More on My Journey with Ignatius

ignacio1I had promised some months ago to share some of my experiences with the Ignatian Exercises. However, the Exercises took away most of my writing time. Now, with my new work hours, I can take a moment to share a bit.

Over the past 6 months I have experienced prayer and contemplation in new and refreshing ways. Perhaps the most dynamic way has been to visualize and ‘enter in to’ the various stories that Ignatius used for prompts. He chose stories from the Gospels and encouraged others to imagine themselves in the stories. I was encouraged to ‘walk’ with and ‘talk’ with Jesus, the disciples, Mary and others. I found this to be an incredibly potent tool in learning to know Jesus as friend and brother. And, for the most part, the images were vivid, full of light and full of hope and joy.

The past few weeks, though, have been spent contemplating the Passion story. Almost immediately I sensed a change. Where there had been light, there was now darkness. Earlier I had clear images and experiences. Now, the images were obscured, as if a dark cloud was between me and the other participants. Before I had sensed joy. This turned to hopelessness and fear.

I shared these things with my Spiritual Director. I was concerned that I was missing something. Or, that my own shortcomings were a wall separating me from fully experiencing the stories.

He said that this was not unusual since the stories, themselves, were of a different nature. In them, Jesus was separated from others. He was pulled away and arrested. He stood alone before the Council and Pilate. Beaten and dragged away to be crucified, he was alone. On the tree of crucifixion, he was abandoned.

Then he was dead.

Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Mary and some other women were present. I looked on and felt the despair. They had all hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who was going to restore Israel and reign over God’s kingdom. Now, all they had was a lifeless corpse. Hopelessness; fear; shadow; darkness; cloud; doubt.

I felt doubts creep in. Didn’t Jesus say that his followers would do greater things than he? He healed the sick and raised the dead! Where is that happening? Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand? Where is it? Why can’t I experience God’s presence throughout each day? GOD! WHERE ARE YOU?

I’ve read where pastors have asked these same questions. And, not having adequate answers, have left the faith entirely. After all, if we can’t hear it, see it, touch it, taste it or smell it…it must not exist.

However, that was not my experience. I know that God is not afraid of, nor hurt by, our doubts. In fact, I think that God encourages them. It’s easy to say, “I believe.” In fact, many in the Church look at doubts as obstacles to belief. They say that they will lead people astray or hinder their experience of God. I have found, though, that it’s much better to embrace them. It’s harder yet I think better, to doubt and still believe.

I suddenly realized that I had experienced these same feelings. Rather than the images and experiences of being in the story, I had been experiencing the actual emotions of those who lived through it. In the desolation of my prayers and in the depression of my days and in my doubts, God had allowed the reality of these stories to become my reality. I was not an observer, or even a participant. I had become one with the story.

I don’t know where the next stage of the exercises will take me. I am sure, however, that Jesus will continue to meet me and continue to say, “Come…follow me.”

What have been your experiences in your life’s journey? Have you encountered yourself revealed in someone else’s story? How are you writing your own story?

A Response to my Friend

BibleA couple of weeks ago I shared a blogpost written by Benjamin Corey . It was basically a critique of the way in which many people in our Western, particularly American, culture read and interpret the Christian Bible. A very good friend of mine commented about that posting:

“It seems that you have shared a number of articles about what Christians are not doing right. They take scripture here or there to justify something or to maybe judge. The article you shared once again is telling people to understand what is being said in scriptures based upon the times and how they were written. So, I am asking the question, how do you use scripture to reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?”

As I reflected on this, I realized that this is not just one question, but two. First, he is leveling an accusation that I am antagonistic toward Christians. The question seems to be, ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’ The second question is, ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

I responded to him that I thought that these were valid questions that would require further reflection. What I’ve written here is that response.

Question One: ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’

Actually, my friend, I’m not. As I’ve grown older I have found that I’m not nearly as sure of the things that I thought, felt and believed earlier in life. Back then it was easy to be absolutely sure of myself. I knew that God had created the universe. I was convinced that anyone who did not accept and believe the Christian Bible as we in the West accepted and believed it were wrong and in danger of eternal punishment. The foundation of my world view was set firmly in a patriarchy. And, I had no doubt as to my eternal destiny as a child of God.

Then, the doubts started to seep in. I learned that others who were not a part of my ‘tribe’ were not the evil, depraved creatures that I had been led to believe. Many of them were hard working, family-loving people simply trying to get by in life. Many others were devout believers in God, but not in the same way that I was. Still others diligently searched for God in other cultures and settings. I saw women who were gifted to lead and teach. These people were able to stand before God and others in confidence. Were the things that I had held up as ‘gospel truth’ able to stand in light of these observations? Honestly, I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know, however, was that things I continued to hear week after week from the pulpit were quickly becoming incongruent with my life’s experiences.

So, I became a seeker. I needed to find out if my thoughts were, in fact, opposed to the ‘orthodox’ position that those around me embraced. Or, was there hope in this cloud of doubt.

I entered Ashland Theological Seminary in the fall of 2006. (That’s a whole story in itself. I’ll save that for another time.) I didn’t know what I would experience there. I only knew that it was the place I needed to go. The next five years took me on a journey that changed my life and my way of thinking and believing. I learned that it’s ok for followers of Jesus to think! Imagine my surprise. I had been trained, or better, indoctrinated to believe that everything that came out of the mouths of church leaders was to be accepted. After all, these men were God’s anointed shepherds. To question them was to question God. I also learned that there is really no one…let me say again, No One, who can know totally and with certainty what God thinks, cf. Isaiah 55:8-9,

8    For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.

One cannot read the text ‘simply’ and understand the mind of the writer, let alone the mind of God. Especially, when one is reading a translation of a translation. These texts were written millennia ago in cultures and languages that no longer exist. I learned that we cannot take these texts out of their social and cultural context and place them directly into our culture in the 21st century. What this led to was an understanding that the playing field of orthodoxy is a very large one. As long as one is able to keep the ball from going completely across the boundary line, that person must be considered orthodox.

With this being said, my intention in sharing the kind of material I do is to present other views of orthodoxy. Rather than attacking the church, I offer a different opinion. I’ve shared many times on Facebook that I like to stir things up. I want to stretch people’s understanding. Is what the predominantly white, male-dominated evangelical church’s view of God and scripture the only viable one? Obviously, I don’t think it is. Simply put, I want to give people an opportunity to think.

Question two: ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

The simple answer to this question is, I don’t. At least, not in the way it has been pursued by most evangelicals. I don’t knock on doors. Nor, do I ‘cold sell’ to people. I’m not going to assault strangers and begin to ‘witness’ to them.

What I am going to do is be prepared to give a reason for the hope that I have,         (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). That reason, or explanation, is based on personal experience. Lofty, theological vagaries don’t help. What good is it to speculate and theorize with people who have no interest in the text to begin with? However, no one can take away nor refute what I have experienced. Like the beggar who Jesus healed, when questioned by the authorities, responded that all he knew was that before he was blind, now he could see. It is our life with God that speaks. A statement attributed to St. Francis sums this up. “Always remember to preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

What does this say, then, about my approach to using scripture to “reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?” I’m not sure that’s the right question. This question diminishes the scripture and makes it a users’ manual of sorts.

How to get someone ‘saved.
Step one: The Roman Road.
Step two: The Four Spiritual Laws

A more accurate question would be, what is the purpose of the Scriptures? Is it history? Science? Myth and fairy stories? Or, is it what it claims to be…the inspired Word that is living and active in the world? I think that the text provides us with a glimpse into the heart of God. It allows us to see how people have related to God and one another over the centuries. And, it gives us hope that we can share in these experiences as we grow to know this Person. That is what I share.

Ok…So What?

The fact is, I don’t know everything. (Surprised, right?) In most things I’m most likely mistaken. As I’ve written before, I follow the theology of Snoopy. This allows me to be myself as God has made me. I am extremely confident in my ability to be wrong.

I can be friends with people for who they are as God has made them. It doesn’t matter what their politics are or their station in life. I am not concerned about their sexual orientation or their view of science and the cosmos. I love and accept them as they are. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that to love God and our neighbor summed up the entire Law?

Yeah, I disagree with people. Sometimes with vigor. But, that doesn’t diminish them. That elevates them to dialog partners. Like I wrote above, I am a seeker. By definition that makes me someone who is not afraid to go places that are unfamiliar, and perhaps, uncomfortable. It opens me up to opinions that are different than those that I hold. For me, this has been freeing. I don’t have to fear other opinions and concerns. I’m pretty sure that God’s not afraid, either. My friend, this life is a journey, not a destination. To hold lightly to what we think and believe, yet to hold tenaciously to God makes the journey a good one.

The Wise Men…Who Were They?

wisemenOne of the stories that has become part of our holiday season is the story of the Magi. It’s been romanticized to the point that the story we tell today bears little resemblance to the story written by Matthew. It now has three kings from the East bearing gifts to the infant Christ. They have even been given names! Tradition in the West has graced them the monikers Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. They are depicted as riding their camels across the desert ‘following yonder star.’ In some places, even the crèche has them standing around with the shepherds and animals. It’s a nice story. It’s a warm and emotional story. But, it’s not the story that Matthew tells.

Matthew’s story is one of international interest. It also has touches of courtly intrigue and deception. It starts with the statement, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” The writer doesn’t give us a time frame for this. It’s just sometime ‘after.’ Later in the chapter we learn that Jesus may have been as old as two years. But, that’s a story for another day.

The Magi were most likely astrologers from the region we now know as Iraq. These people had a relationship with the heavens that has been lost to us today. At some point they recognized some new celestial event. They called it a ‘star.’ Through their training and practices they discerned that this ‘star’ hailed the birth of a new king of the Jewish people. Perhaps they were sensitive to this because there was still a fairly vibrant Jewish community left from the Babylonian captivity half a millennium earlier. In any case, they thought that a new king of the Jews would be in the Jewish capital of Jerusalem, so they loaded up their caravan and headed west. It’s highly unlikely that there were only three Magi in the caravan. And, they would have been traveling with an armed escort as well as servants and supplies.

They arrived in Jerusalem and began asking where the king was. Well, of course they were directed to Herod the Great. They told their tale to Herod, who was not happy about this. Matthew tells us that “when King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” I can understand why Herod was disturbed. He was ruthless in his pursuit of power and prestige. He spent millions building cities and edifices for the glory of his name and legacy. He was probably the greatest builder of his day. He was also a man who would not hesitate to have someone’s throat cut if he thought they were a threat to his position. Caesar Augustus is reported to have said that it would be better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. This was the person to whom the Magi reported. The rest of Jerusalem would be upset and worried if Herod was upset and worried. No one knew what he might do, but they all knew what he was capable of. And, there was the problem of Rome. As a vassal state, Palestine could come under Rome’s scrutiny if a new ‘king’ suddenly appeared on the scene. As we see from the end of the gospel, claiming to be the ‘king of the Jews’ did not have a great retirement policy.

Anyway, Herod had his people figure out that the new king would be born in Bethlehem. He sent the Magi out to find him and report back his location. At this point Matthew states that the “star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Apparently, after the star originally appeared, they must have lost sight of it. They knew it was about the Jews, so they traveled there. But, now, having left Herod’s presence, the star reappeared and they could not contain their exuberance. When they found the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were staying, they “bowed down and worshiped him.” They presented the child with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Royal gifts for a royal child. As they slept that night, the story reports that they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. They decided to return to the East by a different route and left.

Now, I could stop here. That’s pretty much the story in a nutshell. But, I think that there are some things to be learned about God and God’s love for humanity as a whole. I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that God chose to announce Jesus’ birth to those who were marginalized in society. Those who had no voice or who were considered unclean or ‘outsiders.’ First, the choice of Mary and Joseph to be parents. They were not upper class folks. Joseph was a craftsman and Mary was a child herself. Second, the shepherds. These people could not even testify in court because their word was considered to be as worthless as their vocation. Third, the gentile Magi. Not only were they outsiders, they worshiped the heavenly host and other gods. They were idolaters! Yet, God chose these people to welcome the Word of God into our world. The Magi used their own, dare I say, God given talents to discern what God was doing in the world. Pagan astrology and knowledge led them to worship Jesus. After they came and bowed before Jesus and worshiped him, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. What I found interesting was that we are not told how they happened to receive this dream. In the two instances where Joseph received divine instructions through dreams, we are clearly told that “the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” There’s no such caveat in the Magi’s dream. Could it simply be that the writer did not want to reveal such a close association between the God of the Jews and these gentiles? Perhaps. Or, could it be that there was another way that dreams are communicated to people other than God? I’m not speaking of something dark or demonic. But, perhaps something natural, that because of their training and practices, the Magi they were sensitive to? God works in many mysterious ways.

How should this inform how Christ-followers should respond to others? We see that God seems to prefer communicating with the poor, the marginalized and the ‘other.’ The wealthy, powerful and privileged are left on the outside wondering what’s going on. The ‘other’ includes those who do not think nor believe like ‘we’ do. And, apparently, that’s OK with God! Perhaps we should take a lesson from God and learn that God is accepting of all people wherever they live and whatever they happen to think and believe. They do not need to become like ‘us’ for God to love and accept them. If God can ask the Magi to join in God’s plan for the world and send them on their way in peace, why can’t we?

Reflection on the Incarnation

Hand of GodThe past month and a half has been a time of deep reflection and introspection for me. The Ignatian exercises have taken me on a journey in which I’ve been compelled to visit my humanness in the light of God’s grace and mercy. Some of what I’ve experienced has been in the realm of Darth Vader…the Dark Side. As I’ve sat with Jesus and allowed his gaze to penetrate into the depths of my heart, I have realized my complete identification with the whole of humanity and the world. I am no different than anyone else. I am not exceptional in relationship to any other member of God’s good creation. We are all part of the whole that God called ‘tov me’od’…very good.

As I began to live with my own humanness, which includes all the crap that I’ve done to myself and others, I had a palpable awareness that God was smiling. Far from what I have been taught by people, that God is angered by our shortcomings and failings, I felt complete acceptance. I began to realize that through God’s pitching God’s tent among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God learned first-hand how frail we are. Compassion and empathy grew within God’s heart and God really and truly has become our advocate through Christ. How this all works I haven’t a clue. What I do know is that God is glad to be with us…no matter what.

This morning as I was contemplating the Incarnation, I was directed to consider the world and all of its inhabitants. I thought about the nearly 7.2 billion people who inhabit this planet. We all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or any other perceived differences are part of God’s shalom community. We are, in some way, related one to another. So, my thoughts wandered to those who are lonely. (In a world with more than 7 billion people the idea of loneliness boggles my mind.) In that context, we have failed the lonely. I think of the young man whose struggles with his sexuality ultimately cause him to give up and take his own life. We have failed him. The young woman who experiences separation from all, including herself, so that she turns to cutting in order to feel anything. We have failed her. To the other young woman who is afraid of the New Year holiday because she may be alone. We have failed you. I see the bodies of young children being buried because they did not have the necessary food and water to survive. We have failed them. I feel the pain of the homeless people freezing on our city streets. We have failed them. I view the sectarian violence that destroys lives and mars the image of God in each person. We have failed them.

Then, I wonder…does God feel failure, also? Has the reality of the Incarnation allowed God to feel and experience the depths of human depravity and inhumanity? I begin to glimpse a sliver of God’s compassion. I see that God…Emmanuel…feels empathy for/with us. Is there hope, then, that the failure can be turned to triumph? As I reflected on this, I heard that inner voice that I’ve come to identify as the voice of Christ say, “I am forever human. I know the way that we should go. Compassion, love, justice. Always seeking the good and illuminating the bad.” (NOTE: NOT condemning!) “Embracing each person, community and culture as expressions of God’s own image.”

With that, I wish for all of us to experience and celebrate the Incarnation of God at this time of year. I think that the folks who think that there is some sort of war on Christmas need to walk away from that. Rather than shouting, ‘Put Christ back in Christmas,’ I would encourage us all to BE the Christ in Christmas.

Who’s Your Best Friend? Pt. 2

orkut_friends_for_ever_scraps3This is the second part of a series about the possibility of women and men building ‘best friend’ relationships. As I reflect and write about this topic I find that it continues to morph and grow into something more than a simple yes or no can address. Yes, there will be a part three. And, at this point probably a part four. We’ll see where God takes us.

Last week I began writing about relationships between women and men here. Particularly, on the possibility of them being ‘best’ friends. I stated some of the common objections to these relationships. And, I began to deconstruct some of those objections as having their origins in a particular, privileged male view of sexuality. I pointed out how this view demeans and silences women, as well as reinforces the image of how poor, weak men are bound to be ensnared by the sexual wiles of women. I feel that view of sexuality is pretty much crap talk. I’m not about to go along with any position that unfairly labels women as sluts or gives men a pass on their own, personal faults. What I am going to do today is try to unpack some of the issues regarding cross-sex relationships.

When I was a young boy most of my best friends were other boys. We played in the woods and climbed trees. We raced bicycles and played baseball. We prided ourselves as being true ‘He Man Woman Haters.’ However, I knew who the fastest kid in our class was. And, she could beat any one of us boys in a foot race. When teams for kickball were chosen, I tried to make sure she was on my team. In the classroom I spent more time with the girls because they were smarter than most of my guy friends. It always helped to be on their team during spelling and math contests. Many times outside of class boys and girls played together. (That is, as long as the girls didn’t want to play house. Yuk!) The point is kids know how to be friends with anyone, regardless of gender. But, something happened as we got older. Our bodies began to change. Hormones started messing with us. Parents and other adults started telling us that boys and girls needed to start preparing for marriage. Physical pressure, peer pressure and social pressure built to the point of bursting. I’m surprised anyone survives this! All of the sudden…the innocence is gone. Now, we have to learn a whole new way of relating to one another. The girl who once was one of my best friends has become a sexual object. Not because we chose that path. But, because others defined it for us.

I want to be clear about something before I continue. In this series I’m not addressing casual or professional acquaintances. These relationships are viewed as completely necessary and acceptable by most people. I am writing about the possibility for women and men to have relationships in which their hearts are knit together. In which they become kindred spirits who support and encourage one another. In essence, they are best friends in every sense that implies. However, they remain just friends.

Impossible? I don’t think so. Let’s take time to look at some of the issues.Please note that these are serious issues. Many good people and relationships have been shipwrecked because of them. So, I do not take them lightly. I do, however, want to place them within a context that may, perhaps, shed some light on them and offer hope to people who may feel lost and hopeless.

In my last post I shared a video clip from the movie, “When Harry met Sally.” Billy Crystal’s character said that it was impossible for women and men to be friends because ‘the sex part’ always gets in the way. I think there’s some truth in that statement. Whether it’s always an issue, I’m not sure. I do know that in many cases physical attraction and desire are potential deal breakers. I don’t want to belittle this issue, but I think that we need to understand that ‘the sex part’ is totally natural. As I wrote before, we are sexual beings. However, we tend to obsess over this. Especially, in the purity culture, sexuality is whispered about or it is ignored. This sentiment seems to have its roots in how the early church incorporated the Christian scriptures and Greek philosophy, particularly Plato. That view divides the unseen ultimate concept of things from their physical representation on earth. The physical is always something ‘less than’ the ultimate, non-physical reality. The church began to understand that the spiritual reality, therefore, is something to be sought after. The physical, or the ‘flesh,’ was something to be despised. Spirit=Good; Flesh=Bad. However, the folks who wrote the First Covenant did not seem to view humanity like this. Theirs was a wholistic view of people. It looked more like this: Flesh+Spirit=Soul. This view honors the whole person. We can accept and embrace ourselves as God’s image bearers in God’s Good Creation. I truly believe that grasping this is the first step in freeing ourselves from the prison of shame and false modesty. That freedom is necessary for openness and friendship to be established between women and men. Freedom can be won when a person admits and owns their sexuality. When I confess that, yes, I am attracted to this person, I don’t have to hide it or deny it. I can embrace it. After all, this ‘sexual’ me is part of who I am…who God has formed me to be. By not giving into shame and obsessing over my human nature I don’t empower it. I can simply admit that it’s there and move on. I do not have to gratify it. It took me a long time and some monumental failures to learn this. And, it wasn’t until I realized that one of my best friends is a woman that I began to understand that embracing who I am is one of the greatest safeguards against pursuing ‘the sex part.’

There is another potential hazard that I think is vital to understand. It is, perhaps, even more important than this one. But, you’ll have to wait for part three for that.

How do you feel about your identity as a sexual being? Is it possible to accept and embrace ourselves as whole persons and share that with others?

Remembering Grandpa Tom

TomThis past weekend I got to know my paternal grandfather a little bit. I never did meet him before he died in 1959. I was just a wee lad and he lived in another state. My dad never talked about him much. He and my dad’s stepmother had divorced and Tom left dad with her. I don’t think dad ever really forgave him for that. The story was that Tom was an alcoholic and pretty much not good for anything. At least, that’s the version I was told.

I have spent much of the last month since dad’s passing sifting through papers, photos and other bits and pieces of his and mom’s life. This past weekend I finally got to the boxes of pictures and old letters. Scribbled on the lid of one box, with black magic marker, was “Tom.” In that box I found a treasure. There were photos of a young child in clothes that would definitely get him beaten up if he wore them today. Tom was born in 1897, so the styles, especially the dress styles, were…well, something to behold. Think of Ron Weasley at the Hogwarts’ Yule ball in The Goblet of Fire. There were a few family photos showing Tom with his parents and siblings. All of these image revealed the family standing rigid and straight-faced as if the camera was a firing squad. Then, I found a couple pictures with Tom and his first wife, Mary. That marriage did not last long. His second wife was named Goldie. My dad came into this life as the consummation of this union. Unfortunately, Goldie passed from tuberculosis when dad was just 6 years old. I don’t think that Tom ever really recovered from that. It seems that the loss of his beloved Goldie was the beginning of his downward spiral into the maelstrom of alcohol and forgetfulness. Tom did remarry, I think for Bill’s sake, but as I wrote above, that did not last nor end well.

Tom relocated to Florida where he pretty much fell off the grid. Perhaps, he thought that the further he could run from his past the better he would feel. He found employment on various farms helping to harvest citrus and other fruit and vegetables. These years have been erased…at least for me. Perhaps one of Tom’s siblings kept some information that has been passed on. But, I really don’t have any contact with any of  them. What I did find, however, was a stack of old letters and other correspondence from the last few years of Tom’s life. Most of the letters were written by Tom to one of his sisters in Ohio. These letters, dated between 1956 and 1959, revealed a man who was lost and reaching out to the only people who could connect him to a happier existence.

Tom was a simple man. The letters were penciled on small note pad type paper. The hand that drew the characters was not steady. Maybe from drinking. Maybe from handling something as foreign as a writing instrument. It was obvious that his education was not a high priority when he grew up. The spelling and grammar were at a grade school level. He was ‘shure’ glad when the ‘wether’ was nice and his ‘cocial security’ check arrived. The content was simple. He asked about his sister’s life and condition. And, he replied with reports of his health and the current weather conditions. I found out that my dad had been writing to him, as Tom wrote that he had received letters from Billy. Funny, Dad never mentioned that. From these letters I learned that Tom had to have a leg amputated 4 inches below the knee. He considered the repercussions that the ‘wooden leg’ he was getting would have on his life. I don’t know why the leg was removed. I think that the cause was a work related injury because he mentioned disability checks. But, that’s only conjecture. In letters dated form 1958 I learned that Tom had throat cancer. His frustration at getting straight answers from doctors was quite evident. (I guess some things never change.) At one point he wrote that he was convinced that he did not have cancer, but a ‘toomer.’ And for that, he was getting ‘treetment’.

In all of the letters there was an almost desperate longing for relationship. Although he put on the façade of someone who was independent and was taking care of himself, he ended the letters with pleas for his sister to answer the letter quickly. Or, he wrote for his sister to tell Perl, his brother, or Billy to please answer his letters. It was as if he was shouting, “Sis! Please tell someone…anyone…to talk to me, listen to me…touch me!” As the summer of 1959 unfolded, Tom’s health took a turn for the worse. I found a couple of letters from Tom’s doctor stating that there was nothing more that they could do for him. The best treatment they had was simply palliative, or comfort care. Late that summer my family and I were in Maine on vacation. It was there that dad received the call that Tom had passed.

We packed and returned home.

Tom’s sister made all of the arrangements to have Tom returned to Ohio where he finally found peace lying next to his mother in a small cemetery on a hill in the countryside.

I still don’t know Tom. I’ve learned a little about him. But, just like the word ‘tree’ is not actually a tree, these mementos are not actually the real man. There is so much that I don’t know about my adopted family. People I will never know…places and events that have long since escaped memory. I have few ties with the past…the legacy of humanity. I have embraced my place as one grafted into this family tree. Thomas Lester Helbert is the name of my branch.

Whose Side are You On? No.

liberal-conservativeFor anyone who has been awake in the U.S. in recent years, the conflict between conservatives and liberals, right and left, has taken center stage, not only in the political arena, but in economics, religion and anywhere else that people can stand against one another. We have all witnessed the vitriol spewing all over broadcast and social media. And, I suppose that many of us simply cannot identify with everything being claimed and counter-claimed by pundits and so-called ‘experts’ who speak and write with self-proclaimed authority. I know that I can’t. In truth, I cannot align myself with either side in these arguments.

One of the problems is that we have allowed these people to define and shape the discussions. Regardless of the issue, there always seems to be someone willing to stand up and ask, ‘Who’s with me? Who’s against me?’ Immediately the line has been drawn and everyone is expected to stand on one side or the other. Then, we can all snarl and growl at each other. What if we were to say “no, I don’t feel like playing those games? Too many people get hurt.”

I used to play, though. For years I stood on the left of the line. Those were the days when I was a young, naïve idealist. I really thought that the folks of my generation were going to stand up and change the world. We watched as American apartheid was dismantled. We were front row witnesses to the downfall of a president and the end of, what was up until that time, the United States’ most unpopular war. People were being liberated from constructs and systems that had bound women, the poor and people of color for centuries. (Well, at least we thought so.) Then, as I grew older, got a job, married and had children, I heard a voice from the right, ‘red rover, red rover, let Mikie come over.’ And, I did. The idealism of my youth was slowly replaced by pragmatism. The reality of caring for hearth and home turned my gaze inward. It was more important to feed my family than to concern myself with feeding ‘those’ people. Yeah, we dipped our toes into the humanitarian pool by supporting organizations that helped others. But, by sending a check we didn’t need to really think about them.

Then, a funny thing happened, though. My inner idealist woke up. I began to see that the conservative blood that was coursing through my veins carried no nutrients to my soul. The polarizing effect that is inherent in so many of the discussions and decisions that I was party to simply drained me and left me with a conflicted identity. Seriously, I really didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. So, I moved back toward the left. This, too, was not satisfying. What we call liberalism today is empty. It has its roots in the enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries. At its core is the belief that human reason can lift humanity to higher self-realization and prosperity. Liberalism exalts individuality even as it strives for a sense of communal accountability. The modernist ideal that grew during that period brought about giant leaps in technology, science and medicine. It also was at the foundation of White privilege and Manifest Destiny. These caused unsurpassed damage to indigenous people worldwide and environmental destruction beyond reason. So, no…liberal doesn’t fit me.

I do lean to the left, however. I stand firmly with the 99%. I support LGBT people in their struggle for rights and identity. I think that the Affordable Care Act is a great step forward, albeit, not the final step. Food stamps and other tools that can help people who really need help are good. I also feel that infatuation with the military can only cause harm and hardship. Some people might say, “Yeah, looks like a liberal and smells like a liberal. Gotta be a liberal!” Well, let’s not jump there so quickly. Over at Homebrewed Christianity, Bo Sanders has written some good stuff on the differences between liberals and what has been termed Progressives here and here. While I don’t pretend to fully understand all that Sanders wrote, I do notice that the emphasis appears to be more on the community of believers rather than on the potential of human individualism. For me, then, the concept of a body that has a source outside of human achievement begins to come into focus.

Perhaps the most distinguishable difference, at least for me, is the reality of the transcendent. I embrace the mysteries of faith. Those things that human reason simply cannot grasp, but are real. I believe in miracles. I long for the transformative nature of God’s Holy Spirit. I embrace the relationships between humans and the Good Creation. Relationships that are more than simply utilitarian. We are more than organic mechanisms, yet less than divine. It’s because of this that I must support organizations and policies that are designed lift people out of misery. That’s why I cannot support Western arrogance and militarism. That’s why I give my hand and my heart to those deemed ‘less than’ or ‘other.’ No, I’m neither liberal nor conservative. I’m simply a human being.

To Suffer…and To Suffer With

In a recent post I mused about God’s relationship with the entirety of the Good Creation. That, perhaps, at the moment that the universe began to grow and form God had shared a part of God’s own essence. We are all interconnected, related, because of the Breath of God that has given to us. In another post I wrote a little about my own journey through depression and self-loathing. The story is painful for me to recount. But, I must share just a tad more.

This week I messaged a young person who is battling her own inner demons of depression. I don’t know why, but something about this person has caused my heart to be open…vulnerable. I have tried to encourage her to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ In a reply she wrote something that really caught me off guard. I quickly responded with an apology. But, I felt horrible inside. Now, for most people the exchange would have been nothing to be concerned about. The words shared were neither abusive nor inappropriate. However, what I had thought would be helpful was rejected. By extension, I felt rejected. When a person lives with depression, any rejection, real or perceived, can throw that person into a downward spiral into interior depths where all sorts of beasties live. Throughout the remainder of that day I was pretty much lost. It got to the point where I asked a friend of mine why I was such an ‘asswipe.’ Sleep was lost to me that night as I considered and reconsidered what had happened. I beat myself up for feeling bad. I cursed myself for the words, as innocuous as they were. Other unrelated issues began to pop up and cause more anxiety. You see, with me that’s how depression works. It causes all of my strength to focus inwardly. I can see nothing but my own faults and inadequacies.

The next morning as I was trying to meditate and pray, I picked up a book by Brian McClaren compassionentitled Naked Spirituality. I had been reading it recently for, I don’t know, the umpteenth time. I opened it to the place I had marked the last time I had read from it. The words jumped off of the page! He was writing about compassion. Particularly, how we respond to the suffering of others. The word does not, as some have said, have anything to do with having passion, as in “she is passionate about someone or something.” The passion part of the word carries the same meaning as when people speak of the Passion of Christ. It is derived from Latin and can be translated “to suffer with.” McClaren wrote that when we are presented with the suffering of others we can respond in one of several ways. We may become “calloused, uncaring, embittered, or overwhelmed.” I had become clearly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by this young person’s suffering and by my own inability to deal with rejection. Compassion was what  I needed. And, I needed it now! Compassion forces folks to look outside of themselves. Our gaze looks upward and outward for relief for the object of our compassion. It breaks forth in pleas for mercy. And, as McClaren wrote, it enables us to “choose connection over disconnection, compassion over apathy, commitment and expansion over constriction and contraction.” I began to pray. Prayer for this young person and her life. Prayer for the enlargement of my heart. Prayer that took my eyes off of me and fixed them on the loving Creator who imbued me and this other person with God’s own breath. Have I found a cure for depression? No, it’s something that I will continue to live with. However, I have found another weapon to use against it. Compassion.

Tumbling into tumblr.

tumblrIn July I was introduced to tumblr. Mostly, because Rachel Held Evans started a blog there. (Ok, I pay attention to what she does cuz she’s successful and I’m not.) Many young folks have migrated there because Facebook has become the hallowed grounds of the Old and Unknowing. I don’t understand how young folks don’t get that wherever they go, the old and infirm are sure to follow.

Anyway, I’ve become addicted. I never thought that social media could grab me and drag me in…but, tumblr. has. CRAP! The tumbr. world is diverse. There are people posting images, poems, short prose and quotes. Some of the blogs are designed to enable writers and artists to share their work and to learn from one another. Some of these allow others to submit their work for online publication. Others simply offer tips and encouragement. And, actually, much of the art, photography and writing is quite good.

There is another side to tumblr., however. Many of those who blog there, perhaps most of them, are young adults. This particular medium offers them a venue where they can explore and expand on the conflicts that they experience as they journey, the best that they can, from the safe world of childhood to the unpredictable world of adulthood. I think that part of the allure of tumblr. is that it allows people to post pretty much anything and everything. Someone may post an image of a forest stream one minute. In the next, they show the scars where they have cut themselves. Another may post kittens and unicorns followed by images that suggest drug abuse. The whole universe of teen angst is on display for the world to see. Shocking? Yeah, some of it is. And, I think that’s the purpose for much of it. Through images and words that press against social morés, many of these people are clearly seeking attention. This is nothing new. Young adults seek to find an identity that they can live with. By drawing attention to themselves they can test and find that which will, in some way, make them ‘acceptable.’ There are others, though, that seem to be stuck. For them depression and sadness have led to self-harm and other self-destructive behavior. These are the people that I can empathize with.

I am, as one friend puts it, “a sensitive musician.” He usually says it as a kind of fun pejorative. But, he’s right. In a brain dominance test many years ago, I was the group’s ‘space cadet’ because I live in the right side of my brain. As a young person I felt misunderstood and marginalized by family and friends. I experienced deep depression and sadness. At times I fell so far into myself that I didn’t realize that I had just scratched the skin off of the tops of my hands so that they bled. I found some solace in drugs and alcohol. Yet, this only seemed to help for a short while. I have always had a sense of unworthiness. Unworthy to receive good things…including love. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there is a person who can love without condition. This person understands the alienation and pain that I know so well because he experienced it himself. Yeshua ben Yosef…Jesus son of Joseph…is that person. Am I well now? Hardly. I still deal with depression, self-loathing and some self-destructive activities. But, I am not alone. And, I have a relationship with Someone whom I am confident ‘gets’ me. More than that, however, I have a connectedness with others who, like me, have hope for the future. Perhaps, this is why I’m so drawn to the young people who inhabit the tumblr. universe. They are me. We are a community of hurting misfits. We think and reflect deeply about our world and how we can be a significant part of it. We desire to be understood, yet, in a way we take pride in knowing that we can’t be understood. We refuse to be categorized, preferring instead an enigmatic life. But, we appreciate your presence more than you can ever know. We receive life from you when you notice us. The God who I follow has fashioned us to be a community. We are all interrelated in ways that my puny, little brain cannot ever hope to fathom. I can only share my small spark of life with those who need it. tumblr. is a place where I can do that.

Relationships…What if?

CreationI started to write this post a few days after we buried Dad. It’s taken a little longer to write than I had originally thought.

I’ve just gone back to work after Dad’s passing. I have mixed feelings about going back. Part of me really would like to take a few more days to recover from the emotional stress of watching Dad during his final hours. Lack of sleep and good nutrition has left me physically drained. Another part of me feels the need to get back in the saddle. Work can be a good diversion, focusing the mind on tasks other than funerals and mourning.
The outpouring of support from extended family and friends has been amazing. I’m not sure that I would be of much use to anyone if not for their encouragement and presence. Yeah, I still like books, but all of these people made the last week not only bearable, but in many ways, pleasant. What can I say? We’re all connected in some way. There is something more than just our common humanity at play here. We all share in the brevity and frailty of life. Love given and received binds us with others as we form communities.
But, there is something more. The connection between us as humans is vast and wide. Why would a person in one part of the world care about the needs of someone 14,000 miles away on the other side of the world? Especially, when that one person has more than enough cares and troubles of her or his own? How can I travel to another culture, not knowing the language, and actually communicate with someone? Perhaps, there is an affinity between us because we are the same species. You know, ‘birds of a feather.’ That could be part of it, I suppose. However, those birds simply flock together. They don’t go out of their way to care for the needs of others. Some birds don’t even care for their own young! No, I don’t see that being the common thread that binds us. I think that there is something other than our physical reality at play here.
What that something is has been speculated about ever since humans began to think. (Although, there are some folks today that I wonder about.) I’m not going to join in that philosophical discussion. I’m woefully under qualified for that.
However, I might speculate on something else… relationship. What if that common characteristic is buried deep within humanity? And, what if it is empowered by an outside source? (I’m just musing.) Could it be that what we call God, or Creator, or any number of names is responsible for touching each of us? Perhaps there is a relationship between this God and the Good Creation that acts as a catalyst causing humans to care. Not only caring for other humans, but for the Good Creation as well. That would explain why there are organizations such as Green Peace and Doctors Without Borders. There are thousands of shelters for battered and beaten people. Environmental and human rights organizations flourish. All of this in a world that seems bent on self destruction. Why? I have no pat answer. Nor, does anyone else.
Maybe, the relationship between the Creator and the Good Creation has been damaged. This has been the position of the Christian Church. They accept that sometime in the distant past, between 6 & 10 thousand years ago, God created all things and declared them ‘good.’ The entire created universe was pristine, if not ‘perfect.’ Humankind was innocent and enjoyed relationships with God and the creation. However, these humans were somehow enticed to disobey God and suffered a ‘fall’ of some sort that affected all of creation. The good relationships with God and the cosmos were damaged. Yet, there was still something within them, a broken shard of God’s image that continued to allow some people to do good things. This idea was first articulated by Augustine of Hippo in the late 4th to early 5th centuries. Personally, I don’t agree with him about the ‘fall.’ But, more on that at another time.
What if, about 14 billion years ago, the known universe erupted and began to form into the wondrous environment that we now live in? Then, somewhere around 4.5 billion years ago this system of planets and asteroids and other matter began to form around a larger mass that became our Sun. Over time changes occurred due to any number of causes and effects. On the third rock from this sun these changes caused organisms to develop that contained within them the potential for what we call ‘life.’ Eventually, millions more years passed until a certain small segment of these organisms developed and matured until humanity emerged…upright and aware of itself within this Great and Good Creation. Now, I hear the voices saying, “Whoa! Where is God in this? Isn’t this just a rehash of some Darwinian theory?” Well, yeah it is…kind of. But, what if God has been a part of this entire process? Perhaps not in an entirely active way. Nor, as the deists would say, as a passive observer. Maybe, God breathed God’s life into that original bit of matter and imbued it with God’s own presence. I’m not going to go into panentheism. I don’t think that the universe is part of God nor that the universe is synonymous with God. I’m saying that, perhaps, God is the One who animated and gave ‘life’ to the process. That God has carefully watched over the cosmos, not as an ‘intelligent designer,’ but as a caring and loving parent who knew and trusted that things would develop a certain way.
In the beginning, the breath of God…Ruach Elohim, who hovered over the formless void…was God the Spirit. The Word of God, spoken, brought order out of chaos. God, present from the beginning, shared part of God’s self with what became the Cosmos. Humans, aware of time, space and self also had the capacity to ‘know’ God. Far from being a separate entity at the top of some cosmic hierarchy, humans have derived their essence from that which erupted all those billions of years earlier. We are ‘part and parcel’ with all of the Good Creation. Relationships…they are built into us…from the beginning.