Taking Personal Inventory

“You can take only your own inventory, never anyone else’s!” remains a bedrock tenet  for any who seek the serenity promised by 12 Step programs. I pushed the limit yesterday in my assessment of Archbishop Neinstedt’s appearance in First Class.

Here’s the rest of the story… I had brought Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir for reading onboard long trans-Atlantic flights. Disclaimer: No, I have no plans to write my memoir! Discovery: Karr’s incisive instruction for writing about what really matters offers a brilliant view into how we might better access and express our spiritual lives in prayer or with others.

I had highlighted Karr’s reference to George Orwell’s masterful essay Shooting the Elephant, “You wear a mask, and your face grows to fit it.” Yes, I could accuse John Neinstedt of that. More importantly, I need to accept that truth as my own truth as well.

Speaking of her literary efforts Karr concludes, “No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle … The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision.”

How I wish we’d hear such earthy, blunt preaching from our pulpits! I now cringe when I recall how many of my homilies relied upon an array of disembodied platitudes and pious principles — Lord, have mercy!

Why? Why do we retreat to the impersonal and theoretical? Karr observes, “We each nurture a private terror that some core aspect(s) of either ourselves or our story must be hidden or disowned.”

Though speaking of the craft of memoir writing, her wisdom equally applies to our most intimate selves and spiritual lives:

With every manuscript I’ve ever edited — even grown-assed writers’ — the traits a writer often fights hardest to hide may serve as the undeniable facets both of self and story. You bumble onto scenes that blow up the fond notions of the past, or whole shifts in attitude practically rewrite you where you stand.

Karr’s cure for writer’s block — so familiar and feared by any who put pen to paper — applies equally well to boredom in prayer or spiritual desolation. When our faith seems to have withered, even evaporated; when our prayer feels dry, hollow and purposeless; we’d do well to follow her advice: “Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

Now you know the rest of my Neinstedt story. I need to ask myself: What fires my visceral reaction to the Archbishop’s appearance? What might I be projecting onto him that I dare not admit about myself? What is so unacceptable about my own story or life that I so vehemently condemn or seek to control in others?

Yes, it’s time to focus on taking my own inventory! For sure, there are stories to more than fill a lifetime.

___________

Quotes are from The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015, #2276 and 2278 of Kindle edition.

Forty-Eight Hours Before the Wedding

Do you believe in serendipity?  Its more than coincidence.  More than luck, even.  Serendipity surprises us unaware with the appearance of valuable connections or pleasant experiences we had not anticipated nor could have even sought.  Serendipity is a lot like sheer grace.

Participating in “Prayer at the Fair” — the Sunday morning ecumenical service at the Minnesota State Fair — presented a marvelous moment of serendipity.  I am still savoring a poem by Maya Angelou days later:

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

__________

Maya Angelou’s poem is entitled Touched by An Angel and is readily available online and in the poet’s collected works.

For the Love of Strawberries

A story is told of Bertha and Abraham Maslow… like many couples who marry at a young age — she was 19 and he was 20 — they struggled financially as their daughters Ann and Ellen arrived. As Abraham completed his degree at City College, the young family indulged simple pleasures within their constrained budget.

A favorite family outing was to go to one of the many city parks in their New York neighborhood where Abraham and Bertha had both grown up. During strawberry season the parents would splurge on one carton and carefully divide the berries among the four of them.

The parents would generally nibble on only one strawberry. Being the ebullient young children Ann and Ellen were, the girls would quickly gobble down their full share oblivious to their parents restraint. Abraham and Bertha knew their children would soon be back asking for more of the juicy, sweet treats.

Years later, after he had become one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century, Abraham would recall moments like these in the city park, “Bertha and I learned that strawberries never taste better than in the mouths of our children.”

My unexamined assumption is that the Maslows were Jewish. Their religious affiliation does not matter — their human experience as parents points to something foundational to all the great world religions — a deep, down unity and goodness girding all creation, the felt experience that all is bound up in the Holy, and we are “wired” to participate in this Love.

Contemplative practices of all faith traditions entice, nudge, cajole us to embrace a single-hearted unity with all creation — what my friend Ellen Swanson likes to call “community without conformity.” The Maslow’s strawberries — indeed the simplest of all genuinely human encounters — open for us what is nothing less than a mystical experience, we find God in all persons and all creation!

The mature spiritual life takes us beyond the prescriptions of what is “right,” “moral,” “just,” or “equal.” We are set free from the prescriptions for every step we take or move we make because some authority has “said so” or “others are watching.” We ourselves become the dance; our living becomes the loving; we are swept off our feet by the One who is Love.

The Maslow family came to appreciate this Love through strawberries. Jesus speaks of this in many ways, at many times and ultimately with his life — “unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die…” We find our life by losing it. Those who would save their life will give it away.

Love, life, God are never so wonderfully tangible as when shared in selfless communion with family, neighbors, whomever is hungry among us.

Needing to Knead

My last post already confessed to my compulsion for needing the last word. Yes, that’s a well-ingrained fault that warrants my continuous attention (not always successfully). But there are other reasons I don’t want this site to degenerate into a Twitter-like roster of cut-n-paste stories Yours Truly finds of interest.

There’s a reason this blog is named, Kneading Bread! Watching my mother knead countless batches of flour, yeast and water I learned that her labor was not just about the bread. As growth enabled me to deduce patterns I discovered something quite interesting. On those days my mother chose to bake bread — often indulging a little extra energy really getting-into the kneading, I began to recognize it wasn’t primarily about the bread or our family’s love of her good food!

Yes, this blog enables me to wrestle with ideas and issues of importance to me and topics I believe to be of spiritual and social importance. If it’s not obvious, I “need to knead” this batch of ingredients the world regularly plops in front of us to see what comes of it, to discover what value it holds for our health and well-being.

But Kneading Bread is intended to be something more, more than my personal playground for having the last word or indulging my fiercely defended opinions! No, my purpose would fall short if posts failed to stimulate reflection or provoke the reader to wrestle with your own values, beliefs, convictions, commitments and ways of acting in community. As my mother demonstrated, it’s as much about the laborious act of kneading as it is about savoring the finished product!

She also demonstrated in countless ways that there are always exceptions to any rule. That’s true today. Sometimes you come across a quote that is so incisive, so well-crafted, so true it would be wrong to do a thing to it. Today is such a day!  I can do no better. On my best days, I wish I could say it so well:

We have become a society of machines and business degrees, of stocks and bonds, of world power and world devastation, of what works and what makes money. We train our young to get ahead, our middle-aged to consume, and our elderly to be silent. We are sophisticated now. We talk about our ideas for getting ahead rather than about our ideas for touching God, We are miles from our roots and light-years away from our upbringings. We have abandoned the concerns of the civilizations before us. We have forsaken the good, the true, and the beautiful for the effective, the powerful, and the opulent. We have abandoned enoughness for the sake of consumption. We are modern. We are progressive. And we are lost.

_________

These prophetic words were written by Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. I came to them via my friend Sheila Wilson’s Facebook posting. The only citation I can give is what Sheila gave. It is from Chittister’s book, What Does It Mean to Be Human? In a way, a specific page reference is unnecessary — anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading!

Failing Forgiveness

Recently, I deeply hurt a dear family member. My well rehearsed self-defensiveness easily shifts into excuses and rationalization: “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” A reflexive, limp, “I’m sorry!” “Here’s what I really meant…” In the back of my mind I also sprinkle in a good dose of “Oh, get over it!” “You’re too thin-skinned.” “You misinterpreted what I meant.”

I easily nurse grudges or smugly assert my innocence, all with a heavy dose of moral superiority. “Me? Why I would never willingly hurt anyone!” This has been my default position for most of my 65 years.

And, it doesn’t work! In fact, it isolates and hardens us. Ultimately, it turns us bitter — the sort of arrogant curmudgeons no one wants to be around. Even we discover we are not in very good company when we increasingly find ourselves alone.

Coincidental to my recent family incident the University of Minnesota was going through a major publicity nightmare and scandal. The Athletic Director had been forced to resign after sexually harassing two colleagues at a mid-summer gathering of top university administrators. Yes, alcohol was involved. Yes, his “excuse” was inept. Yes his “apology” was predictably lame.

Apologies must be about the person who has been hurt, not about protecting our backsides or rehabilitating our reputations! We concoct an amazing assortment of avoidance strategies which are really more about self-forgiveness. According to a really fine op-ed in the Star Tribune about the dismal response by Mr Teague and University leadership, such self-defensiveness sabotages any hope for recovery or rehabilitation.

James E. Lukaszewski’s op-ed convincingly describes the essential pieces of an effective apology:

  • Regret — an explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering and hurt that identifies, specifically, what action or behavior is responsible for the pain.
  • Responsibility — an unconditional declarative acceptance and recognition that my wrongful behavior and acknowledgment that there is no excuse for it.
  • Restitution — an offer of help or assistance to the person I have hurt, followed up by action beyond “I’m sorry,” and conduct that takes responsibility to make the situation right.
  • Repentance — explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused pain and suffering for which I am genuinely sorry; language that recognizes that I cause serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage.
  • Direct request for forgiveness — “I was wrong, I hurt you and I ask you to forgive me.”

Reading these words admonishing the Athletic Director and University felt like red-hot coals being heaped on my head. Despite my self-righteous efforts to keep the need for an effective apology theoretical and about others, I felt exposed and incriminated.

My gut was confirming what Lukaszewski claimed.  Admitting that I have done something hurtful and requesting forgiveness is damn hard! Maybe that’s why it is so rarely done, at least with sincerity and effectiveness. Though 65 years of moral evasiveness have taught me the same truth, the hottest coal of all was his final admonition: “Skip even one step, and you simply fail.”

You fail! Not just in this instance. Not just with this family member, neighbor, colleague. We fail — as human beings, the kind of people others want to be around, the sort of person I’d want to be with when I’m all alone!

__________________

The August 10, 2015 op-ed in the Star Tribune is available [here]. In his essay, James E. Lukaszewski credits his source as The Five Languages of Apology, by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.

Judge Not

I’d like to say I’ve given up, but I haven’t. I’d like to say I’ve stopped trying to figure out what makes people tick — why they act the way they do, say what they say (or not!), believe what they believe. But, I can’t!

People continue to baffle me, confound me, sometimes disappointment me. There is some truth in the adage: “Do as I say not as I do!” But that isn’t even always true. People disappoint, act poorly, sometimes their words — or their silence — is deeply hurtful.

Mr Hall, my senior English teacher at Creighton Prep, would be shocked to hear me say this but good literature, novels and short stories help us wrestle with the bumps and bruises of living in families, neighborhoods and with colleagues. What Thomas Merton had to say about famed Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor is a case in point:

The first thing that anyone notices in reading Flannery O’Connor is that her moral evaluations seem to be strangely scrambled. The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem. … Her crazy people , while remaining as crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity. In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics. The “good,” the “right,” the “kind” do all the harm. “Love” is a force for destruction, and “truth” is the best way to tell a lie.

That’s my read of our current situation — and I don’t just mean Presidential politics! O’Connor was getting at something much deeper, persistent and endemic in the human character. Merton goes on to observe that O’Connor’s true-to-life characters place us…

on the side of the fanatic and the mad boy, and we are against the reasonable zombie. We are against everything he stands for. We find ourselves nauseated by the reasonable, objective, ‘scientific’ answers he has for everything. In him, science is so right that it is a disaster.

Isn’t that all too true? My resounding YES! to O’Connor and Merton’s experience had me inserting “morals” for the word scientific and “morality” for science. Some of the most confounding and disappointing people are those who are so certain of their “moral” answers that their “morality” is a disaster.

Right and wrong — judging others — is perilous terrane. Yet, some of us persist in shining bright lights on others’ lives and behaviors. Jesus warned against such Pharisaic preoccupation calling the best of the lot “whitened sepulchers.” Psychologists have long correlated this propensity with a terrific fear of shining that same light on our own lives.

I try not to judge lest I be judged. But sometimes we are judged anyway — and by people who say they care about us. Sometimes other people’s words, actions, even their silence communicate a heavy moralistic judgment. The wisdom of the ages, the wisdom of the world’s great religious traditions, the teaching of Jesus Christ all shed important light on this persistent human propensity — unanimous in its condemnation.

More and more, experience is teaching me the wisdom and urgency of Jesus’ confounding warning about the Last Judgment. How sad it will be for those so certain about what was right and good for others to hear the Judge say, “I do not know you!”

______________

The first quote by Thomas Merton about Flannery O’Connor is from his book, Mystics and Zen Masters, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967, # 259.  The second Merton quote is from #260 of the same work.

Absence Explained

Absence makes the heart grow fonder! Does it? I often just forget whatever is absent. The absence of something annoying might be a long-awaited relief! We might even learn that we live perfectly well without something and no longer care about whatever it provided.

My hope after being absent from these posts for more than a week is that you will welcome the return. It may be asking too much to presume the absence was even noted. Noted or not, I’m back and trust these ruminations are received with continuing interest.

An explanation is in order. Barbara Brown Taylor and John Philip Newell were in town leading a retreat from Sunday, August 2 thru Wednesday, August 5. Either would have had me beating a path to their door. Having both co-facilitate was a feast beyond imagining. My absence from these pages is due largely to the fact that my time and spirit were preoccupied and engaged.

Dubbed Seeking the Sacred Thread, the retreat more than fulfilled its promise to illuminate with clarity and grace the questions and hopes we carry, weaving together sacred threads of the Christian household with other wisdom traditions, focusing on the healing of God’s people and all creation. I’m still ruminating over its richness.

Rather than attempting an impossible “grand synthesis” or over-verbalizing what was often experienced as sheer grace, I will keep it simple. Here are five “sacred threads” which I am still holding, hoping they take deeper hold of me:

  • Seek the light at the farthest edge of darkness — deepest night holds the fullest promise of dawn.
  • “There are seeds in the rottenest of apples!” -Bede Griffiths
  • “Only when we are playful can Divinity get serious with us.” Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Our deepest longing is for belonging… BE longing!
  • There is no room for two — die to yourself in Love’s presence or Love will die in your presence.

Only Thing of Monumental Significance

The disappointing truth is that most of us are content with answers. “Give me the facts, ma’am, just the facts!” is a famous line from some detective show better left in the caverns of youthful memories. I guess this approach is fine if you are a police detective. Its a disaster if trying to live a mature spiritual life.

The current brouhaha about the Ten Commandment monument in Oklahoma leaves me scratching my head. What’s the big deal with the Ten Commandments? Christians know that Jesus assumed the role of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount. Why aren’t God-fearing Christians erecting monuments listing the Beatitudes? Better yet, how about Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms the standards for our Last Judgment?

My reluctant assumption is that a scary percentage of folks like black and white answers. This drive for clarity feels to me like rigidity, an obsession with control. “Tell me what to do or not to do” is the passive version.  “I’ll tell you what’s right and what’s wrong!” is the more aggressive and dangerous manifestation.  Looks like infantile paralysis to me!

When such moral certitude is pulled out from under us by life’s complexity, and it will be, too many throw in the towel on religion. “Bunch of hypocrites!” often becomes a simplistic and defensive excuse to summarily dispose of thousands of years of wisdom. Such a dismissive attitude is no better than the cold stone monuments some want to erect on courtyard lawns.

After reluctantly wrestling with the confounding complexity life throws at us we gradually soften, become more supple, proffer eternal truth with greater humility. We come to live the questions rather than seek answers. If we remain alert — and lucky — we escape slipping into moral relativism or synchronism (it doesn’t matter what you believe, it’s all the same anyway).

It does matter! It’s not all the same! Our questions are profoundly consequential — not because they yield clear, precise, fixed answers, but because they quicken in us the very decision-making dignity imprinted in us by God. We become morally mature, responsible adults created in God’s very image.

Remaining securely within the safety of laws, texts or answers — typically handed down by some self-authenticating spokesperson — is a popular way to go. Too many people refuse to take the first critical hurdle to spiritual maturity — they prefer the moral straitjacket of already having the “truth”. Complexities of living are addressed as reason to dig in their heels even more firmly — reciting threadbare principles over and over, shouting louder and more insistently if they must. Erecting monuments of cold, hard stone.

Sooner or later all this becomes indefensible! Life’s inevitable ambiguities don’t yield to simple, clear answers. Its exhausting having to constantly defend moral rectitude. Loud voices are in abundant supply and routinely dismissed. Life’s questions are simply too numerous, complex and spontaneous to be catalogued.

Still, the hardest thing in the world is for some to let go of their “answers”, especially those intended for others. To do so is not to question one’s faith but to maturely embrace and express it!

There is no judge seated aside a monument to the Ten Commandments at the Pearly Gates. As from a master-teacher, we already have been given the only question on our Final Exam. All answers are not the same. Our own answer matters, definitively!

Did you love?  Really, did you? …especially those we consider least (if we consider them at all)!

Suddenly, It All Looks Different

It’s like suddenly seeing the whole world with a pair of 3-D glasses.

Every once in a while something happens and everything seems different. Often we don’t see it coming. Life just “accumulates” until something shifts. The old way of seeing, doing, being doesn’t fit anymore. We just know the change in our bones! Doesn’t have to be dramatic. There’s no going back — we wouldn’t want to. Often its quiet, subtle — like falling in love.

This time it came in an innocuous Tweet. I read it only once. I don’t even know the context. There hasn’t been the need or even the inclination to go back and retrieve it. It simply made explicit what now seems conspicuous, true, enduring. The Tweet was quoting Pope Francis: “The church doesn’t need any more teachers, the church needs more witnesses.”

We spend our lives going to church, saying our prayers, paying stewardship pledges, taking kids to Sunday school, maybe even teaching Confirmation class. We “do” a lot of stuff!  But, doing somehow morphs over time into “being” different. It’s not that the old stuff isn’t important, it just doesn’t seem to matter that much anymore.

I cannot speculate what this looks or feels like for anyone else. One way I’m experiencing the change is in the difference between ministry and discipleship. The self-introduction (the About Me tab) that accompanies this blog speaks of my “desire to return to ministry.” That was absolutely true — but that now feels obscure, somewhat foreign, certainly obsolete.

When I get around to updating my bio for this site — even that editing doesn’t feel like a high priority now — I will revise “return to ministry” to a current “desire to live a life of more explicit discipleship.” Do you recognize the shift? If you do, great. If not, no sweat! What matters is that a new set of glasses has changed the way I’m seeing, what I’m seeing, and how I want to respond to the world.

We give a lot of lip service in church circles to conversion, repentance, transformation, being born-again, call it what you will. Some of us try all sorts of spiritual practices, follow proven routines and rituals, read the latest books (or blogs!) and even regularly go on retreat. These are praiseworthy, serve a purpose. But their value is good to dispose us to receive what we seek. That’s all they are — dispositional. They are not the change itself.

Change comes through the initiative of grace. It awakens, enlightens, transforms our whole world — like a new pair of 3-D glasses. Whether my new appreciation for the difference between ministry and discipleship endures is yet to be seen.  But its welcome, feels refreshing.

What’s the “shift” you seek?  Is yours also a move from “doing” stuff to “being” different in the world?  Whatever the change turns out to be, I’m certain we all need more of it.

As Through a Glass Darkly

She is her mother’s daughter, that’s for sure!

For a few years now I have listened to an acquaintance — rather than friend because I consciously keep her at arm’s length — grouse about her 85-year-old mother. It’s a long story spanning their lifetimes which has been recounted to me in brief snippets. Can’t she see what she’s doing? Why doesn’t she understand?

Not only is it a great principle of human psychology, it is an important function of literature to allow us to “transfer” or “project” our own selves onto the characters we envision or read about. Shakespeare remains masterful in creating figures onto whom we can dump or build our hidden selves.

Case in point… To Kill a Mocking Bird vies with Grapes of Wrath for my all-time favorite novel. I love the character of Atticus Finch for his demeanor, delivery and dedication to justice. Now, pre-release publicity suggests that Atticus comes off as something less that saintly or heroic in Harper Lee’s long-awaited sequel.

I don’t want to hear it! Already, I have concocted all sorts of excuses not to read Go Set a Watchman. I don’t want anyone to tinker with my well entrenched opinion of the virtuous Atticus! He’s my idol. He’s the one onto whom I projected my youthful passion for justice. NO, he cannot have feet of clay! I will hear none of it!

A few days ago I was walking where my “arm’s-length acquaintance” typically intercepts me. Her rants have become so tedious I sometimes take other routes to lessen the chances of an encounter. Again, she bad-mouthed her elderly mother and rolled her eyes in disgust to emphasize her frustrations.

What doesn’t she see? Why doesn’t she get it? She is her mother’s daughter! She is a master at precisely the obnoxious, tiring, off-putting manner she accuses her mother of personifying. Pointing this out to her would simply be met with denial — a lifetime of projecting our problems or faults onto others is not going to change because of anything I say.

Perhaps the most I can hope for is that I not be guilty of that which I accuse others. I, too, project and transfer my negativity and culpability. I am too often blind and fail to get-it. I, too, am heavily defended behind walls of denial.

Today, Kayla McClurg has a terrific [reflection] on the Gospel being read in many churches this weekend. She recognizes that when we don’t truly know ourselves, accept ourselves, or be our true selves we fail to listen and learn. When we fail to admit our faults and failures we live forever displaced from the center of our lives.

Even in tedious rants and people we would rather avoid, there lies the invitation to own our own stuff. To be the person on the outside the person we are inside. Yes, to project and transfer both our grandstanding and our greatness onto characters of Scripture and literature. But also to own the fullness of all that is reflected back to us.

When I was young I wanted to be Atticus Finch! Perhaps now that I am approaching 65 I do need to read Go Set a Watchman more than ever. It is a gift that Harper Lee waited fifty years to release her sequel — only now am I starting to recognize even the great ones have clay feet. We all do!

Those I deem to be tedious, tiring and troubling may simply be holding up a mirror for me to see more clearly. Truth is, I am also my acquaintance’s reflection. If not in exactly the same ways, then at least more than I want to admit.