What’s Really on My Mind; What’s Really Going On

You’re correct… I haven’t been blogging much recently. Part of the reason is that I have felt constricted by a presumed obligation to write “for others” and not for myself. Would my honest curiosities and musings be too raw, too honest? Would anyone else really care? I’ve heard the blank response from my family (perhaps the only ones caring enough or willing to tell me), “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!”

Well, today is different! Here’s what’s on my mind, the stuff I really want to talk about, what I’m really wrestling with inside. It’s from an email I just sent to a dear soul-mate friend with whom I had a long overdue phone conversation last evening. I offer it here with the simple desire to transparently “let others in” and with a faint hope that something, anything, will be of interest — maybe even helpful — to someone else. Here’s what’s been on my mind and what I really want to write…

Thanks for the great conversation. Really good to reconnect. It’s triggered a few more thoughts prompted by recalling that I had not spoken of a key awareness central to the “shift in consciousness” I’m aware of HAPPENING TO ME. And that last part is critical… happening to me.

I used to interpret the likes of Stephen Fowler and such behavioral psychologists as if we/I somehow had the ability or responsibility to “recraft” or even “recreate” our sense of meaning (e.g., our understanding of God, our “faith” as if it were some sort of volitional act). No!!! Now I’m recognizing that this “reformulation” is something that happens TO US, is done FOR US, is given (grace).

This is why talking with you is so important. I don’t create or craft the “shift in consciousness”. I don’t do the work. It’s done to us, for us!!! Nevertheless, speaking about it clarifies the experience (sheer gift) and enables me to recognize it, to RECEIVE IT! Thanks, buddy!

Another recognition from the past couple months of my wrestling with what felt like depression (dark night?)… the institutional church (in my case, the Society of Jesus but compounded by the global clergy sex abuse crisis that triggers my PTSD) betrayed me. Charlottesville and the pardoning of the AZ sheriff, etc. further sends me over the edge because it to also triggers my sense of betrayal.

I’ve both a BA and MA in Political Science, I worked for the Nebraska Legislature for 4 years, been a delegate to state Democratic conventions, staffed a district Congressional office (all before entering the SJ). I taught American Government as a regent, did a summer internship in DC with Network, spent three years doing human rights advocacy at the Jesuit Conference again in DC. I could be fairly described as having been a “Faith & Justice” Jesuit (I would be honored by such an epilation).

Trump and our thoroughly dysfunctional Congress feels to me like wholesale betrayal (not to mention the racist and fascist undertow and allusions) by the institutions of government — our “public life”, really — paralleling the earlier betrayal by the church. In other words our public institutions have proven themselves to be wholly undeserving/unworthy of the faith I/we presumed I/we could place in them.

This is the context in which I experienced the killing on July 15 of our neighbor, Justine Damond, by a Minneapolis police officer. She had called 911 for help — actually she was reporting what she feared was a sexual assault in the back alley. She was doing what she trusted was the correct and right thing to do. Those who were invested with the public trust to “protect” us shot her! (Welcome to the world of Black America!!!!).

Again, those in whom we thought we could place our trust proved, not only to be unworthy of trust, but abusive. In sum, the core institutions of our culture — the very foundations for my sense of meaning and trust — have proven to be bankrupt and even a source of betrayal.

That’s the context for my outrage about “God never gives us more than we can handle” bullshit and my passionate insistence, “Oh yes He does, AND THAT’S PRECISELY THE POINT!!!” I/we don’t reformulate or recreate “our” concept of God or recompose our understanding of faith. It’s done FOR US, TO US. My best way to give expression to the experience is that “We are BIRTHED into it!”

BTW, I hope you noticed that I used male specific language to describe God just above. That was choiceful and deliberate! Even our politically correct language and tip-toeing around our God-talk for fear of “offending” someone else’s sensibilities — or that gender-specific language somehow “limits” or “constrains” God — is fairly bankrupt in itself (if not a pile of bullshit — but we dare not say that out loud, do we😨😱😃👍👏👌)?

Maybe the reason I don’t blog very much any more is because this is really the stuff I want to write about. And I’m aware that most people wouldn’t know what the hell I’m talking about (I hope that’s not as elitist as it sounds). And for those who do, they’d take it as a cognitive exercise, an “academic” speculation, a Lonerganian “insight” we think we can “comprehend” in our 30s. And the truth is it’s just the opposite.

It’s not something we comprehend or “command” as as if we were strategically moving pieces in a cosmic game of chess! Every shift in consciousness is done to us, for us, is wholly given! We are continuously re-birthed when the womb in which we have found so much security and nourishment is found to be inadequate (i.e., “not-God”), actually idolatrous. When God gives us (i.e., invites, teases, nudges us to experience) more than we can handle!!!

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity sayeth the Lord!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

TS Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi”: “I should be glad of another death.”

😎😃😉🤡🤓 Smile… this is all very Good News!

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.

Beyond Our Imagining

“The truly wise understand what they don’t know!” Somewhere along the line someone said that at a time when I was developmentally ready to hear it. Somehow it seems to encapsulate what education is all about. It’s probably a pretty decent summation of what makes for a full and contented life.

It’s when I’ve been pushed outside the comfort of the nest — as an eagle does for her young — that I have learned to fly.  Remember swimming lessons? … how hard it was to just jump in?  My “personal best” encounter with terror was sky-diving from 15,000 feet.

All such experiences shape us to be the people we eventually become.  Surely one of the most profound influences upon my character development and core values was my involvement with an inner-city youth group during my early teens.  Otherwise my youth looked pretty much like episodes from Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver or The Donna Reed Show.

My present life in a “desirable” south Minneapolis neighborhood is still pretty much a promo for white, middle class 1950s values. I need to intentionally shake things up from time to keep a grip on reality.

I’m reminded of this necessity every time we take the bus/light-rail to and from the airport rather than a taxi or the airport shuttle. Such forays outside of our comfort zone repeatedly show us a city, even a neighborhood, significantly different from the one that lives in our imagination.

All this came flashing back while reading David Brooks. Here’s what triggered my curiosity about what really made a difference in my education, what’s truly made a difference in my life:

Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

So how do we get to be wise? By getting outside of our social enclaves of folks just like us. By riding the bus and seeing people who do not aspire to be our clones and whose pursuit of the American Dream is other than our personal narrative. By deliberately entering that “no man’s land” where we feel some cultural turbulence and our preconceived ideas can get shaken-up.  It’s when we have our eyes, ears and hearts wide open that we know we are fully alive.

This is hard, even risky. We don’t want to go anywhere or do anything that will challenge our “security”, threaten our “truth”. But a clutched fist cannot receive what others have to give. We squander life’s invitation to understand what we truly don’t know!

We end up worshipping a God of our own creation rather than a God whose creation is beyond our imagining.

__________

The quote is from The Road to Character by David Brooks.  New York: Random House. 2015. Kindle edition at #295.

Surviving This Hell

The world is going to hell! There is more than enough evidence in the horrific stories popularized by the global 24/7 news cycle. Millennials are spurning commitment in record numbers such that the only ones wanting to get married these days are gays and priests!  Social, cultural and religious norms are crumbling.  What’s it all coming to?

Fast approaching my 65th birthday I’ve caught myself saying more than once, “Old people have been saying the world is going to hell for centuries, but this time it really is!” It generally elicits an intended chuckle. But just beneath my attempt at self-deprecating humor, a serious question festers. Are things getting worse? Have we chosen a fast-track to self-inflicted destruction?

It’s not just that murder and unthinkable forms of violence have become de’rigueur in our cities. Hideous acts of fanatical terrorism compete for public shock and outrage. Heightened electronic security and safety awareness training could not prevent the rape of a U of M freshman in her third-floor residence hall this past weekend. These are not just issues of personal safety; they beg questions about our collective, social sanity.

And it is not just what we do to each other that is killing us. Nine out of ten lakes, rivers and streams in SW Minnesota have been found to be unsafe for swimming no less consumption. What about the cattle that graze these fields and effects on the food we consume? What carcinogens is Jeb the Dog ingesting when we allow him to drink from Minnehaha Creek on his twice-a-day walk in the park?

I don’t have an answer, only questions! We cannot escape the urgency of the issues. If we don’t know the answer then we better ask, “Are we asking the right questions?” Maybe asking, “Is the world going to hell?” is the wrong question. Maybe it’s not even a good question. Perhaps its simply a kind of pretend-question that reframes the obvious, the sort of question that merely dabbles in curiosity only to assuage our feelings of powerlessness.

Are we willing to ask the right questions? Do we really want to face the truth? When it comes to senseless violence and acts of hellish inhumanity, its profoundly important to know who is asking the question. A 65 y/o white guy in Minneapolis? A 20 y/o black male in Baltimore? A Syrian mother fleeing to save her Christian children? A devout Muslim in Texas seeing the tenets of his faith mocked in cartoon fashion? If we disagree about the question we are bound to come up with different answers.

At 65 a few things are abundantly clear. I sure as hell do not have the answers like I once thought I did! Hell, I’m not even sure what questions to ask anymore. There is just one thing of which I am absolutely certain… our world will only solve the life and death issues confronting us if we begin to formulate questions and answers together!

This demands that we do a significantly better job of listening to one another, as well as to the whole of creation once teeming with life but now gasping to stay alive!

Authentic dialogue and sincere engagement with those other than ourselves offers our best hope for coming up with the questions and answers vital to the survival of life as we know it.

Giving Pause

Boston has long been my favorite American city — yes, it surpasses San Francisco. Graduate study at the Boston Theological Union remain four of the happiest years of my life. My affection is bolstered by the fact that my maternal grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Casey, was born there. Currently, a nephew and his wife are raising their two daughters in the metro area.

A nephew from South Dakota will be fulfilling a bucket-list dream of running the Boston Marathon in a couple of weeks. Back in grad school it was still possible for weekend runners like me to jump into the race without an official registration. I did just that at the beginning of Heartbreak Hill to pace a housemate in his quest for a personal best time. So, I’ve had the thrill of crossing the finish line in Copley Square even though I’d run only six of the 26.2 miles!

As a nation we were all traumatized by the tragic bombing at the finish line two years ago. Personal association with the city as well as my years as a runner made me feel the pain in an acute way. Remember how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended after being found hiding under the tarp of a boat in someone’s driveway? Well, that all occurred at the family home of my niece-in-law’s best friend from college.

Now 21 years of age, Tsarnaev has been found guilty on thirty counts associated with the bombing, seventeen of which carry the possibility of capital punishment. The young man’s defense never contested his participation in the bombing that ultimately killed four and seriously injured hundreds more. Having been convicted of his crimes, the jury now turns this next week to consideration of his sentencing.

Last week the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts came out strongly in opposition to imposition of the death penalty in this case. Citing the official Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2267), they remind us that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are “rare, if practically nonexistent.” [link]

Church teaching allows using force to stop an aggressor, and accepts that such force might sometimes be lethal. Nevertheless, this argument cannot be invoked to defend the death penalty. The reason is simple: with the death penalty, people are being killed not for current acts of aggression, but for something that happened in the past —  they are already held within circumstances that prevent them from doing more harm!

Longtime readers of this blog know of my strong opposition to the death penalty as well as our family’s personal association — my cousin’s son was sentenced to death for murder.  Here is a [link] to my earlier post.

All that aside, evidence is incontrovertible that capital punishment simply does not serve as a deterrent. It is clearly applied in an arbitrary manner with people of color and poor people bearing that disproportionate cost. Lists of innocent people whom we have executed — before exonerating evidence or judicial malfeasance has come to light — are staggering.

Yes, a big part of my heart remains in Boston and I proudly tout my family associations. I have reveled in the Boston Marathon for decades and remain outraged by the death and injury caused by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s self-acknowledged actions. All this having been said, I am left with two nagging questions:

How can there be any social value in the death of another young man? How would his state-sanctioned execution be anything more than retaliation and revenge? To my mind, it is a sick sort of reasoning that concludes yet another death constitutes restitution or can in any way be restorative.  Such is a pretty base perversion of “justice.”

Finally, a group of 400 Evangelical Christian and Catholic leaders issued a joint moral condemnation of the death penalty during Holy Week [link]. My final question: Does it make any difference that the one whose Resurrection we have so recently celebrated, as the source and promise of our salvation, was the subject of a state-sanctioned execution?

Should this not give us pause?

Returning to Our Roots

We are hoping to go to Germany sometime this Fall. I’ve been there once — more than thirty years ago I was able to visit Bergheim-Esch, near Cologne, from where my Burbach family emigrated in 1850. This time we hope to see  the very small village of Weiburg northwest of Kassel in central Germany from which my mother’s German ancestry came in 1860.

Other attractions fill our wish list… I’ve never been to Berlin or what was East Germany. Everyone says the city is magnificent. As a child of the Cold War I am also motivated to see for myself that place which, like no other, symbolized the Iron Curtain. On a lighter note, we dream of doing the Sound of Music tour in Salsburg.

On Monday we saw the movie, Woman in Gold. Like the Sound of Music it recalls the terrifying days of the Nazi juggernaut. Woman in Gold also chronicles a dramatic escape to America. You will cheer the ultimate, improbable outcome and feel ennobled by the tenacity of those few who demand justice even after many decades.

Woman in Gold ironically awakened in me a deep personal desire to visit a concentration camp — most likely Dachau not far from Strasburg. Born in 1950 of German heritage, I have often wrestled with the unanswerable question: How could the insidious perversion of Nazism take hold in a culture so grand, a people so great? What is it in humankind, within my own DNA, that could give rise to such collective evil?

Seventy years ago today, April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany for participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. There is no doubt of the Lutheran theologian and pastor’s “guilt” — he had been a member of the conspiracy since 1940. Where did he find the courage? What inspired him when so many of his fellow Christians acquiesced?

Biographers point to a visit to the United States in 1930-31 as a turning point. Among the friends he made was an African-American student from Alabama.  His new friend introduced Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was moved by the depth of conviction he witnessed in the preaching and worship.

Bonhoeffer also traveled to the South, where he was appalled at the racial injustices he observed. He wrote home that the segregated “conditions are really unbelievable …when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant … with a Negro, I was refused service.”

With the rise of National Socialism in 1933, Bonhoeffer had already devoted much thinking — and, ultimately, action — to the question of how the church must respond to racism and anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer declared “the church has an unconditional obligation towards the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community” and that the church was charged “not to just bind up the victims beneath the wheel, but to halt the wheel itself.”

How is it that such a devout Christian, who so often spoke and wrote about the importance of the Sermon on the Mount, could partake in an assassination conspiracy? He saw clearly that what we profess to “believe” must be joined by responsible action in the real world in which we each live.

How could evil of Nazism happen? How could such perversion take hold among a “Christian” nation so grand and great? Could it happen again? What is in our DNA that makes human beings capable and culpable of such atrocities? I must return again to my German roots.

Like Bonhoeffer and the Jewish heroine of Woman in Gold, a very small remnant draw from some deeper source to challenge injustice against ridiculous odds and at great personal cost. What is that source, that strength, that conviction which upholds the greatness of human potential of which we are capable? I must return again to the Scriptures.

Seventy years may seem like a long time ago. Let us not forget or ignore the Gospel narrative being lived out by thousands of Christians being martyred in our own day.

Can it happen again?

_________

I am indebted to Kirk O. Kolbo for his marvelous commentary in today’s Star-Tribune from which I quote and heartily recommend to you [here].

Taking Another’s Place

Who will take her place? Brilliant, elegant, articulate, iconic! Who could possibly take her place? Maya Angelou not only personified America at our best, she had a unique gift and fierce zeal for revealing humanity at our best.

“I am gay,” Maya Angelou told a gathering of an estimated 4,000 predominantly LGBT people celebrating gay and lesbian choruses in 1996. She then paused and continued: “I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”

I don’t know her religious heritage or affiliations. My belief is she transcended narrow definitions and denominational pettiness. She did manifest a mature and passionate concern for the dire state of religious practice in a poem certainly worthy of the Hebrew prophets: 

Savior

Petulant priests, greedy
centurions, and one million
incensed gestures stand
between your love and me. 

Your agape sacrifice
is reduced to colored glass,
vapid penance, and the
tedium of ritual.

Your footprints yet
mark the crest of
billowing seas but
your joy
fades upon the tablets
of ordained prophets.

Visit us again, Savior. 

Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
of wisdom,
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
your name.

But Maya Angelou’s brilliance is not found in petulance. Her iconic status is not founded upon her inimitable eloquence. Quite the contrary!

Maya Angelou’s insight and brilliance was nothing more than her willingness to embrace the shared humanity of all people—regardless of race, gender, or religion—and she prodded everyone to embrace our common humanity as well.

We salute the Apostle Paul for his ability to proclaim: Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9)

Paul exhorts: In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Phil 2)

Who will take Maya Angelou’s place of distinction is totally beside the point! My hunch is she would reject that speculation as trivial and trite. Rather, I am certain she would exhort each and all of us to proclaim with passion and eloquence: “I am gay. I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”

_________________

I am indebted to Out magazine for the 1996 quote and my initial inspiration [link]. 

Savior © Maya Angelou is from The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. Random House. 1994., p 250.