Dumb Luck

That’s all it was… dumb luck! Desperate to get a gift in the mail for a dear friend, I simply happened upon an obscure reference to For the Time Being by the distinguished 20th century poet, W.H. Auden. I’d never heard of it and concluded its very obscurity would appeal to my erudite friend. Besides, he is really smart and works at a prestigious university — my gift would make me look smart by association!

But that, too, may be post factual reconstruction. My initial motivation had little to do with erudition or even personal insecurities beneath my need to look smart. I was inspired by the fact that this famously gay poet had in midlife returned to Christianity. After the death of his mother and breakup with the man to whom he considered himself married, Auden dedicated this Christmas oratorio to his mother and wrote as emotional catharsis as much as testament of faith. Seemed like a good read for a long winter’s night!

It was not personal genius that led me to Auden’s oratorio. Rather it was dumb luck — what some might call grace! And, Auden far exceeds my mundane expectations. Nowhere does his probing and provocative rendition of the Christmas story settle for sentimentality or trite piety. His is the tempered faith of one who has struggled with life and whose own journey to Bethlehem was harsh, long and fraught with doubt.

We say that Christmas is for children, and that’s true. But there is nothing childish, cuddly or cozy about the original story. It must pass the test of time; its truth must endure through turmoil and trials that assail us. In this it must surpass any question of historicity and reveal an even more timeless truth. Few of us risk looking beyond the caricature of a sweet, unassuming, adorable babe. Auden takes the plunge!

And plunge we must — again and again. Hardly a child any longer, this Christmas marks my 67th journey through the season (and I’m counting on many more). Dumb luck led me to discover Auden’s oratorio — the unimagined, graced vehicle revealing Christmas as fresh, true, wondrous, here-and-now despite my 67th journey over the terrain. A few examples suffice…

Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are patently patriarchal, some would say stiflingly patriarchal. But is the real problem with the text or with our blind, sterile reading? Without premeditated agenda or argumentative intent Auden holds in bold relief the voiceless, befuddled, slow to catch-on Joseph in what even the Gospels cast as a secondary, supportive role. Mary, then as now, holds center stage.

Add to this the “silencing” of Zechariah when he dismisses even the potential for his wife to give birth in her old age. With fresh insight these Gospel narratives are hardly paternalistic. Rather they cast Mary and Elizabeth with the lead roles in a drama featuring what only women can do — give birth, bringing forth a savor. Patriarchy is set aside and assigned a supporting role! The text has been there all along. Why haven’t I recognized this?

The shepherds and magi are similarly flush with fresh meaning in the poet’s telling. Shepherds readily personify the settled ones, those who express the best of the past, keeping the home fires burning. The magi are persistent seekers, quick to leave the safe and familiar to discover what is beyond. Both have a place.

Neither is better. Each expresses our human capacity — indeed, our need — to recognize in this vulnerable, innocuous infant the incarnation of God-With-Us, Word made Flesh. That is the perennial invitation, to see the child for whom it is. Yes, to sit right down in the incredulity of it all. To say yes to the inconceivable.

We come to manger-like places all the time; asked first to actually see what is there, then to affirm that which we see as sacred. Never meant to resolve the mystery with tight, conclusive answers. Rather, we are invited to inch ever more deeply into the the truth our lives and the sometimes messy world which enfolds us.

The most we can offer is our intent, mustering a resolve to seek, follow and love the Mystery we recognize but cannot comprehend.

Such is our dumb luck, not genius, utter grace.
__________________
For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio by W. H. Auden. Introduction and edited by Alan Jacobs. Princeton University Press, 2013.

 

Of Planned Parenthood and the NRA

This is likely to offend, even anger, almost everyone. Such is the predicament in which we find ourselves — entrenched, heavily defended, convinced of the rightness of our own position. I once tried to raise this topic in a casual weekend gathering of liberal-leaning friends (of which most of our friends tend to be). Wow, I was shut down in no uncertain terms! Even I know when to shut up.

But I simply cannot keep quiet. The question continues to haunt me, perplex me, goad me. Be assured, I restate it here with real trepidation. Perhaps in the protective security on my own blog I can express it safely in a manner that is inviting rather than incendiary. Perhaps from the privacy of your own space you will be better prepared to entertain the same question with civility and curiosity.

Here is the rough, raw and unrestrained way the question finds itself expressed in the private recesses of my brain: “Is Planned Parenthood to the Left what the NRA is to the Right?” Or, for the sake of fair, unbiased representation: “Is the NRA to the Right what Planned Parenthood is to the Left?”

Here’s another way the question has presented itself, “How can we defend a woman’s very personal and unfettered right to end a pregnancy and not equally defend the unrestricted right of every American to bear arms for personal defense and the protection of one’s family?” I’d really like to know.

It feels like it is apostasy deserving of shunning and expulsion to voice any position other than the absolute, ultra-orthodox position of one’s own ideological subgroup. Neither side of the polarity seems willing to concede any restriction or hint of compromise. Somehow such intransigence and conviction — about any issue on which good people disagree — just doesn’t sit right with me.

When I tossed this question out at the party with my liberal friends you would have thought I’d betrayed women, exposed myself to be grossly ignorant or deserted to the dark-side. But the question hasn’t gone away. I’d really like to have a mature, mutually respectful conversation about our values, convictions and moral beliefs.

As a nation we seem wholly incapable and unwilling to engage in respectful dialogue with anyone other than those who espouse our very same predispositions. I leave too many gatherings of such like-minded friends reminded of a hamster running madly in its squeaking wheel — like a whole lot of energy has been expended getting nowhere with nothing to show for it but a lot of repetitive noise.

Its far too late in the game to ask how we got ourselves into this predicament. It’s time to start listening to voices other than our own and truly hearing what is being said. We either get ourselves out of our entrenched, heavily defended “correctness” — of whatever stripe — or I truly fear for the future of our democracy.

The way all this finds expression in the private machinations of my brain is often an exasperated, God help us!

What Would Mom Say?

When I’d be moping around in my adolescent funk or otherwise being disappointed with what life was — or wasn’t — sending my way Mom would often say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it!” Then she’d keep silent, letting reality sink in. She said a lot of wise stuff about life! This is just one that’s popping up a lot these days.

Earlier this week I was speaking with a dear, dear friend. She, too, is a Mom. In fact, she’s a Grandma seven times over. One of her children is considering a job transfer to a different city. This is really a painful decision for everyone involved. No more having just the grandkids for an overnight. No more spontaneous visits to the Children Museum. No more school productions or soccer games to applaud. Yes, life sends plenty of disappointment our way.

But what really took me off guard was Sarah’s response. Ever the “Mom” with wisdom aplenty she said to her son: “Yes, I would be very sad. I would really miss you. But you need to know this… You are not responsible for my happiness — I am!” Talk about profound, honest, empowering wisdom from a mother!

Yesterday was a day filled with many frustrations… a home repair project for a friend took twice as long as it should have, the caulk-gun didn’t work when I wanted to seal cracks in the driveway, insulation we had installed the day before wasn’t sticking to the window as it should, battle was waged with a health care system more focused on profits than on people, my 16 y/o car has developed a metallic clatter that I can no longer ignore.

No wonder the wisdom of these wise Moms resurfaced from the recesses of my consciousness. What am I to make of this litany of frustrations? Do I really want to concede my emotional wellbeing to the power of caulk-guns, window insulation, and the clatter of a car engine?  I guess the choice is mine!

We still depend on our mothers’ wisdom to navigate life’s disappointments, salvaging happiness from a litany of frustrations.  We might say of our mothers what I imagine Sarah would say about her grandkids, “They may be gone, but they never leave us.  And that’s a good thing!”

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

______________
The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

Defending Traditional Marriage

Who knew? As a gay man I did not. A lot of really smart and influential people also seem to be unaware of the facts.

Given what’s about to happen we would all do well to know the real facts before we jump to conclusions. Thanks to William Eskridge, professor of law at Yale, we no longer need to be uninformed. [link]

Authorities no less than Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted in Supreme Court arguments in April that every dictionary he checked that was published “prior to about a dozen years ago” defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “This definition has been with us for millennia. It’s very difficult for the court to say, oh well, we know better.”

Justice Samuel Alito asked: “How do you account for the fact that, as far as I’m aware, until the end of the 20th century, there never was a nation or a culture that recognized marriage between two people of the same sex?”

The main criticism from those who object to marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is that it “redefines” marriage contrary to the male-female definition “accepted for millennia.” Everyone, including most gay people, simply assume that premise is correct. It is not!

We are simply misinformed to say that the Western tradition had never entertained marriages between people of the same sex until the 20th century.

First and second century historians Suetonius and Tacitus document official same-sex marriages in imperial Rome.

Modern historians have found plausible evidence of such marriages among Egyptians, Canaanites and Hittites and on islands in ancient Greece.

The evidence is also overwhelming for non-Western cultures. In 1951 anthropologists surveyed 191 world cultures and found many examples of same-sex intimacy occurring “within the framework of courtship and marriage.”

Researchers have demonstrated that a majority of Native American tribes as well as many tribal people elsewhere in the world have recognized such marriages at points in their histories.

Anthropologists have also documented the phenomena of “woman marriage” in African societies, in which a wealthy woman marries another woman and then secures her impregnation, thereby generating heirs. Such marriages have been recognized in more than 30 African cultures.

There are other examples, but these show that there has been no universal definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples. Professor Eskridge asks the obvious question: What is the point of this history? He then draws some conclusions.

One obvious conclusion must be that “marriage” is an evolving, socially adaptive institution. In 1950, those who study human cultures defined “marriage” as a potentially procreative union of one man and one woman. But in the next 20 years, undisputed evidence of same-sex unions across dozens of cultures upended that definition.

By the 1970s, anthropologists had settled on an understanding of marriage as a social institution serving a variety of purposes — not just procreation and inheritance, but also personal relationships and alliances.

Was this a “redefinition” of marriage? In a way it was — it was the correction of a prevalent misconception of the facts. They brought to our attention that “marriage” has been much more inclusive and pluralistic than previously thought. Far from imposing their own definition, they help all of us come to a necessary “redefinition” that better reflects human history and practice across cultures.

Traditional marriage law in this country was one man, one woman because of an essential concern for the welfare of children. Thus, most states previously criminalized sex outside marriage, denied rights to illegitimate children, made wives legally subservient to their husbands and made it difficult to divorce.

Today we place no legal barrier to consensual sex outside marriage. Wives are not inferior. Children born outside of marriage are guaranteed “equal protection of the law.” Although divorce is never easy, “no fault” divorce certainly reflects a significant legal reform in the way we think about this foundational social institution.

We have seen in our own lifetime a fundamental shift in the way we define “marriage” to accommodate adults who love one another.  In this definition we are increasingly recognizing the many gay and lesbian couples not only make life-commitments, they are often conscientious parents of children as well.

To my knowledge the only traditional understanding we are unwilling to redefine is the legal right to marriage for the many couples — in our own families, sometimes our parents or our own children — who have no intention or capacity to procreate.

About the only group legally excluded from this human institution Americans call “marriage” is gay people. That’s been changing in the United States and around the world. And if we know our facts, well it should!

___________________

I have quoted liberally from Professor Eskridge’s June 19 article in the Washington Post cited above. In addition to crediting him as my source, I want to express my sincere gratitude to the professor for “teaching” us what too many of us had not known.

Grandparenting

Grandmas — and sometime grandpas — have to be as good as it gets this side of heaven. Yesterday a friend’s account of her time with her grandkids at the shore drew me back to fond memories of my own Grandma Wieseler.

Theresa had just returned from a week with her seven grandchildren. The kids are scattered all over the U.S. so she gathered them at their house on the shore for a week of family togetherness. Yes, this would provide terrific bonding-time for the cousins. But Theresa was also indulging her own deep affection for them — there was plenty of healthy self-interested “grand-mothering” in her plan as well.

Although she was grateful that one parent was present at the beginning and a different Mom came at the end of the week, Theresa mostly wanted the grandkids to herself. Her rationale will be obvious to all of you who have grandkids. It was an Aha! moment for me! She explained, “Kids are just different when parents aren’t around. We have more fun and get to know each other so much better when they are out of the picture.”

Of course, some aspects of being an uncle — and now grand-uncle — prepared me to understand what Theresa was saying. But I also recognized she was speaking of a deep, intimate bond that I will never know. All the more reason to treasure the enduring love my siblings and I experienced with our Grandma Wieseler.

Perhaps the difference comes down to the necessary and appropriate roles parents must play. They need to discipline, proscribe, direct and say “no” as often as “yes.” Grandparents are free of responsibility to be that kind of authority figure. Grandparents are allowed to be much more about love, pure and simple!

Theresa and I mused a bit about all this. Then we wondered whether our experience of God is more like a Grandma or like a parent. Hmmm! Of course, we knew which we wanted it to be. But really, which is it? This seems pretty important for Christians to figure out. Jesus, after all, taught us to call God “Father”, abba, papa.

I have long claimed that my first and best introduction to God was my Grandma Wieseler. She was unconditional love personified. Yes there is a need for discipline, proscriptions, direction and “no” in the practice of our faith. But that’s early on, when we are children. We are meant to grow-up. Isn’t that the point of good parenting?

One day, some of us even become grandparents — in this, God is pleased!

Gert

She was about 85 and had just taken the leap into assisted living. This momentous transition required quite an attitude adjustment for me as well. I resented the notion that my mother needed assistance with anything!

One day Claudia was talking with Mom a couple states away. Our matriarch — whose parents saw no need for her to attend high school despite the fact she registered the highest score in the county on her 8th grade standardized exam — casually mentioned she was taking a computer class. These half-day sessions scheduled monthly were just one of many conveniences she enjoyed at her new residence.

Incredulous, Claudia objected, “But, Mom, you don’t even know the keyboard.”

With maternal self-deprecation mixed with characteristic self-determination she retorted, “I know … it’s not like I’m going to go out and get a job. I just want to know what my grandchildren are talking about!”

Mom died peacefully just weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Claudia and I were at her bedside along with other family members. She never lost her eagerness to learn. Her admonition to us kids grousing about one thing or another echoes long after her death, “[Fill-in any one of our names], life is pretty much what you make of it!”

Never settled or content with what she knew, Mom was ever curious about what she didn’t know. We learned to expect a well-considered zinger whenever she began with her characteristic, “Y’know, life is strange…” Generally, she nailed it!

Never having the privilege of a formal education, Mom let nothing inhibit her curiosity. Secure in her love for learning — as well as in herself — Mom’s wisdom far exceeded most of the better “educated.” She remains our first and best teacher.

We would all be blessed to finally learn what she knew — remaining ever-curious, always attentive to what we don’t know!