Surviving Success

Of course, success is to be desired. By virtue of writing or reading a blog such as this we belie, ipso facto, a certain good fortune. This should be a cause for gratitude! Never do we want to take our success for granted.

What follows, at best, should be read as an invitation to reflect a bit more deeply about that good fortune. Without guilt or shame-throwing, how might we look more honestly and holistically at the condition of our lives? No conclusions or prescriptions are offered, no moral judgments, no smug conclusions.

Rather, this invitation follows an intriguing proposition that has continued to rattle my thoughts while reading James Baldwin, A Biography by David Leeming — success carries consequences, some undesirable, some endangering, some we would do well to survive. Of course, Baldwin is not unique in needing to navigate these currents. All truly successful people would likely recount pitfalls strewn along their road to achievement. But here the really provocative issue is how we are to survive success after it is achieved!

What’s so incriminating about the proposition that success needs to be survived is that I am infinitely better at assessing — I resist using the more accurate term, judging — those society clearly deems to be unsuccessful. Who, me? I too easily, and unreflectively, take my personal success and consequent prerogatives for granted. After all, “success” is self-validating is it not?

What has this disquieting awareness and challenge awakened? Well, first, I and most of us are unwitting prisoners of our own story. I look in the mirror and uncritically presume the world looks like me, shares my cultural values and understanding of what constitutes a good life, no less what it means to be human. Preoccupied with my own reflection I fail to appreciate that truth, goodness and success in living encompass far more than “me” exponentially multiplied.

A further self-indictment challenges me to admit that I float along in a dangerous naïveté. Categories, labels, stereotypes easily become my default for making sense of the world. Thus, I am blind to others and to much of creation — never bothering to consider who or what remains invisible in my purview. What kind of imprisonment accompanies a failure to ask what or who is missing from the universe of my creation and awareness?

The full range of consequences accompanying our success will yield realizations and responses as numerous as those who hazard to call the question. Perhaps the only constant is that our successes have tremendous consequences, some we would do no better than to survive.

And truly, the most fortunate to whom success is granted recognize that it never really belongs to us alone.

I Was Wrong!

I’ve sat at this keyboard for 30 minutes trying to compose a compelling opening sentence to get you to read what I have to say. I don’t know how to begin! What I have to say is a simple and heartfelt corrective to misconceptions and an injustice I have perpetuated (however unintentionally). Please hear me out!

Virtually everyone in our family knows that our cousin (my first cousin’s son, Pete) has been incarcerated in Nebraska for the past 41 years, 23 of which were on death-row. I reached out to Pete a couple of months ago and we began a mutually satisfying email correspondence. All this came to an abrupt halt after I shared with Pete two blog posts I had written a few years ago in opposition to the death penalty. I had referenced him with the presumption of his guilt.

Pete politely but curtly asked that I give him the courtesy of not contacting him again. I had no clue of the pain my naively well-intentioned posts had caused him. We have had no correspondence since.

I had never taken a close look at the evidence in Pete’s case or the specifics surrounding his conviction. His trial was conducted just as I was preparing to enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1978. That was the last time I have lived in Nebraska. But I do not mean these as an excuse. The truth is I remained blissfully ignorant of the facts, “bought” the findings of the jury trial and placed unfettered confidence in the veracity our judicial system. I was wrong to make these presumptions.

Over the last couple weeks I have taken a much closer look. I’ve concluded that Pete’s conviction was the result of a legal system desperate to wrap-up an unsolved two-year old murder case, an unscrupulous assistant county attorney, nefarious interference by the victim’s family, and the contrived testimony of a key witness manipulated by fear and a desire to save his own ass. I now believe Pete is not guilty and wish to correct the falsehoods I have presumed and spread over the years.

I come to this conclusion for various reasons. Here are a few that I found compelling:

Pete had inadequate legal representation from the start. Though he benefitted from the skillful defense of Dave Lathrop (counsel to the other man charged with the murder) after the cases were combined for purposes of trial. Pete’s court appointed attorney was inept and would later be arrested and convicted of drug offenses and child molestation.

The so-called “testimony” of the prosecution’s key witness had been thrown out as tainted, “poisoned” or otherwise unreliable by the judge in evidentiary hearings prior to the trial. It was reinstated by the Nebraska Supreme Court in what appears to me as an internally contradictory argument.

Subsequent appeals by court appointed attorneys were urgently and understandably focused on protecting Pete from imposition of his death sentence rather than digging into the case for further exonerating evidence.

Advocates for those unjustly imprisoned have for decades shown special interest in Pete’s case. My review of the facts was greatly assisted and inspired by New York writer and advocate, Doug Magee. He has poured over Pete’s case for more than thirty-years and comprehends the facts, and untruths, like no other. I owe him a special debt of gratitude for kindly but clearly correcting my ignorance.

In early 2014 the Innocence Project of Nebraska, the state affiliate of the highly successful national Innocence Project, agreed to take Pete’s case.  Even though there is no DNA evidence (a mandate for their advocacy), evidence of Pete’s innocence was simply too compelling for the Project to ignore.

So what do I believe? I believe Pete was framed! The victim had his enemies. He was known for shady deals and had even done time in federal prison for a kickback deal. There was talk in the media of a hit-man from Phoenix in town around the time of the murder. I’ve concluded that this — combined with an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney, the manufactured and coerced lies of the key “witness”, and the illegal and corrupt dealings of a private detective hired by the victim’s family (their third) — is a much more reasonable explanation to the murder than the travesty of justice seen in the Pete’s trial. I believe Pete was scapegoated by an unscrupulous legal system that wanted a conviction — any conviction — to close a high profile murder case from its books.

So what now? Well, first of all, we need to know the truth. Scripture says, “The truth shall set you free.” Well, what do you think?  Does it?  Our 64 year-old cousin has been incarcerated for more than 40 years for something I no longer believe he did. Will the truth set Pete free? If not, how truly “free” are the rest of us?

Please remember this story as you would all significant family stories! I ask all of our Nebraska relatives and friends to be especially vigilant. Learn the truth. Speak the truth. Correct falsehood. Decry every injustice that would be perpetuated in our name.

And, of course, share this message with any others you think would be interested in it or have a need to know.

Bring It On… All of It!

Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed? And if we don’t, who among us does not succumb to the seasonal pressure to pretend that we are. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday — and all the rest — whisk us toward the inevitability of “the Holidays.” Baubles galore are dangled in front of us as if material consumption can somehow quench our deep human longing. It’s exhausting!

Need it be? We too easily buy a bill of goods feeding a belief that the good life is one of luxury and ease, a life free of pain or insecurity. The older we get the more we appreciate the foolishness of our ways and the incapacity of that standard to deliver. In fact, those fortunate enough to reach the Biblical benchmark of three-score-and-ten are quite familiar with diminishment, loss and slowing down. What might that be about?

Despite our frenzied pace, even with our convenience items, not withstanding our creature comforts, we know in our gut there is something more. Our hearts crave something deeper. We seek a joy greater than mere happiness; we desire an abiding serenity that rests securely beneath all the turbulence; ultimately, all we want is to savor a bit of that Love which resides within the eye of the hurricane.

For millennia, that’s what this time of year has been about. The winter solstice invites us to celebrate the potency of womb-like darkness. Christians know this season as Advent — a period of intentional longing and expectancy for the pregnancy of time to finally deliver light, life, a savior. As with the birth of every child, we cannot short-circuit the development only patience brings forth. We can only enter the process, embrace the promise. We must receive the powerlessness and vulnerability of a newborn into our lives.

Our cultural traditions and social customs — richly diverse as they may be — have the potential to distract us from this one necessity. We can flutter above in a frenzied haze and never find that which alone is the “perfect gift” we seek. So knowing it as a wish for myself as much as for anyone else, I offer the following as a prayer. May we all experience more of what this season has in store for us:

I do not know what these shadows ask of you,

what they might hold that means you good or ill.

It is not for me to reckon whether you should linger or you should leave.


But this is what I can ask for you:


That in the darkness there be a blessing.

That in the shadows there be a welcome.

That in the night you be encompassed

by the Love that knows your name.


-Jan Richardson from Advent 1: A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark


Thanks to the website of Wisdom Ways, a ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, MN for brining this poem by Jan Richardson to my attention.

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!

Of the One and the Many

Thanks to or our friend Sheila Wilson for this timely excerpt from The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

” It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘ I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with any one for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as any one is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. but it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’ “

Simply Amazing, Isn’t It!?!

Susan Stabile is both a good friend and the Director of the Office for Spirituality at the University of St Thomas. She suggested a superb exercise at a program kicking off the beginning of the school year. Perhaps you will be as inspired and moved as was I. Surely, it is something I hope to come back to again and again.

Susan quoted the esteemed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.

Susan then proposed three insightful and incisive questions:

What are you finding most incredible and phenomenal in your life at this time?

What, if anything, do you take for granted?

What single change could you make in your life to live with a greater sense of amazement?

Yes, growth in spirituality and our relationship with God can be a simple as that… Amazing, isn’t it? Simply amazing!

Show Up, Pay Attention and Listen!

Whether en route to lunch with a friend or heading off to the grocery, three random threads keep weaving their way through my thoughts. Amazing what intrigues us or where we find wisdom for living.

Last evening during a three-part offering about meditation sponsored by our church the facilitator quoted a Tibetan monk: “Easeful attraction is more effective than frantic pursuit.” Jeb the Dog has taught me much the same when I try to convince him to return to our yard rather than pursue that bunny up the alley. I guess it just takes a monk to convince us that simply paying attention reveals much of what we need to know.

The second snippet comes from a dear friend who has been grieving a terrible loss for the past few years: “How do we get past what we will never get over?” So much of life is this way. Grief is a tenacious and persistent experience,  a process that never really ends. Here’s what I’ve learned… we never do get over it, nor should we! The best we can do is to get past it by finding the ability to somehow cherish that “recurring void” as a sacred testimony to that, or to the one, we have lost.

Somewhere over the past two weeks someone said something or I read something that provided a flash of recognition and appreciation: “Love suffers, but suffering is not love.” Wowser… I could almost feel the synapses connecting! Brought back grateful memories of Mom and Dad as well as so many great loving and long-suffering parents I’ve observed. Isn’t that the truth. Our world could use more of that bit of wisdom!

Life is so crammed full of goodness and truth. It really does come down to: “Show up, pay attention and listen!”

A Necessary and Honest Confession

I can be pretty harsh and judgmental, especially about things related to liturgy. I hate congregations that haven’t learned a new hymn in thirty years (unless it’s truly a rock-the-rafters or tug-the-heartstrings classic). Some of my harshest criticisms focus on mediocre preaching — and in my opinion there is plenty of it our there!  And that’s not all.

Another pet peeve that irritates me are lectors who do a crappy job of proclaiming the Scriptures. Too often they seem unprepared and clueless about what they are reading. Too often that’s what it is — just reading, and it may as well be the weather report or assembly instructions for your Weber grill.

Today I found my hackles rising and my stomach tighten as the lector rattled off the Old Testament reading. I was really annoyed when he then reappeared to do the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Then something happened! It was external, not something I initiated. I heard, “Stop! Just stop!”

The images of the first Christmas, not the one just celebrated, flashed back. Simplicity. Poverty. Away from home. A simple, insignificant young woman. A nobody carpenter. Events occurring, not in cosmopolitan Jerusalem, but quietly nine miles away in the backwater outpost, Bethlehem.  World-shattering events, done poorly by my sophisticated standards.

If I cannot hear the Word proclaimed in a hurry, without polish, less than perfectly I would most certainly pass right by the inauspicious stable of Jesus’ actual birth! At least that’s what I heard when I was asked to stop my harsh, judgmental criticisms.

Then I heard something else, not a judgment but an invitation. A consoling voice reminding me that the most polished oration is no match for simple living.  A gentle questioner whispered, “How’re you doing with giving flesh, embodying, living the Word?” I felt exposed, though not embarrassed; admonished, but with my self esteem intact.

For the first time this season I really experienced Christmas — God’s Word laboring to take flesh in our world. Yes, even in me!

The Subversiveness of Our Wish-List

Despite nostalgic protestations, do we really want to “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Do we realize how subversive that would be to so many of the social customs and family traditions in which we revel at this time of year?  At some deep, desperate level I want to believe we do!

Have we so domesticated the story of Jesus’ birth that we fail to recognize how Christmas really turns our world on its head? Virgin birth? God becoming human? No room in the inn? Birth in a manger. The people in darkness see a great light?

Instead of Christ’s birth truly liberating us, saving us, transforming us; we seem to have turned the original story inside-out and up-side-down. Instead of being the story of our salvation, many if not most of our social customs and religious practices exonerate false gods and verge on a practical atheism.

I have absolutely no valid evidence to make the following claim, but I have a hunch. My gut tells me that the very people who feverishly “worship” at the Twin Cities’ temple of American consumerism — our world famous Mall of America attracts more visitors each year than Disneyland! — are the very people who most vehemently protest to “Keep Christ in Christmas!” Yes, such is the state of our cultural agnosticism, our alienation from the true revelation of the Christmas story.

This is not meant to throw cold water on our family gatherings and holiday revelry. In no way do I want to be Scrooge or an old-curmudgeon! But let us at least acknowledge that we too are a people who walk in darkness. We too reside in a world in desperate need of a savior. Such is the basis for an even more celebratory Christmas, our recognition of the sheer gratuity of this grace-filled season.

Each faltering impulse, every nostalgic appeal, to “Keep Christ in Christmas” is truly an expression of a deeper personal and collective need — our persistent yearning for a savior, one other than ourselves to keep us from drowning in frenetic consumption and feverish idolatry, to bring us back to the truth of who we are as human beings.

Onto such as these — us — a child is given, a son is born, who is Christ the Lord.