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.

Really Hearing What’s Being Said

My friend Susan Stabile shared this story.  I’m eager to share it with you:

Pope Francis departed from his prepared text to share an anecdote during his general audience on Wednesday.  He told this story of an elderly woman who helped an immigrant…

As the lady came across this young man, who was without shoes, they began to speak and she asked him, “What are you searching for?”

“Saint Peter’s to go through the Holy Door,” he responded to her question.

Moved with sympathy, she thought to herself: “But how can he walk? .. He doesn’t even have shoes. She insisted on offering a taxi to bring him. When the taxi driver stopped however, he was hesitant to accept the passenger, as he smelled very badly.

However, the driver agreed, as the immigrant and the lady got in and chatted on the way to the Vatican. They spoke about his history, what he has lived through, the trials, the war, etc.

By the end of the ride, the lady went to pay, and the driver, who hesitated to accept them, said: “No, Signora. It is I who must pay for you, because you made me listen to a story that changed my heart.”

Susan poses the perfect question: How open is my heart to being changed by the stories I hear?

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You may read this story and follow Susan on her blog, Creo en Dios [here].  

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).

We Should Know Better

I’m really sad and disheartened this morning. A dear niece who is bright, funny and someone I deeply care about posted something mean-spirited on her Facebook page. There is simply too much fear-mongering and superficial solutions being thrown around these days. She should know better. So should we all!

My niece’s posting noted that the Tsarnaev brothers found guilty for the horrific Boston Marathon bombing were refugees. With the latest terrorist attack roiling Paris, you can figure out the intended political message of the “prepared” image she chose to re-post on her FB page.

(BTW, why do we have such an outpouring of moral outrage when 129 people are killed in France and so quickly “forget” nearly twice as many Russian citizens who were killed in the flight from Egypt? Could it be that the French are more like “us” and our generation has learned to demonize the Russians as our enemy? The recent massacre in Beirut hardly registered in our consciousness. Just wondering what this is all about!)

What I take as my niece’s “painting with broad strokes”, guilt-by-association or “extrapolation from the specific to the whole” is dangerous and unfair. In my opinion it’s also stupid and xenophobic!

My angry side wanted to post the following: “Does the fact that the son of your Dad’s cousin was sentenced to death for first degree murder mean that our whole family are felons and should be denied our civil liberties?” Is our whole family guilty by association and to live in shame?

In addition to a lifelong love for my role as uncle, I cherish the role of family historian and keeper of stories. It’s easy to forget our own truth or glamorize the stories. I want to remind my niece — and the extended family as well — of our heritage.  It is identical to many.

Centuries of exploitation by the British led our Irish ancestors to flee poverty and famine between 1842 and 1855. The failed social revolution of 1848, and repressive measures attempting to prop up remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, lead our German forebears to flee their homeland in 1850 and 1856.

At last count we now have 31 Governors feeding into what I call ignorance, xenophobia and fear-mongering. As our Governor Mark Dayton has said, Minnesotans are better than that. President Obama has also tried to call Americans to our better instincts all the while fully supporting French efforts to apprehend the terrorists and retaliate forcefully on ISIS in Syria.

Most of us call ourselves Christians. This Advent we would do well to pay special attention to the story of our salvation, our liberation from slavery to freedom. Let’s place the Flight into Egypt front and center this year. Let’s remember Jesus’ own “post” on the social media of his day. In the poor, the naked, the infirm, the homeless, those seeking refuge we see the face of Christ.  Or, we don’t!

If nothing else, we would do well to see our own!

Family Matters

Family Matters

Among countless pleasures of our 16-day European honeymoon we remember gracious hospitality, spectacular sites, pristine Autumn weather and reunions with cherished friends. And these do not include our delight upon hearing that a friend had upgraded us to First Class for our 8-hour return flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. Ours was truly the honeymoon of our dreams… a dream we will long remember.

One extraordinary gift was the opportunity to visit the small rural hamlets from which my German ancestry emigrated. My paternal great-great grandparents came from Ellsdorf-Esch, near Cologne, in 1850. My mother’s German ancestry (she’s half Irish) left Weiberg/Hegensdorf near Kassel in 1856 for America.

Wanting to symbolically mark the occasion, we gathered dirt from fields near both sites. On our next visit to the cemeteries in NE Nebraska where these forebears are buried we will sprinkle earth from their homeland upon their graves. We will do this in their honor, in gratitude and in testimony to the enduring family bond they established.

We will not perform this simple ritual with naive sentimentality. The strength of family bonds we so easily take for granted required that they cut the bonds that linked them to family, culture and homeland. Their sacrifice was immense and should never be romanticized nor underestimated.

They left everything they possessed and all they knew out of necessity — families from the Rhineland were reeling from intractable poverty, lack of opportunity and political repression following the failed social revolution of 1848.

Virtually all German emigrants to America were desperate refugees fleeing intolerable conditions for a better life. Surely they could never have fathomed the good fortune of their children, not to mention the extravagances and indulgences of our honeymoon.

All this came rushing forth as I read a news report on my iPad from the comfort of our Minneapolis home. John Allen, a reporter for the Boston Globe, wrote about taking an old friend out to lunch in one of his favorite restaurants in Rome. The friend is Bishop Borys Gudziak, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Paris and president of the prestigious Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

Toward the end of lunch, Gudziak looked at Allen and said something like: “This has been a great meal, and I thank you for it. Let’s not forget, however, that millions of people in this world live in extreme poverty, and could never dream of affording something like this.” Allen’s unspoken reaction was, “You’re a great guy, Borys, but you can be a real downer sometimes.”

Bishop Gudziak wasn’t finished. “Almost half of the world lives with less than what a cappuccino costs in this neighborhood, less than two euros a day, and 80 percent of the world lives on less than $10 a day,” he said, with rising intensity in his voice. “There’s 150 million homeless people, 100 million orphans, 60 million refugees.”

Yes, I too easily accept — even with sincere gratitude — the unfathomable opportunities and unmerited comforts of my life. I can easily sentimentalize our family heritage, minimizing the sacrifice, romanticizing the true story. I can claim it as a unique family saga when it is in fact a universal human search for freedom, dignity and a better life for our children.

The dirt we scooped from the fields of Ellsdorf-Esch and Weiberg/Hegensborf sits in a plastic container not far from my recliner, current book selections and flat screen television. Until we have the opportunity to sprinkle it upon the graves of our forebears in sacred testimony to their courage and sacrifice, I will remember that my story is not something out of the 19th century but is more accurately “our” story today.

I will remember with this photo of a migrant praying in a field near the border between Serbia and Croatia about 100 km (62 miles) west of Belgrade, Serbia on Oct. 18, 2015.   It is a family photo for truly this man is more than a neighbor, he is our brother:

image

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The inspirational article by John Allen about his lunch with Bishop Borys Gudziak is from the October 18 online edition of Crux [link].  The photo is from the Associated Press: (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic).