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.

Turning It Over In Your Palm

Kayla McClurg, on the staff at the Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, is one of my favorite bloggers.  Her site is aptly named: Inward/Outward, Seeking the Depths.  She never disappoints, but regularly takes me to my depths!  Her post for today, Palm Sunday, is especially poignant and captures the core invitation of this Holy Week:

For the past few years, I have sensed death wanting to be my friend. You know the type. “Let’s hang out more,” she says, “get better acquainted!” But I already have plenty of friends, a busy life, and the truth is, I’m just not that into her. Yet there she is, shuffling along behind me, showing up when I least want her around, throwing her arms around my shoulders to show how close we are, how much a part of my life she already is. “Stop breathing on me!” I want to say, but she doesn’t seem to care. And I have to admit I’m starting to get used to her salty breath, her tattered edges, her constancy. I am almost fond now of her clumsy nearness. What might she tell me if I learned to listen better; what might I see in this crazy quilt of death in life, pieced together in haphazard patterns?

Today is the beginning of the end for Jesus. And the beginning of the beginning. Do you see the wholeness of his life even as death closes in? The fragments of his final week create a story that is dangerously familiar. Read it slowly this year. Walk alongside the other disciples, feel their confusion and fear, hear Jesus confront the powers, offer the wisdom of silence, give it all and then give some more, be abandoned and wait to be found. Pick up a fragment each day or two. Turn it over and over in your palm. Ask it for a blessing

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You may read McClurg’s entire post [here]. You will also be able to follow links to her site in case you’d care to sign up for her daily and/or Sunday postings.

Our Bi-Polar Problem

Today, nine months prior to Christmas, we pause to mark the occasion of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary.  There is no better justification than to emphasize that Mary’s child is fully human!  Whatever other theological assertions might be made, we profess that Jesus was brought to birth through a very human pregnancy.

Our challenge on a day like this is to be careful our faith is really not more Greek than Christian.  Ancient philosophers like Plato did much to lay the foundation for western civilization.  It also polluted our faith with a philosophical “dualism” — body/soul, human/divine, physical/spiritual — that plagues believes ever since.

It’s as if a very strong disposition to bi-polar disease was spliced into our Christian DNA.  It’s too easy to look at Mary’s child and say, “But he’s God!”  Today we are reminded that Jesus is the child of a thoroughly human mother.  We are  reminded that Jesus came to birth through a normal, natural, nine-month pregnancy like every other child.

Today’s somewhat dissonant reminder of Jesus’s origins serves as a much-needed corrective as we transition into Holy Week.  It is too easy to look at Jesus in his agony, arrest, trial, abandonment, crucifixion and dismiss his sacrifice — “But he’s God!”  We do him the ultimate disservice (as well as ourselves) if we fail to say in the same voice, “And he is fully human!”

How else are we to make sense of Jesus’s passionate admonition, the standard he wants us to keep in mind for making every week holy and living every day as if it were our last:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)

Seems Jesus accepts no distinction between body/soul, human/divine, physical/spiritual.  Mary made no distinction. Neither should we!

 

A Place to Start

My Dad was active with the St Vincent de Paul Society when I was a kid. He never said much about the folks who were struggling with the basics of life. Perhaps he understood this to be ordinary, common.  But I recall being both proud and intrigued by his visits to families who needed furniture or help paying their bills.

My brother, Jerry was also very involved with the Society’s mission of direct service with the materially poor. So much so, the St. Vincent de Paul Society was one of three organizations his family proposed to receive memorials in his memory when he died.

The most I can claim is that my charity of choice to receive my old clothes (the term is “gently used”) or household items (in working order, please) is the St Vincent de Paul Stores. Perhaps the lesson taught by my Dad’s quiet service and my big brother’s example is simply this: our human dignity is enhanced when we protect the human dignity of others, especially those most at risk.

Susan Stabile shared marvelous reflections about Vincent at the City House retreat on Saturday. On the most basic level, she clarified for me that he started out as a pretty ordinary sixteenth century Frenchman. From all Susan offered, a quote from Vincent reverberates as the focus for my Lenten self-reflection this week:

There are many, who, when outwardly recollected and interiorly filled with lofty thoughts of God, stop there; and when it comes to the point and they find themselves in a position to act, they stop short. Their over-excited imaginations flatter them; they rest content with sweet conversations they have with God in prayer; they even talk about these like angels; but apart from that, when it is a matter of working for God, of suffering, of self-mortification, of instructing the poor, of going out looking for lost sheep, liking it when something is lacking, accepting illness or some other disfavor, alas! then there is no one left, they lack the courage. No, no, we must not deceive ourselves.

Okay, I stand indicted. I am like the one admonished by the black Baptist pastor who warned, “Sometimes we are so heavenly minded we are no earthly good.”

Today, I take consolation and encouragement in something from my much more familiar Ignatian tradition: In God’s eyes, the desire for the desire is sufficient as a starting point.

Lightning Rods

A quick quiz…

Name a religious symbol.

If you are Christian, I’d bet nine out of ten would say, “The cross.”

What if you are Jewish? Star of David, perhaps?

Muslim… the Crescent Moon?

How would you respond if I said, lightning rod!?!

Yesterday, Janice Anderson proposed the lightning rod as a good symbol for her “doorbell ministry” at the Basilica of St Mary as well as her work with City House. The Basilica is a large, popular urban parish in Minneapolis where she has been on the staff since 1994.

Anderson was a presenter yesterday at a retreat for people associated with City House, a ministry of “active listening” with people on the margins — including those experiencing poverty, addiction, imprisonment or being homeless.

Janice chairs the City House board. She knows of what she speaks when she proposes the lightning rod as an apt Christian symbol.  Perhaps its an apt symbol for people of all faiths!

First, she readily admits what makes her “bristle” when encountering people who have every reason in the world to lead off with a burst of anger. Here’s my paraphrase of what I heard in her story:

Presuming I am the “more privileged” in such a dialogue — and I generally am — is the other judging me?  Might their judgement be accurate and fair?

Fear quickly surfaces when I feel afraid for my safety, imagined or otherwise.

Pride threatens to rob me of a true human encounter if I fail to enter into dialogue with respect for the other’s equal human dignity.

It is so easy to remain hamstrung by my own self-image as “good” if not “beter.”

Despite the fact it is generally an illusion, I typically hold tight to my need to be “in control” of whatever happens.

You may recall or imagine encounters of your own.  Add or subtract from this list of what makes you “bristle.” I suspect responses are as numerous and particular as the people involved.

Did you know that a lightning rod does not attract the lightning? I thought it did. Rather, it just stands there as lightning randomly dances across the sky. If it happens to strike, the rod simply takes in the charge and enables the surge of energy to pass into the ground.

Like doorbell ministry and accompaniment at City House, isn’t that what we are all called to do when we encounter people who hold a grudge and are angry — whether justifiable or not?  Don’t we find ourselves in places where we are called to stand in the place of God absorbing the charge of others, grounding their anger and letting pass an aggressive first-strike?

And here is a cautious reminder — we are to be lightning rods, not pin cushions!  There’s a big difference.  Jesus was one but never the other!

As we Christians move more intimately toward Holy Week we would do well be attentive to how Jesus absorbs the surges of anger directed at him, stands his ground as aggression passes through, letting first-strikes land, putting an end to the destruction that would otherwise occur.

Perhaps, this year, it is time to look beyond the cross if it has become overly familiar and time-worn of much potency.  Attentiveness to Christ as lightning rod is probably more than enough!
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You may learn more about City House at www.city-house.org — financial support is much-needed and always appreciated.

Realignment

Many who cherish the beauty of words grieved the loss of Elizabethan English when the Book of Common Prayer was revised decades ago. Still the Anglicans have it all over us Romans! (Especially after the ridiculous return to “And with your spirit!” babble of a few years ago… Don’t get me started!)  Words matter!

We could do no better than to commit these to memory: “Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” AMEN. (BCP 832)

Episcopalians refer to this as the Prayer of Self Dedication. Yes, it sets a very high bar! But then, how about this… “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” This is probably so embedded in out memories that it has become rote and we no longer recognize the radically of our words.

Asking to consistently do God’s will, not my own — there’s a counter-cultural idea for you! “Thy will be done!” — do I mean the words I say? “Use us?” Using my gifts for the well-being of others?  Parents are the few people I see consistently motivated by other-interest rather than self-interest! I’m not a parent.  Honestly, I have a long way to go!

“Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” AMEN.

Lent would be monumentally transformative for our selves and for our culture if we were to more and more find our words aligned with the will of God. There we’d discover — to our delightful surprise, perhaps to our amazement — they are not opposites in conflict.  Rather, God’s will and ours are ultimately convergent and the very foundation of our personal freedom and welfare.

Not Selling Ourselves Short

Often we sell ourselves short, letting ourselves off the hook too fast. Life, on the other hand, is not so easy on us!

After saying something hurtful, I can apologize. If we thoughtlessly let down a friend, we can say we are sorry. Most good people — and if you are reading this you probably fit the bill — do not intend to injure others or do what is wrong. When we fail, we generally make amends.  We generally make amends. We generally choose good and avoid evil.

But life is not so easy — either on us or for us. That’s what Lent is all about — getting to that deep human core where we know ourselves to be both powerless and culpable, paralyzed by forces seemingly beyond our control, yet called to break free from that which holds us bound and burdened.  No, life isn’t easy… but too often hard!

Jeanne Bishop, only after more than twenty years, is finally able to say out loud the name of the teenager who murdered her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child. It took decades for this woman, a Chicago public defender in her professional life, to meet the grown man who was serving a sentence of life without parole.

What they had to say to each other was hard. Wounds ran deep on both sides. How do two people like this even begin a conversation no less approach reconciliation? Bishop explains the challenge and predicament perfectly. Even after all these years, “it would take time, untangling those stories, like patiently trying to pull apart the chains of two necklaces knotted together.”

Lent entices us past the bland grocery list of minor infractions. If we are willing, and when we are able, Lent nudges us into the deeply tangled knots of our lives. We must proceed without knowing how it will all turn out, even knowing for certain what is the right way to go about it. Such if life! Such is the nudge of grace!

Susan Stabile’s counsel to Jeanne Bishop is spot-on for us as well: “That is the point with God: we don’t get all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed in advance. We’re asked to say yes, knowing the path ahead is clouded in uncertainty — to say yes in faith that God will be with us no matter what.”

Bishop counsels us to accept God’s invitation, to follow God’s gentle but persistent nudge, to take a first step toward reconciliation without knowing what lies ahead. Again, she provides a wonderful metaphor that suggests the unfamiliar terrain we must follow. She compares our terrain to paths in the hills of Scotland where she and deceased sister had travelled with the geometric expansiveness of Illinois where they had grown up.

In Illinois roadways and farm fields are even and linear. Bishop muses that where she lives “you can sit on your front porch and watch your dog run away for a week.” Scotland, Bishop and her sister discovered, remains “a place of rises and curves; even if you are headed in the right way, you couldn’t be sure, because the streets turned and bowed.”

This is the invitation of Lent… to finally approach those parts and places in our lives that are tangled in knots. Not to sell ourselves short by letting ourselves off the hook too fast. With God as faithful companion and guide, we dare to walk a way both turned and bowed.

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In this and in many ways, I am indebted to Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015, pages 124-5.

Enough with Deprivation

Quickly closing in on the age when the Catholic Church excuses me from mandatory fast and abstinence during Lent, I should have something to say after more than six decades of experience. If pressed, it comes down to this: it’s not ultimately about denial and deprivation!

Jeb the Dog often directs me to the edge of Minnehaha Creek where he takes me each day for a walk.  Yeterday Jeb led me to a clump of green spikes audaciously staking their claim amid the crunchy brown stubble of last year’s summer spectacle.  A rippling sheet of water attests to the creek’s insistence on breaking winter’s paralyzing hold. Years of accompanying Jeb instill confidence that watery rapids will soon applaud the canary yellow blossoms atop blades of lavish green.

Chickadees are returning to the still somnolent serviceberries. Yesterday, while positioning bed pillows on the sunny deck for a seasonal airing, two Juncos flashed the white underlying of their slate-colored tails as they vacated the Korean lilac. A matched pair of cardinals more boldly held their positions, staking out their claim with a nearly forgotten song.

In his poem, March, Mark Doty unwittingly expresses the paradox of our Lenten fast and abstinence:

I thought the choice was to love austerity
or not to love at all,

but when I went out to look at the elemental
I found nothing sparse, only this density

and saturation: dusky sedge
at the pond’s rim, thicket and tumble

of violet contradiction, plum stems–
a whole vocabulary of tone and hue, demanding,

a history steeped in the long practice
of luminosity. How difficult

just to say what’s here, in March severity.
Try…

Yes, try! Ultimately, Lent is not about denial and deprivation! No, it is about awakening to all that is quickening in us and in this luminous creation. From her home on the North Dakota prairie Kathleen Norris hints at the salutary motivation for fast and abstinence:

What is enough? As always, it seems that the more I can distinguish between my true needs and my wants, the more I am shocked to realize how little is enough. The trees that fan me are the fruit of others’ labor, planted by an earlier generation of Plains dwellers who longed for trees to shelter them. The land resisted, but let them have these few. I am startled by something flashing through the trees. It is the Pleiades, all seven of them plainly visible to the naked eye. This is another’s work, and a mystery. And it is enough.

Our world is awakening, being renewed, restored, refreshed, redeemed.  Six decades bring more than well-worn duty and rote routine.

Age and experience yields freedom from frozen obligations, yet instills the assurance that we are securely held by Someone more gracious than ourselves. We settle into an audacious confidence that as spent patterns recede, the ultimate vitality of life will not be denied. We conclude that even the smallest of portions is more than enough!
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In addition to Mark Doty’s poem, March, which is from his collection Atlantis published by HarperPerennial, 1995; this reflection was also inspired by my friend Susan Stabile on her blog, Creo in Dios. Susan quoted Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk in beautifully distinguishing the difference between our wants and needs. I recommend her post available [here].

Pure or Poor?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? These sorts of questions were prompted by a headline that grabbed my attention. Essentially, the article [Link] frames the question whether the church is meant for the “poor” or for the “pure”?

At 48, Las Cruces, NM Bishop Oscar Cantú is the second youngest bishop in the country. He is the son of Mexican immigrants. He is a clear sign of hope as well as an indication of where the church in the US is headed.  This bishop gives me hope — not because he is young, not because he is focused on those securely ensconced within his churches, but because he has laser-beam focus on who the church is for!

In response to self-appointed watchdog groups that claim it causes “scandal” for the church to have any association with organizations that are not in total agreement with Catholic moral teaching on every issue, Cantú worries about who is being left behind.

“The Incarnation is messy,” Cantú reminds us. “There was nothing clean about that stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Sometimes we sterilize the stable, and we lose the mystery of the Incarnation. We can’t be afraid to get our hands dirty. … What about the scandal of not caring for the poor?” he asked. “This is the silent scandal.”

For Cantú, the church already has a clear road map for responding to urgent needs in a messy world. “When we read the Gospel, Jesus goes out to those on the margins.” We can never let “a fear of being contaminated” to allow us to be complacent or distract us from our call now to be Christ’s real presence in our day.

Instead of giving-up desserts or alcohol, in place of resolving to attend daily Mass or a commitment to an exercise routine; what if more of us declared a fast from secure isolation, abstained from passive indifference, gave up a piety of individualism?

What if more of us resolved to spend an hour a week in community service with those who really are “on the edge” in place of going to Mass?

What if we gave heightened attention to the Stations of the Cross being played out in our communities rather than expecting to find them in our sanitized churches at noon on Fridays?

Rather than spending an hour in Eucharistic Adoration, what if we actually were to become the “Real Presence” with someone whose body is broken or who knows what it is to shed blood?

Why do we go to church? What are we looking for? What is it we want from our religious practice? What good is spirituality? Do I go to church to become “pure” or am I sent forth from church to engage with any who are “poor”?

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to finally “turn around,” to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives. I am in desperate need of all that Lent has to offer! Even more, our poor broken world is in desperate need for all of us who claim church membership to have a profoundly grace-filled Lent.

Born Again (Again)

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to be radically changed, to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives.

The Scottish poet, Edwin Muir, at the end of the Second World War, wrote a very personal prayer-poem on the Transfiguration. Muir captures in words what we seek and the world needs during this season of grace.  He writes:

  • But he will come again, it’s said, though not
    Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
    Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
    And all mankind from end to end of the earth
    Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
    Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
    Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
    Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
    His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
    Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
    Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
    In a green springing corner of young Eden,
    And Judas damned take his long journey backward
    From darkness into light and be a child
    Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
    Be quite undone and never more be done.