Just the Way It Is

Really pissed! Obscenities and expletives I’d never say out loud or in public ricocheted around my head. Calculations whirled — 4 x $3.99; 2 x $8.99; not to mention what was lost from last year! Revenge surged in my veins. I’ll get those little bastards!

Four parsley plants; a Black-eyed Susan and a purple phlox; tarragon that had survived two Minnesota winters, all chomped down to the ground. That innocuous phrase about “multiplying faster than rabbits” is more than a charming metaphor. It’s an immediate reality with destructive consequences right in our backyard. Bastards!

Back on the farm they had ways of dealing with this sort of thing! I still cannot reconcile an unapologetic confession by my mother from her childhood. With the ability of barnyard cats to reproduce exponentially she had no qualms about depositing new litters into the rain barrel. “That’s just the way it was”, she’d explain.

Yes, it’s just the way it works! Nature flourishes within a balance. In our urban setting bunnies overpopulate because natural predators have been eliminated. The normal equilibrium of all created things has gotten out of whack. Cities bring in peregrine falcons to solve a pigeon problem. I simply need to do the same with our rabbit infestation.

Off I tromped to the neighbors to borrow the live-trap they had used to rid their yard of this nemesis. Noting the rain barrel near our patio I felt my mother’s youthful resolve pulse through my veins. “Just toss in a few sliced carrots and set the trap”, our neighbors counseled.

Jeb the Dog was the first to discover the success or our efforts. Thrown off his nightly quick-trip-to-the-backyard bedtime ritual, Jeb was frenetic. Sniffing audibly, he frantically danced around the sprung trap. I was pleased but less animated than Jeb at the end of the day. Besides, the rain barrel is empty. I’d deal with it in the morning.

French roast in hand, swaddled in my velour bathrobe, settled in my recliner aside an east window I commenced my morning ritual of catching up with world events on my iPad. Jeb nuzzled aside me on the floor. Rabbits were too much of a nuisance already to disturb my cherished routine or spring me from the solitary comfort of my morning universe.

“Enough is enough!” proclaims the British prime minister from the morning’s headline. Terrorists had most recently struck in the heart of London. Such tragic events are intended to jar us from our routine and sense of equilibrium. They had. Swift and firm retaliation was necessary and promised. Twelve persons had been arrested. There would be more. That’s just the way it works!

Returning to the kitchen to refill my coffee, a plate of decadently delicious brownies a neighbor had brought over last evening caught my attention. We spoke about things neighbors do — about how they were to become first-time grandparents in little more than a month, for example. And as they do with good friends and neighbors, our conversation turned to more painful matters of the heart.

The criminal trial for the man charged with motor vehicle homicide in the death of our neighbor’s sister, brother-in-law and niece begins this month. She finds it necessary to be present for the out-of-state trial. Its been two years since her family’s tragedy. This neighbor wants the man to know they forgive him; they “only want him to get the help he needs.”

In such morning light bunnies eating parsley pales into meaninglessness. I chuckled with the recognition that I’d set the trap three feet from our statue of St Francis of Assisi. We had somehow allowed too much of our garden to become mere ornamentation.

How do our worlds become so small, insular; our hearts so petty or trivialized? That’s the real tragedy — a sort of waking death while still alive, a terrifying reality that never makes the headlines. I went outside and opened the trap door.

Later today I will return it to the neighbor’s garage. I resolve to celebrate Jeb’s frenzied chase of bunnies under the bushes and delight in nature’s “balance” that rabbits run faster than dogs. I concede to pay 99 cents for parsley at the store, trying all the while to embrace my place in the bigger picture.

“Enough is enough” has meaning whenever we get really pissed, want to call others nasty names, or strategize revenge. These are times to stop, breathe and smile at ourselves. Could it be the bunnies thought I was a dear neighbor delivering an equivalent plate of brownies?

Still there are times we need to cry. Too much in our world is out of balance. Tragedy strikes all too randomly in a world that chooses not to be neighborly, chooses hate over relationship, revenge over reconciliation. Sadly, we all can become real bastards when the circumstances are right.

Again it’s time to stop, breathe and take the time necessary to regain our sense of balance and equilibrium — that place from which we see ourselves in the larger scheme of things, desiring only that we all get the help we need, setting one another free.

 

 

 

 

Faithful Citizens Have No Choice

As we catapult toward the end of a nasty and divisive election cycle there is much healing that needs to occur.  Will we be instruments of this healing or further division? Do citizens of good faith have an alternative?

I preached the following homily at our church on Sunday.  It was based on the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in Luke 18.  I offer it here as one contribution to the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called:

So, which one are you? The much maligned Pharisee? Or, the humble tax collector? With whom do you spontaneously connect? Such resonance is a good indicator for how God wants to engage us.

So, let’s dig a little deeper… Like us, the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people – generous, committed, devout. This particular Pharisee has reason to express gratitude — he’s got it good, better than the majority of other people. He knows it. He’s grateful. Like us, he lives his faith; he gives back – tithing time, talent, treasure.

What God is up to becomes more apparent when we dig as well into the character of the tax collector – the humble, honest, honorable tax collector. Do you catch the irony – Honest? Honorable? …Tax-collector? The oxymoron still packs a punch after 2000 years.

It’s said that Rabbi Simcha Bunem carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: “For my sake the world was created!” On the other: “I am but dust and ashes.” The Rabbi would take out either slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder for himself.

Yes, we are imagio dei, created in the image of God, created for relationship, capable of great things. Our faith also counsels, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And if we need any reminder, we don’t need to look too far to see just how ungodly, fractured, and capable of incivility we can become.

So, “Which one are you, Pharisee or tax-collector?” — good to ask at times. However, this is NOT one of those times! With the devout rabbi we recognize we are not one or the other — we are BOTH! Perhaps the more relevant question is: “WHO are we?” And even more: “WHOSE are we?” TO WHOM DO WE BELONG?

Look around…! We’re a little depleted on MEA weekend. But to all who are visiting, Welcome! We’re really quite a friendly, likeable bunch. Whether you’ve been here for 50 years or this is your first visit, you’re at home here. You belong! We’re an odd mix of saint and sinner — so we pride ourselves in “open communion”. Knowing who we are, we recognize ALL are welcome at the table Christ sets. God wants all of us to be in communion.

Today, the pairing of the Pharisee and tax-collector challenges us to go deeper, to discover and embrace this radical communion to which we are called. Yes, open communion is great for making our Catholic or Methodist relatives feel welcome when they visit. It’s may even assure “seekers” and the “unaffiliated” they will find spiritual companions among us.

But what happens if we learn the person ahead of you will be cancelling out your vote? Are we open, inviting? Are we truly respectful of those who hold differing opinions …even about the NRA? …or Planned Parenthood? WHO are we then? Around WHOSE TABLE are we gathering then?

Remember the pairing of Pharisee and tax-collector . Remember the rabbi’s wisdom. Gospel truth, the truth of our lives — mature faith — is never a matter of either/or; right or wrong, yes or no! In Christ, it is always BOTH/AND; always bigger, always more inclusive then we could ever muster on our own.

Look around …who do you see? Who are we? We’re more homogenous than many of us would prefer. Yes, we’re mostly like-minded, but we are hardly clones. We must never become a cozy enclave – comfortable and complacent has nothing to do with the One around whose Table we gather.

Look around! Who do you see? We are Episcopalians – not to the exclusion of others but with and amid others. As Episcopalians we come with distinguishing gifts, a certain identity – not better, but needed; not to the exclusion of others, but for the benefit of others. Within Christ uniformity stifles, differences enhance! All are welcome; everyone has something essential to share.

Never in my recollection, rarely in our nation’s history, have we been so fractured as a people. As Episcopalians we are not set above or apart from any of this. But we do come with certain DNA that distinguishes us from others within the Body of Christ.

At times it’s stressful, painful. Maybe even excruciating. But it’s not in our DNA to build walls – we prefer bridges! We don’t shut out tough conversations – we initiate them. That’s who we are! We’re wired to see Both/And rather than Either/Or! Pharisee and tax-collector are polarities within which we live.

Are these not the precise gifts our nation desperately needs? – the gift of holding the tension, living in the gap, walking into chaos, embracing differences, taking on our collective brokenness? This is the gift of our communion in Christ.

When we come to this table, we come with our particularities and our peculiarities, our giftedness and our poverty. In breaking bread together, in sharing one cup, we are changed, healed, reconciled, restored as one human family.

Like proud Pharisees we thank God for our good fortune. Like the awe-struck tax collector, we pray: “Lord, have mercy!”

Our church has served this nation well. The gifts we have been given are needed now as much as ever – provided we are faithful to WHO we are, WHOSE we are, and who we BECOME when we come here!

AMEN!

View From the Exit Ramp

Sometimes we need to look at life upside own or inside out! We all see things from our own perspective, with our values about right and wrong. We may discretely temper our public proclamations about the way the world should be. All the while, our biggest blind spot is probably presuming we see clearly, accurately, rightly.

Case in point: the disheveled guy standing at the end of the freeway exit holding a cardboard sign. Before I’m even close enough to read his printed text I have come to all sorts of conclusions. Many of these are moral judgments about the man’s character, most of them harsh. And, I already know how I will pretend not to see him.

Experts say that genuine empathy — being able to truly see the world from the perspective of the other — is really quite rare and a very sophisticated moral exercise, something that takes a degree of emotional maturity many do not possess.  Scratch just a bit below the veneer and much of what we do is still really “all about us.”

We tout trite phrases about walking in another person’s shoes. We may even volunteer at food pantries or tutor immigrants. This is all good, even praiseworthy. But can we ever really get into the other person’s skin, see the world with their eyes, feel what life deals them with their heart?

We are given a ubiquitous invitation — that guy at the end of the exit ramp! They are only one of many opportunities we have to look at life upside down, inside out or from the other side! Of course, we resist such a challenge. It’s hard. Even more it may threaten our worldview, our closely held values and expose ways we’d have to change.

Here’s my fantasy… after sprouting a four-day beard growth, I get into the clothes I reserve for yard work or painting the house. With “Homeless. Please help!” printed on cardboard I would go stand at the Xerxes exit of the Crosstown freeway for three hours during the evening commute.

It remains just my fantasy. Who among us would do such a thing? Could we even imagine ourselves doing such a thing? Even if I overcame my resistance, I’m pretty sure it would still be about “me” — will my neighbor’s see me? What would they think? What if I got assaulted? Even if I somehow took the risk, I’m sure I’d still be light-years away from genuine empathy — really getting inside the skin of the person whose desperation places him in this position.

Yet, even such arm-chair speculation yields something… Perhaps it’s more than desperation at work on the exit ramp. Perhaps it takes courage to stand there with cardboard sign in hand absorbing the moral judgment of drivers returning home from work. Perhaps it takes trust to presume our needs will be met because others still care enough.

Yes, there are all sorts of nay-sayers, objections and skeptics. “They are imposters! Get a job! They will just spend it on drugs. There are agencies who take care of this sort of thing.” The excuses are endless.

Again, we do well to look at things inside-out, upside-down, get out from behind our own skin for once, open ourselves to the genuine experience of the other, apply the very same moral standard — both critical and gracious — to ourselves as we do to the man holding the cardboard sign.

Someone once said, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)

It’s a Dog’s Life

Jeb the Dog occupies center stage in our lives. We have become the dog owners we vowed never to become. Jeb knows he’s loved and reciprocates in kind. Not only is Jeb a terrific companion. Those who have pets, especially dogs, will understand that he is also a great teacher of what’s important in life.

One consequence of being so loved is that Jeb is a very happy, content animal. If you look in the dictionary for “a dog’s life” you will find Jeb’s photo next to the definition. Jeb doesn’t bark. Yes, he can and it’s quite robust. He just doesn’t. In fact, we do not recall hearing him bark any time during 2015.

Among the many virtues Jeb models exceedingly well are patience, forgiveness and gratitude. This morning his barking habits, or lack thereof, converged with something I was reading to shed new insight and some much-needed wisdom…

“Dogs bark at everyone they do not know,” says Herakleitos [Greece, 530-470 B.C.] — a ritual played out with liturgical precision over the airwaves every morning, filing not only radios, but hearts and minds, “with static.”

We desperately need more wisdom today! Thomas Merton wrote in 1968:

Instead of taking care to examine the realities of our political or social problems, we simply bring out the idols in solomon procession. “We are the ones who are right, they are the ones who are wrong. We are the good guys, they are the bad guys.”

Senseless, obnoxious and continuous barking supplies a perfect metaphor for our toxic Presidential campaign, unconscionable shutdown of naming a Supreme Court justice, and the intractable horror of all that ISIS symbolizes. We are in a perilous position and our “best” seems to be incessant barking like a pack of junk yard dogs. We are living with a cacophony of paralyzing static!

Christopher Pramuk perfectly frames our predicament: “Why the rhetoric, machinery, and obscene liturgy of war — with its collateral damage of rape, torture, imprisonment without trial, destruction of cultures, infrastructures, and hopes for future generations–ad nauseum? Pramuk cites Merton’s prescription:

[Because] we do not have mercy, or yielding love, or non-resistance, or non-reprisal. …We do not see the Child who is prisoner in all the people, and who says nothing.

Jeb the Dog embodies patience, forgiveness and gratitude. He reads his situation really well. Yes, Jeb can bark. He just chooses not to. Rather, he chooses to meet everyone who comes his way as a friend with the expectation they will have a treat to give him.

There is great wisdom to be learned from Jeb the Dog. He really knows how to live!
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Merton and Pramuk quotes are taken from Sophia, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Thomas Pramuk, A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN (2009) p 200. Original source for first Merton quote is Faith and Violence, p 154. The second Merton quote: Emblems of a Season of Fury (1963), p 63.

Aspiring to Wisdom

Have you noticed? The world has gotten better — all the problems have been solved. Really! My brother and I have been together for ten days now and pretty well taken care of all the world’s troubles. No need to thank us — we’ve enjoyed doing it.

Mornings typically begin at Starbucks. We take the New York Times and Orlando paper delivered to his doorstep. But we never seem to get to them. Rather, the state of our world is so dire we need to attend to these matters first.

Yesterday was special. After services and a pot-luck at Bear Lake United Methodist Church featuring Black Gospel singers from Alabama, my brother and I settled into twin recliners in front of the fireplace. This time we ruminated on family, our ancestors, favorite relatives, reasons they were the way they were and we are the way we are. Three and a half-hours passed like thirty minutes!

This morning, specifics and details have coalesced into an all-embracing sense of gratitude and contentment. That’s pretty amazing given the characters, personalities and circumstances we rehashed, the achievements claimed, wounds recalled and losses remembered. Let’s just say Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham and the Viscount Downton, has nothing over on us.

Here’s what’s becoming clear after these days of trying to make sense of this thing we call “life”… We cannot always “think” our way into knowledge. Some explanations are simply beyond words yet we know them to be true.  Perhaps this is what St. Augustine, fourth century bishop in North Africa meant as well — “The heart has reasons Reason knows not.”

Call it “wisdom” if you wish. My brother and I would like to think our machinations suggest we are more than just two senior citizens grousing in front of a fireplace. We’d like to believe these are the sort of conversations and conclusions true elders begin to formulate.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we’ve concluded for certain: It’s not that some of what we “know” is irrational, it’s that some things are simply beyond reason… such as love, self-sacrifice, mercy, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile.

In the end, this remains the hope in which we aspire to live.

Speaking of Elephants

Every once in a while something hits you up-side the head and you wish it hadn’t. Something challenges your enshrined values and you don’t want to yield your revered self-interest. Something written forty years ago surfaces and seems directed singularly at you.

That’s the case with a book on the formation of Thomas Merton’s prophetic spirituality I’ve just finished.  The part pestering me today is Merton’s assertion that “the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.”

Only after humbly accepting this truth are we prepared for real transformation. Merton continues:

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own particular truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.

That’s wonderful in principle and maybe in books.  But is it actually possible for any but the truly virtuous among us?  Somehow I remain entangled in a world that seems more nasty and complicated. How do we take such pious principles and give them flesh in the muddle of our real relationships — life as, and among, very imperfect people?

Last evening we watched a documentary on the criminal and civil prosecution of OJ Simpson. How does the family of Nicole Brown Simpson give expression to Merton’s ideal?

How do those who have experienced sexual abuse come to “love” their adversary? What does “love of our deluded fellow man” look like for them?

This week Minnesota Public Radio featured a marvelous piece on the Black Lives Matter movement. Where would we be if Rosa Parks had not said, “I’ve had enough — I’m not moving to the back of the bus!”

I’m resigned to the fact that there will always be “adversaries whom we wish to destroy.” I’m equally convinced that some adversaries like racism, violence, and all forms of abuse need to be challenged and destroyed.

I’m equally convinced that “Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.” Fine sounding words and much needed admonition from geniuses like Thomas Merton. But what about most of us who muddle with our fellows in delusion and sin?  How do we name and honor behaviors which are just inexcusable?

The way forward? Mutuality. Respect. Encounter. Remaining in community, conversation and relationship. These sound nice but can remain so much etherial babble. For me, maybe you, a good start in giving them legs is by talking about elephants in the room.

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The book referenced is In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Cistercian Publications.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN. 2015. p 136.   Both quotes of Merton cited above are from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image Books, 1966, #68.

Taking Personal Inventory

“You can take only your own inventory, never anyone else’s!” remains a bedrock tenet  for any who seek the serenity promised by 12 Step programs. I pushed the limit yesterday in my assessment of Archbishop Neinstedt’s appearance in First Class.

Here’s the rest of the story… I had brought Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir for reading onboard long trans-Atlantic flights. Disclaimer: No, I have no plans to write my memoir! Discovery: Karr’s incisive instruction for writing about what really matters offers a brilliant view into how we might better access and express our spiritual lives in prayer or with others.

I had highlighted Karr’s reference to George Orwell’s masterful essay Shooting the Elephant, “You wear a mask, and your face grows to fit it.” Yes, I could accuse John Neinstedt of that. More importantly, I need to accept that truth as my own truth as well.

Speaking of her literary efforts Karr concludes, “No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle … The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”

How I wish we’d hear such earthy, blunt preaching from our pulpits! I now cringe when I recall how many of my homilies relied upon an array of disembodied platitudes and pious principles — Lord, have mercy!

Why? Why do we retreat to the impersonal and theoretical? Karr observes, “We each nurture a private terror that some core aspect(s) of either ourselves or our story must be hidden or disowned.”

Though speaking of the craft of memoir writing, her wisdom equally applies to our most intimate selves and spiritual lives:

With every manuscript I’ve ever edited — even grown-assed writers’ — the traits a writer often fights hardest to hide may serve as the undeniable facets both of self and story. You bumble onto scenes that blow up the fond notions of the past, or whole shifts in attitude practically rewrite you where you stand.

Karr’s cure for writer’s block — so familiar and feared by any who put pen to paper — applies equally well to boredom in prayer or spiritual desolation. When our faith seems to have withered, even evaporated; when our prayer feels dry, hollow and purposeless; we’d do well to follow her advice: “Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

Now you know the rest of my Neinstedt story. I need to ask myself: What fires my visceral reaction to the Archbishop’s appearance? What might I be projecting onto him that I dare not admit about myself? What is so unacceptable about my own story or life that I so vehemently condemn or seek to control in others?

Yes, it’s time to focus on taking my own inventory! For sure, there are stories to more than fill a lifetime.

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Quotes are from The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015, #2276 and 2278 of Kindle edition.