — “Go there, live there, and understand the problem.”
  • Confronting adversity head-on — “I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests have committed.”
  • Reaching beyond your constituency — “A Church the ‘goes forth’ is a Church whose doors are open.”

Whether a small business owner, a teacher, a manager, CEO, parent, spouse or neighbor the wisdom Krames distills from Francis’ compelling style is certainly something we all would do well to cultivate.
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I have not yet had the opportunity to read Krames’ book and am wholly indebted to an excellent review by Trappist Mark Scott, abbot of New Melleray Abbey published in Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Vol 50.3 (2015) pp. 383-385.

Who’s Invited? Who’s Not?

I saw and looked away. I could not look again. I could not even bring myself to read the accompanying story — I knew. We all know. The world knows too well! But not now, please!

We are planning our wedding! We want nothing to detract or conflict with our special day. The silver’s been polished. God forbid the weather be less than perfect!

Our special day leaves no room for too-much of what our world knows too-well. Individually and collectively we have perfected the fine art of distraction, denial and diversion. Not now, please!

The heart wrenching image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lifeless on a Turkish shore, has been emblazoned in our consciousness. How are we to celebrate our marriage, mark this happy occasion with family and friends? We are here to commit our selves to one another in love, seek the blessing of the church.  Ominous images impinging on our celebration? No, not now!

Then, what’s the point? If not now, when? We are masters at slicing, dicing and segregating our loves and our lives. And, it doesn’t work! Our “gated communities” too often leave us more isolated, private and alone.

Is not marriage about unity, openness to life, self-giving? Three-year-old Aylan Kurdi was not on our invitation list — he needs to be. Not to dampen our celebration but to keep it real, full and consequential.

I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.

With these prophetic words, British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is summoning all of Europe to reaffirm its Judeo-Christian heritage in light of the current refugee catastrophe. Is this not the fullest and finest expression of love, to love precisely the one who is not just like you?

Will the world be better off because two people promise to love one another for the rest of their lives? We hope so. Perhaps it will be — provided our love is big enough, all-embracing enough, other-centered enough, life-giving enough.

Aylan Kurdi, as our young ring-bearers bring wedding bands to the priest for blessing, you will be remembered. Your spirit will summon us to look, to see and never look away again from what we dare to pledge in love — even unto death.
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You may read Rabbi Sacks’ superb article from The Guardian [here]. Special thanks to Susan Stabile for posting it on her Facebook page today.

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

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The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

Guilty as Charged

“Has anyone called you arrogant?” My brother and I were driving south on I-35 south between Minneapolis and the Iowa border when he shot that zinger at me. From anyone else I’d probably be incensed. Coming from him, I’ve had to admit that arrogance is a deeply ingrained trait, especially in the male lineage of my family.

Now we laugh about our shared propensity to such exaggerated self-regard. We still goad one another with the arrogance charge as brothers are wont to do. It’s become sort of a stand-in for expressing our affection — if you haven’t noticed, men are good at code language! It’s guaranteed to make us laugh. As with all good humor, we know that our fraternal jousting is grounded in a good deal of truth.

This all comes rushing back because I just spent eight terrific days with my brother in Florida. Incriminating evidence in something I read yesterday also brought it back with a vengeance. Though I’m no thunder-thinker, I have had the good fortune of a pretty good education, especially in matters theological. Yesterday I was brought face-to-face with my arrogance by being reminded of my gross ignorance.

Inter-religious dialogue — especially among Jews, Muslims and Christians — is a special interest for me. I gravitate to articles on the topic and participate more than most in inter-faith discussions and shared prayer events. While quick to admit my ignorance about Islam, I have blindly presumed I knew something about Judaism.

After all, I have Jewish neighbors and friends. I’ve attended numerous Seders over the years and have been moved by the spiritual richness of Jewish weddings and funerals. I studied the Hebrew scriptures in graduate school. But here is the most dangerous of my assertions — Jesus was Jewish and I know a whole lot about Jesus!

Yesterday I was casually reading, as I am wont to do, an esoteric journal by a Dutch Benedictine monk (that should be indictment enough, right?). Then, here came this zinger: “For many Christians Jewish history ends with the death of Jesus on Golgotha in the year 30 or 33. They know absolutely nothing of the growth and spiritual development of the Jewish people after that.” My ignorance exposed, I stand guilty as charged!

God, like a special big brother, knows how to not-so-subtly lay bare my faults. So it was with even greater intentional ribbing that God seemed to place this bit of wisdom from a 3rd century Desert Father before me this morning:

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Ouch!!! In my arrogance lies my greatest ignorance. Like my brother’s taunt, God followed with a not-so-subtle poke in the ribs. Do I use my intelligence as a weapon to defend my superiority as well as insulate my pious “convictions”? I shudder to see how easily I presume to be the repository of all truth, especially around matters spiritual.

Yes, I confess my need to be recognized for having “a way with words.” Perhaps the world might be better off if I shut-up more and learned to listen better.

I am also coming to question whether my “male lineage” is the primary source of my fault.  Arrogance seems to be a deeply engrained trait within the whole human family.

We need to get over it.

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The esoteric journal cited is: Sharing Sacred Space: Interreligious Dialogue as Spiritual Encounter by Benoit Standaert, translated by William Skudlarek. Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, 2003., p 15.

The quote of Abba Arserius is from: Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications: 1975), p 6. and was brought to my attention by Richard Rohr’s Daily Mediation for May 8, 2015 sponsored by the Center for Action and Contemplation. PO Box 12464. Albuquerque, NM 87195.

We Must Stop for It to Stop

The sirens blared for two minutes last evening at sundown in Israel. This time it was not because of some immediate terrorist attack. The sirens marked the beginning of Yom HoShoah, the Day of Remembrance which concludes this evening at sunset.

Why do we need such a day? Can anyone forget? Well, yes, many do! Humankind seems to have a perverted capacity to replicate, again and again, such inconceivable brutality and unspeakable violence. We remember because we must be reminded never to forget.  We delude ourselves if we think the Holocaust could never happen again.

The precedent of the Armenian genocide provides a timely admonition. Pope Francis unleashed quite a diplomatic stir last week by marking the 100 anniversary! 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated by the Turks — yet, the government in Ankara took quite the offense that anyone would call it for what it was and remind others of the unspeakable horror some would have us forget.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin doesn’t want us to forget the Armenian genocide either. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J. and author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics. The rabbi observes that the Armenian Christians, like the Jews, were seen as a threat by the traditional hierarchy of Ottoman society.

Salkin reminds us that “like the Jews, the Armenians became better educated, wealthier, and more urban.”  Isn’t this often the aspiration of many minority populations as well as the paranoid response of entrenched hierarchies? The rabbi writes, “like ‘the Jewish problem’ that would be frequently discussed in Germany, in Turkey they talked about ‘the Armenian question’.”

The Turks had precedents to guide and encourage them as well. The rabbi tells how the Turks delved into the records of the Catholic Inquisition in Spain and revived its torture methods. So many Armenian bodies were dumped into the Euphrates that the mighty river changed its course for a hundred yards.

Rabbi Salkin would admonish us today…

In America, the newspaper headlines screamed of systematic race extermination. Parents cajoled their children to be frugal with their food, “for there are starving children in Armenia.” In 1915 alone, the New York Times published 145 articles about the Armenian genocide. Americans raised $100 million in aid for the Armenians. Activists, politicians, religious leaders, diplomats, intellectuals and ordinary citizens called for intervention, but nothing happened.

The Armenians call their genocide Meds Yeghern (“the Great Catastrophe”). It served the Nazis well as a model. Not only the act of genocide itself — but also, the passive amnesia about that genocide. “Who talks about the Armenians anymore?” laughed Hitler.

We want to claim some sort of moral superiority today — claiming it cannot happen again, citing occasions like Yom HoShoah, Meds Yeghern and moral voices like that of Rabbi Salkin. But, it can happen, it does happen, it is happening.

Sometime today, let’s each take two minutes, just two minutes. No sirens will wail, no rabbis or popes need exhort. Sometime, this day, let us set aside a mere two minutes — not so much to recall the past but to acknowledge the present.

Will anything change? Will we be the generation to finally put a stop to the horror of ethnic cleansing? Historic precedent suggests the odds are not in our favor. But, try we must. Like the Pope and Rabbi’s solitary voices, each of us is called to speak the truth.

Each of us, if only for two minutes sometime today, can pray. But even more we must resolve, “Never Again!”

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Rabbi Salkin’s really fine article can be found [here].