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.

Aspiration, Promise, Destiny

Nothing original today, only aspirational…

As a human, I’m just a tiny moment of consciousness, a small part of creation, a particle that reflects only a fragment of God’s glory. And yet that’s enough. In the words of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022):

What I have seen is the totality recapitulated as One,
Received not in essence but by participation.
It is just as if you lit a flame from a live flame:
It is the entire flame you receive. 

It’s really that simple. If we have not experienced that connection, knowing that we are indeed a fragment of the Great Flame, we will most certainly need to accumulate more and more outer things as substitutes for self-worth. This, of course, is the great spiritual illusion. We needn’t acquire what we already have. Our value comes from our inherent participation in God.

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From: Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for October 19 which is adapted from Richard Rohr, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 168-169, 172-173.

An Ordinary and Honest Disposition

Though we’d like to think we are simply ordinary folks and “middle class” by economic standards, the truth is we’re privileged! Simply by virtue of the fact that you are viewing this post defines you as more technologically savvy than most, have the discretionary income to afford an iPad and WiFi connection, and the leisure if not intellectual curiosity to reflect on musings such as these.

Being privileged in these ways comes with a whole set of hazards and pitfalls. Most of us are too sophisticated to fall into blatant arrogance, snobbery or condescension. No, most of us have polished our self-regard into respectable forms of social acceptability. Or, we skillfully retreat to our very own safe-place of silent superiority. An excellent barometer for whether this “fits” may be to ask how satisfied or protective we are of the status quo or self-assured we are of “how things ought to be.”

I’m certainly not immune to that of which I write! My political views are not only well-informed, they are most assuredly correct. I am certain of moral truth and clearly understand what the Gospels teach. I’m even confident in my opinions about what careers others should pursue, the persons they should marry (or not), and how they are to raise children. It’s all quite obvious to us average, ordinary folks!

No, it’s not! Truth does not come easily. Rarely is it ever obvious. Life is hard. Wisdom isn’t cheap. Rather, life has a way of tripping us up, turning us inside out and upside down. As the Buddha discovered, “Life is suffering!” So much for our protective obsession with the status quo, our blissful preoccupation with stocking our pantries and filling our days with gadgets or endless forms of entertainment!

Here’s where the actually poor, those on the “underside” or the “outside” have an advantage over us average, middle class folks. They know their powerlessness. They don’t have the privilege of holding their suffering at bay. They don’t need a 12-Step program or years of expensive therapy to wrestle with the truth of their lives.

No, the poor are not saints any more than the rest of us “privileged” types. They are subject to the same pitfalls, addictions and sins as the rest of us. They simply know better than most that “the way things are” ain’t okay.  This seems to give them an inside track on the truth — we are powerless. Theologically speaking, we are not God — so get over it!

Recently, a man shared with me a heart-wrenching story about the bottom falling out of his life as a result of his abuse of alcohol. We could easily substitute any story about our worlds collapsing or our dependence on “the way things ought to be” crumbling — a debilitating medical diagnosis, floods in Louisiana, the death of a loved one. This man is one of the lucky ones — he readily acknowledges his addiction, his idolatry.

The first step is to admit our powerlessness. It’s the hardest step by far. None of us want to take it. There are an infinite array of ways we distract and divert ourselves into denying this truth. But then, and only then, do we learn how to pray. Then, and only then, do we really learn how to live.

My friend shared his simple prayer with me. I have heard none better: I can’t! You can! Please help! He then substitutes Thanks! for what’s become an all too average and anemic “Amen”.

We would all do well to pray and live more like this extraordinary and exceptionally honest man!

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)

Antidote for What Ails America

“Vulgar! He’s simply vulgar.” comments my neighbor from the driver’s seat of her car as we enjoyed a spontaneous conversation in the alley. Shocked, appalled, outraged are equally good words to describe our reaction to the rise of Donald Trump. Now I’m getting scared, simply scared!

Polls suggest the actual election of Trump to be our President is still remote. But as improbable as that may be I’m still feeling overwhelmed, grieved and frightened. Why? Because that which Donald Trump personifies will not be resolved on Election Day. Neither will resolution be achieved by the election of Hillary Clinton.

It will likely come as a profound disappointment to the man, but what we are witnessing ultimately isn’t about Donald Trump. No, this isn’t about slapping the “Trump” brand across 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue! Rather, it’s about the deep pain, festering resentment even, that resides in homes across America. And this national despair cuts across gender, race and socio-economic groups.

So what are we to do? Build higher walls to further insulate ourselves? Move to Cape Brenton Island, Canada? Buy a gun? Fear, resentment and desperation may be the source of such considerations. But they merely exacerbate the problem we must address.

So, what are we to do? Well, first of all we must never give up. Somehow, we simply must restore trust in one another to reweave the social fabric of our nation. There is no easy fix. This will not happen on Election Day 2016. No, our work is much more arduous and will take more than our lifetime. But begin we must.

But, what? What can we do that will make any difference? Yes, vote! But that’s hardly enough to counter the vulgarity that has overtaken America. Yes, it would be easy — but an abrogation of personal responsibility — to assume this is about an election and the “majority” expressing its collective will on November 8. That’s simply delusional.

Conservative pundit David Brooks has his finger on the pulse of America and points us in the right direction:

…first it’s necessary to go out into the pain. I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable.

As is often the case with matters that really count, our answer resides within a huge paradox. Rather than building walls, leaving the country or buying a gun our way forward opens by doing the exact opposite. The antidote for what ails America lies in tearing down walls, reinvesting in our communities, disarming ourselves.

Sounds a whole lot like once again becoming brother, sister, neighbor to one another; caring for the orphan, widow and outcast; welcoming the stranger; loving our neighbor as ourselves.
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You may read David Brooks’ insightful and provocative much more extensive analysis at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/opinion/if-not-trump-what.html?_r=0 

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.

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).