“What Do You Want For Christmas?”

Many are familiar with my banana story. A few years back on April 5, my mother’s birthday, I was slicing a banana over my morning Raisin Bran. A warm consolation suddenly transported me back nearly 60 years. I was a little boy and Mom was slicing a banana over my breakfast cereal. She gave me half. To my protestations of wanting the whole banana Mom simply said, “Richard, you can have your share but you need to leave some for the others.”

This morning her words again hit me with a jolt. Sitting in my recliner, French Roast in hand, I felt a sudden, final “drop” of an elevator settling upon arrival on a lower level. For years I have been focusing on only half of her wisdom — “you have to leave some for the others.” That’s essential counsel for a 5 year old, especially given Mom’s challenge of feeding ten kids. But Mom was also saying, “You can have your share.”

These days — and many decades beyond 5 years old — its easy to deflect our loved ones’ queries about what we want for Christmas. “Oh, honey, I don’t need a thing! A pair of socks or underwear would be just fine.” How deflating is that to their holiday spirit! The temptation to take less under the pretense of appearing “loving” lurks just below the surface in many of us. Such pseudo-humility still leaves its focus on me. More insidiously, it risks gutting our inherent value as persons.

It’s taken decades for me to glean the gentle, compassionate wisdom elders have been quietly modeling. To be truly humble means to be grounded, like humus, in the richness of our true selves. Humility has little to do with making ourselves less than we are. Rather, humility lies in the honest acceptance of our true selves as blessed creatures with legitimate desires and needs — as well as faults — woven into relationship with others within this magnificent creation.

Yes, in a consumerist culture fixated on “self” and “stuff” there are enormous pressures to buy, binge and indulge. Powerful forces easily subvert moderation, balance, equilibrium. Needs get inflated, desires distorted. But for mature people intent on doing good, the more pressing danger is much more complicated and fraught with peril — that we make too little of ourselves!

Mom unwittingly conveyed another bit of essential wisdom. Born before women had the right to vote, cultural norms continued to constrain her options and proscribe her self-initiative. Weighed down by ten kids (as her tenth child I have a distinct right to state this), Mom was further coerced into putting others first.

This morning, over my cereal, I hear her saying, “Richard, you have to have a self before you can give it away.” In this, too, she remains one of my best teachers and most humble human beings I will ever know.

Too many are still prevented by social norms and unjust structures from discovering and celebrating the fullness of their God-given dignity. Is there any question about what should be on our Christmas wish list?

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.

Villanova… A True Champion

Amazing what we can learn from the NCAA basketball championship! Those of us who missed the game last evening between North Carolina and Villanova missed a barn-burner. Fans will be talking about the game for decades! Within the last ten seconds NC tied the game only to have Villanova sink a 3-pointer with one second left on the clock! Absolutely unforgettable!

All the hoop-la (pun intended!) reminded me of something else I’d missed. If I’d ever heard the origin of the name Villanova, I’d long forgotten. I knew it was a Catholic university somewhere in Pennsylvania. Today I learned it was founded by the Order of St. Augustine and is located in Philadelphia. The university is named in honor of the 16th-century Spanish Augustinian, St Thomas of Villanova.

Who, you say? Well, Thomas was a pretty great guy and deserves much more recognition than he receives! The part I like best is that Thomas was known as “father of the poor.” His charitable efforts were untiring, especially towards orphans, poor women without a dowry, and the sick. In addition, Thomas appreciated the power of education for empowering people like these.

He possessed, however, a sophisticated notion of charity and was no one’s fool about the source of the problem. Though he was immediate and direct in his giving, Thomas sought definitive and structural solutions to the root causes of poverty. “Charity is not just giving, rather removing the need of those who receive charity and liberating them from it when possible,” he wrote.

Thomas appreciated there’s more to poverty than just the poor!  Last evening’s game was evenly matched and players on both teams demonstrated the greatness of the sport.  Thomas understood it isn’t always this way.

Go Villanova… a true champion for 2016!
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You may learn more about Thomas of Villanova [here] on Wikipedia which is the source of what I have learned.

Reagan was Right!

Never imagined I’d ever be saying much good about the man. But given the recent brouhaha about the morality of building walls — What, for God’s sake, has our nation come to? — President Ronald Reagan sounds refreshingly relevant.

Walls never work as an instrument of national policy. With renewed appreciation and complete agreement, I recall the iconic Republican conservative saying some thirty years ago in Berlin: “Mr Gorbachov, tear down this wall!” Amen to that!

Whether Presbyterian Donald Trump is or isn’t a good Christian is none of my concern. (Actually it is, but not here!). Neither was it of interest to Pope Francis if you read what he actually said during his press conference onboard the return flight to Rome.

President Reagan, however, was certainly on solid ground politically and in terms of the Judeo-Christian roots of this country. How so? Somewhere over the thirty years between Reagan and Trump’s rhetoric we have become rabidly individualistic, selfish, even nasty.

Somehow we need to rekindle the best of our Judeo-Christian heritage — not that which is exclusionary and divisive, but that which celebrates our common humanity, builds solidarity and takes solace in mutual reliance on one another.

This is the message of the Bible right from the start.  Genesis, Chapter 1 — humankind is created in the image and likeness of God. All of us, no exceptions! Yes, this is the first principle and foundation of Judeo-Christian teaching.

We profess this to be equally true of Muslims, Hindus, Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, Gays, the poor, the vulnerable, other nationalities, women as well as men — you name it! If you are human, you are created in the image and likeness of God!

Mr Trump, you are no more righteous, worthy or deserving than any you’d wish to wall out or deport. In fact, to the extent you fail to see the human dignity in any such as these, especially the least among us, you fail as a good American. For even our founding documents enshrined this truth as self-evident, all are created equal.

Mr. Trump, tear down your walls! What are you afraid of?  What is it you need to defend?  Could it be that deep down you harbor some lingering self-doubt whether you, too, really are created in the image of God?

Rest assured. Yes, you are — even you!

Only Thing of Monumental Significance

The disappointing truth is that most of us are content with answers. “Give me the facts, ma’am, just the facts!” is a famous line from some detective show better left in the caverns of youthful memories. I guess this approach is fine if you are a police detective. Its a disaster if trying to live a mature spiritual life.

The current brouhaha about the Ten Commandment monument in Oklahoma leaves me scratching my head. What’s the big deal with the Ten Commandments? Christians know that Jesus assumed the role of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount. Why aren’t God-fearing Christians erecting monuments listing the Beatitudes? Better yet, how about Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms the standards for our Last Judgment?

My reluctant assumption is that a scary percentage of folks like black and white answers. This drive for clarity feels to me like rigidity, an obsession with control. “Tell me what to do or not to do” is the passive version.  “I’ll tell you what’s right and what’s wrong!” is the more aggressive and dangerous manifestation.  Looks like infantile paralysis to me!

When such moral certitude is pulled out from under us by life’s complexity, and it will be, too many throw in the towel on religion. “Bunch of hypocrites!” often becomes a simplistic and defensive excuse to summarily dispose of thousands of years of wisdom. Such a dismissive attitude is no better than the cold stone monuments some want to erect on courtyard lawns.

After reluctantly wrestling with the confounding complexity life throws at us we gradually soften, become more supple, proffer eternal truth with greater humility. We come to live the questions rather than seek answers. If we remain alert — and lucky — we escape slipping into moral relativism or synchronism (it doesn’t matter what you believe, it’s all the same anyway).

It does matter! It’s not all the same! Our questions are profoundly consequential — not because they yield clear, precise, fixed answers, but because they quicken in us the very decision-making dignity imprinted in us by God. We become morally mature, responsible adults created in God’s very image.

Remaining securely within the safety of laws, texts or answers — typically handed down by some self-authenticating spokesperson — is a popular way to go. Too many people refuse to take the first critical hurdle to spiritual maturity — they prefer the moral straitjacket of already having the “truth”. Complexities of living are addressed as reason to dig in their heels even more firmly — reciting threadbare principles over and over, shouting louder and more insistently if they must. Erecting monuments of cold, hard stone.

Sooner or later all this becomes indefensible! Life’s inevitable ambiguities don’t yield to simple, clear answers. Its exhausting having to constantly defend moral rectitude. Loud voices are in abundant supply and routinely dismissed. Life’s questions are simply too numerous, complex and spontaneous to be catalogued.

Still, the hardest thing in the world is for some to let go of their “answers”, especially those intended for others. To do so is not to question one’s faith but to maturely embrace and express it!

There is no judge seated aside a monument to the Ten Commandments at the Pearly Gates. As from a master-teacher, we already have been given the only question on our Final Exam. All answers are not the same. Our own answer matters, definitively!

Did you love?  Really, did you? …especially those we consider least (if we consider them at all)!

Whose Side Are We On?

Disclaimer:  You will not want to finish reading this post.

Did you feel it? Probably not! The earth beneath our feet shifted a bit from its old axis yesterday.

There are moments that are truly transformative — yesterday was one. America changed forever on September 11, 2001. When the history of the 21st century is written, I believe 9/11 will pale in comparison with all that July 9, 2011 symbolizes.

There were no catastrophic deaths; visible edifices did not crumble in flames. Like a poor girl from an obscure town on the fringe of an imposing empire giving birth in Bethlehem of Judea, what happened yesterday in Santa Cruz, Bolivia will likely go unnoticed by world leaders consumed with their presumption of power.

Like the irrepressible pressure that builds over eons causing the earth to quake — or the indomitable life-force within a tulip bulb that splits darkness, dirt and cold to blossom in Spring — forces building over centuries converged yesterday and found insistent and incisive expression.

It is as if the Book of Revelation found apocalyptic voice once again: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).

Here is a sampling. Beware, its tough reading — you will want to “zone-out”, stop once you get the gist, keep it at arm’s length if you succeed in making it all the way.

  • There is an unjust global system that results in exclusion. Individualism is at the heart of this injustice. The rule of money is fueling this injustice.
  • Keep fighting for justice — Focus on people and interpersonal encounter not abstract ideologies; be moved by their suffering.
  • A just economy is one that serves people —where the quest for profits dominates, the earth is destroyed, and there is an unjust distribution of goods.
  • The economy must foster conditions that are compatible with human dignity and that unlock the potential of each person by respecting all of their rights as a person and allowing each one to flourish.
  • A just distribution of goods is not a task for philanthropy or charity alone; there is a moral obligation to ensure this just distribution.
  • An inclusive economy enables all people to fully participate; solidarity and subsidiarity are only fully present when participation is real.
  • All people and states are interdependent; we need global and international action to achieve justice.
  • The Church is not innocent when it comes to the sins of colonialism.
  • Our faith is radical and countercultural.

Pope Francis chose remote Santa Cruz, Bolivia — hardly an epicenter of economic prowess or political prestige — for his prophetic exhortation.

Like a “voice crying in the wilderness”, Francis proclaims “the way of the Lord.” And let us not miss the poignancy of the location, Santa Cruz — are we not being invited to look upon the holy cross on which the Body of Christ hangs today?

I confess my tremendous resistance to paying more than pious lip service to Francis’ moral vision. Social and economic structures in which I am enmeshed serve my interests. I prefer not to see those who are excluded or on whose backs my security is built.

My hunch is most of us are in the same boat, heavily invested in the status quo. The more structures serve our personal interest, especially as we age, the more we resist change.  This seems to be the bane of the powerful, the truth of the ages!

But change we must. Change we will, willingly or not. Like the indomitable life force of a tulip or the irrepressible pressure of tectonic plates, the earth is shifting under out feet — and in this an always compassionate but insistent God is alive and active.

When the history of the 21st century is written, with whom and on whose side will we wish we had stood?
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I am indebted to Robert Christian at millennialjournal.com for his marvelous synopsis of Francis’ speech. The above sampling of themes are lifted from his post.  I heartily recommend his entire summary to you [link].

Interdependence Day

The Fourth of July… Independence Day!

My paternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary was July 6. Every year until my grandpa died we had a family reunion at the park pavilion of our hometown on the weekend nearest the Fourth. Many, many years have intervened. Yet, even while going out for ice cream last evening with my 52 year-old nephew, such enduring bonds of family console me.

Alleys! I never want to live in a neighborhood without alleys. Although we live on a block with a floating TGIF sign (who ever wants to host the weekly kid-friendly TGIF gets the sign from last week’s host and posts it in their yard on about Wednesday), most of our goings-on occur in the alley. That’s where we grow our raspberries — this time of year they come in such abundance neighbors know they are free to sample. That’s where neighbors stop for conversations so long the driver sometimes even turns the car off. If we need a tool or cup of sugar we could cross the street but we are more likely to cross the alley.

Last Monday we had dinner at the home of our pastor. The priest who will marry us is someone with whom we are more likely to share stories and laughter than Scripture and liturgy. And despite all the crap associated with clerical abuse (and it’s more than sex abuse), I have never been more comfortably Catholic in all my life. Things are breaking open, truth is being told, arrogant power is being challenged, we’re getting back to what really matters. All this suggests to me we are a much healthier church in 2015 than we were twenty years ago.

Minnesota may be a beautiful state but it’s really flat — the fifth flattest of all the 50 states as a matter of fact. No surprise, then, that water would be a really big deal here. Ten thousand lakes. Headwaters of the Mississippi. Lake Superior holding primacy of place. Yet, my special affinity is with Minnehaha Creek where Jeb the Dog takes me each day for a walk and where we mark the rhythm of the seasons. True to my Nebraska roots, I actually relax and resonate more with the farms of southern Minnesota than our state’s North Woods. In the past month we have been fortunate to enjoy them all — lakes, forests and farms.  Life is good!

It’s also been a great summer for Constitutional government — “We, the People of the United States, in order to form a [ever] more perfect union…” I am so grateful to live in nation where the Founders laid claim to certain inalienable rights and then crafted a system that would, as one Federalist writer wrote, “protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.” Or as Gerald Ford assured my generation upon the resignation of President Nixon, “We are a nation of laws, not of men.” For this — and on behalf of the millions of Americans who have health care coverage because of the Affordable Care Act — I feel incredibly blessed.

Fourth of July weekend — family, neighbors, faith communities, nature, our nation. Blessings all! Each worth celebrating! All to be cherished! We call it Independence Day but it’s our interdependence we celebrate and cherish most.

May we always remember from Whom these gifts came and for which they were given.