Shocked, Right Here at Home

I was shocked, personally challenged, finally proud.

How could it be? A land-locked state in the geographic center of the contiguous 48 has the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees! It has no ports of entry favoring coastal states. In fact, it can’t even boast of an international airport.

This state is rock-ribbed conservative and solidly “red”. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that the state with the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees voted for Donald Trump by a wide margin and has a solidly Republican delegation in DC, Republican governor and a state legislature dominated by the GOP.

The highest per capita rate of resettling refugees of any state in the nation belongs to my home state, Nebraska. This fact come as a complete surprise and challenges many stereotypical presumptions. Though I often feel alienated by the state’s conservative politics, this statistic makes me very proud.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked.  The fact was reported Monday on the front page of The Washington Post [link].  The story reaffirms what I know about the place I will always call home — Nebraskans are inherently good, generous, fair, hard-working, welcoming and kind.

I’m proud so many new-comers will receive their introduction to our country through the hearts and help of middle-America Nebraskans. But I dare not lallygag in complacent satisfaction too long. Clearly more than a few inaccurate presumptions and lingering stereotypes need challenging — on all sides, from every perspective!

More than at any time in my life we are a nation at odds, separated within closed enclaves of social homogeneity, separated into antagonistic camps willing to listen only to arguments that bolster narrow preconceptions. As a nation too many of us are hardened, intolerant, even angry.

Often enough we get shocked back into reality by seemingly innocuous facts. Yes, rock-ribbed conservative, Trump-loving Nebraska quietly — and likely with no forethought of intention — surfaces as the state with a distinguished openness to refugees.

How can this be? Perhaps we need to base our judgments and opinions more in fact than presumptions we want to believe but are not true. Perhaps we should come out from behind walls that separate, categorize and define us long enough to discover the truth about one another — precisely the truth about those different from ourselves.

With all this still rumbling within my thoughts I stumbled upon the review of a new cookbook under the title, Binding the Nation in Its Love of Meatloaf [link]. At my age I have learned to take nothing as happenstance or mere coincidence.

When New York Times colleagues Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer concocted their idea to write a cookbook neither knew that Mr. Trump would become president. He had agreed to contribute a recipe before the election. The authors had already taken their cue from the divisiveness they saw in our country.

Bruni observes, “I don’t think meatloaf can save the world, but I certainly think in the coming tomorrows there will be a healthier appetite for comfort.” And with a prescience you’d expect from reporters of their caliber they explain, “It’s a quintessential American dish that can bind a nation!”

The Times reporters are surely onto something! Beyond comfort we are hungry for a renewed sense of community, the sort of familial warmth that keeps me going back to Nebraska as my favorite place for Thanksgiving dinner.

Could it really be as simple as sharing a meal? It’s certainly a good start. Plenty of precedent — religious and national — suggests breaking bread together can lead to shocking and challenging results, the sort that will truly make us proud about who we once were and might still become once more.

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!

My Lenten Shake-Down

My spiritual foundations are being shaken to their foundations. On a practical level, I’ve presumed that God became human in Jesus because we had screwed things us so badly that God needed to “work our salvation” through the passion, death and resurrection. Today something else seems to be struggling to break through.

Steeped in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, my “fix it” mentality still deeply colors the way I have interpreted Jesus’ Incarnation. Even more, my presumption about the Son’s mission has pretty well determined the way I have “observed” the season of Lent — Jesus came to save us because we had created a mess and couldn’t fix it for ourselves.  We’d do well to realign ourselves with Jesus’ plan of action.

Though this traditional affirmation remains true, it’s not the whole truth. In fact, it’s only a sliver of the truth and can distort and impoverish a fuller understanding of Christ. That’s what seems to be rattling my foundations these days. It’s a work in progress — it’s God’s doing, nothing I can cause, simply a grace I hope to apprehend.

Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton has had me captivated for the past while. Masterful. Meant to be savored. Perhaps the most significant book I’ve read in the past five years. Not easy, but solid theology that is also spiritually satisfying. Reading something today caught me off guard and sent my head spinning:

The incarnation … was not an afterthought following a failed creation. Christ is the Word, the uncreated Image of God, who has already decided “from the beginning” to enter fully into humankind.

Okay, so what’s new? We’ve all heard that before. It’s simply another way of saying what Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians (1:15-17). Yes, I’ve “believed” this. I’ve even parroted it in my own words. Today these former formulations seem conceptual, abstract. True, but cognitive!

Here’s what flipped my apple cart, left my head spinning:

the heart of Christian spirituality [resides in] the discovery of our true selves already resting in Christ, not “out there” as a separate Object, but “as the Reality within our own reality, the Being within our own being, the life of our life.” (Merton, The New Man, p19).

With images of Pope Francis praying at the Mexico/US border yesterday fresh in my mind, Merton’s words stopped me in my tracks: “If we believe in the incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p296)

The church teaches virtually the same thing: “In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'” (Gaudium et spies, #22).

Again, I have long ‘believed’ these words. I have often parroted them. But have they really sunk in? Are they deep in my bones such that I see in others — each and every other, especially the poor and marginalized — the human dignity of Christ?

That’s my challenge as we enter this second week of Lent. God did not become human in Jesus as an afterthought due to our having screwed things up! Incarnation leading to salvation has always been God’s intention from the beginning. How do I get that truth in to my bones, give flesh to this “Word” in my life?

Perhaps we need to spend less time in our church pews and more time at border crossings, less time meditating on the crucifix and more time attending to the many forms of personal crucifixion people endure today.

Christmas and Easter are not dualistic polarities on a salvific timeline. They are the self-same singular impulse of a loving God from the very beginning. Don’t know about you, but this pretty well turns the table on many of my traditional Lenten presumptions and practices.

Getting my head and heart around this will take some doing, certainly more than the forty days of Lent.
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Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN (2009), pp 179-180).