Peace

peace two candles

Many images come to mind when I think of the word peace. Quiet. Stillness. A snowfall. An empty beach. An early morning cup of tea. A winter night sky full of stars. But what happens when those things are not readily available, or least not available uninterrupted? What happens when life feels like it has been picked up and shaken around like a snowglobe in the hands of an overeager three year-old – what does peace look like then?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that’s something to hang on to. It’s the wall I find to lean against during a panic attack. It’s the warmth of the sun on my fair or the wind in my hair or the voice of a friend that gives me something to hang on to until everything stops spinning or falling in on me or both.

But here’s the thing – all of those are outside of me. The good images that come to mind when I think of peace and the things I hang to when I’m falling apart – all those are outside.

Peace, true peace, is a gift that lies within. It means digging deeper than surface images and finding something – or rather Someone – greater to hang on to. Or perhaps it means allowing myself to be held. Perhaps the path to peace means letting go and allowing myself to be held by the same hands that hold the whole universe steady. Perhaps true peace can only be found through surrender and trust.

It seems like this Advent, if I’m to know peace, I’m going to have to surrender and trust. And I think I’ve been shaken around enough that surrender and trust are less terrifying now. Ask me again around Christmas.

Hope

hope

The First Sunday of Advent: Hope

What is hope anyway?

I hope I sleep tonight. I hope she feels better tomorrow. I hope this new medication works. I hope work isn’t crazy on Monday. I hope the new U2 album doesn’t suck. I hope this new recipe turns out to be decent. I hope I didn’t forget to buy milk again. I hope we can get the Christmas tree up without drama. I hope I get the classes I want. I hope we don’t end up in another war. I hope the tax plan doesn’t ruin us.

I hope… I hope… I hope…

It seems like whenever I talk about hope what I really mean is a wish. A wish for the ways things used to be. A wish for the way things ought to be. A wish for things to be better than they are right now. Or sometimes even a wish for a different reality.

But is that really hope?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come.”

Dawn. A new day. But a new day doesn’t mean a new reality, merely a continuation of this one. Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. Maybe those things are beyond my control and all the wishing in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference.

But true hope is more than a wish. Hope in the dawn is understanding, as Dr. King said, “That the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.” Hope is a belief that God can and will bring good out of the realities of this life. Hope is rooted in faith. Hope grows in trust. Hope thrives in perseverance. Hope holds fast in the darkness. Hope is that which carries me when wishes no longer matter. Hope is that which sustains me when reality seems more than I can bear.

Advent reminds me to stay rooted in faith, to trust, to persevere, to hold fast in the darkness. Advent reminds me to hope for God has promised me that the dawn will come.

“The King shall come when morning dawns 
And light triumphant breaks, 
When beauty gilds the eastern hills 
And life to joy awakes.”

The King Shall Come 
By: John Brownlie

 

Advent & Old Movies

This time of year always brings with a mix of feelings I could do without – a hint of nostalgia, a touch of melancholy, a touch of sadness – all things that come up when the Thanksgiving table is set and there are empty chairs that once were occupied. Some years are harder than others. This is one of those years.

stuffingI was put in charge of Thanksgiving dinner this year. It should be said that I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. I recruited my sister and my younger son to help me. Note to self: offering a 15 year-old boy the chance to wield a large kitchen knife is a terrifying, yet highly effective, incentive to get him take on the role of sous chef. My mom, who usually presides over two days of baking and then preparing Thanksgiving dinner itself, sat this year out entirely. Aside from helping us figure out which of the three faded, smeary, barely legible versions of ‘Grandma’s Stuffing Recipe’ was actually the right grandma and the right stuffing, she left it up to us to figure it all out. In the end, we pulled the whole thing off quite nicely. Despite talk of keeping things low-key, there were four pies, two kinds of cookies, a decent-sized turkey, two kinds of stuffing, and enough side dishes that the leftovers will have us playing refrigerator Tetris for the next week.

With Thanksgiving over, Advent is fast approaching. And in my house, the approach of Advent is steeped in fond memories of my childhood. Some years that brings comfort and other years – well – not so much. This year – yeah – not so much.  Being in a position of splitting time between two churches, and still being considered a newcomer in both, is hard. This year it is a bit easier than last year but being a welcomed outsider still feels like being an outsider. After a last minute decision to pop in to my old Catholic parish on Thanksgiving morning, I learned of the coming retirement of the priest who was my pastor for the better part of thirty years and the only confessor I ever really trusted. I knew that was coming sooner rather than later, but it still caught me off-guard. The feeling that home is no longer home just became a bit more intense. The feeling that time is slipping by too fast also became a bit more intense.

casablanca-1.0.0Maybe that explains the sudden desire to lose myself in old movies. The last few weekends, I’ve curled up with my favorite blanket to be swept away by Doctor Zhiavago, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind. I have Citizen Kane and To Have and Have Not and a few others in the watchlist. I know every line of dialogue and every note of the score and yet, here I am, tissues in hand, sniffling over the same old movies I’ve watched a hundred times.

Like an old movie, I know the music of Advent and every line of the story. I know what will make me smile and what will have me in tears. Some years, Advent is deeply spiritual. Some years, it’s simply a bit nostalgic. This year, the coming of Advent has me wanting to stop time, even for a little while. That’s not exactly a new feeling. The last few years, Advent has been rough. I know each passing day brings that the long emotional slog of January to March closer. I dread those weeks that bring up dark memories and old nightmares. Some years, I can let myself get caught up in the quiet of Advent and I find great joy in the Christmas season (the real one, not that fake Hallmark crap) and that  joy carries me very well through those dark months. This year, I’m struggling already and I know damn good and well nostalgia isn’t going to cut it. Either I’m going to have to intentionally let myself be swept away by the season of Advent and all the feelings it calls up or Christmas will slip through my fingers, leaving me with little to carry me through my darkest months of the year. Before there can be hope, peace, joy and love, there has to be trust and surrender. I have a week to come to grips with that and it feels like I need a month or two.

Scary Conversations

hourglass

Death and dying. Not the topic most people would choose to spend their Saturday discussing but that is precisely how I spent yesterday. I had the opportunity to attend a conference on palliative care at Sacred Heart University. Attendees including students and working professionals from across several disciplines including doctors, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and hospital chaplains as well as caretakers and family members from the community. What struck me most was that one of the biggest obstacles to obtaining palliative care for patients is fear. In the medical community, there is fear that referring a patient for palliative care means giving up and that “it’s too soon” – an attitude which often means patients suffer needlessly. For families, there is a fear that the suggestion of palliative care means death is imminent, which is often not the case. While education can dispel the myth that palliative care is the same thing as hospice care (it’s not), I’m not quite so confident that it can easily dispel the fear.

In a breakout group that focused on the spiritual aspect of making end-of-life health care choices, the same theme came up over and over. Families are terrified by the prospect of talking about death, whether it’s at the beginning of a serious decline in health or when death is staring them in the face. In some cases, families will do anything to keep a patient alive, despite knowing that death is inevitable. Some families want to extend life as long as possible,  holding out for a full physical healing miracle to happen. Their prayer can become so frantic that it is less about a relationship with God and more of a magic ritual. In such cases, families cannot seem to accept that the miracle may come in the form of a peaceful death. People who believe so deeply in a God who heals seem to struggle when it comes to believing in a God who is waiting to welcome their loved ones who will be released from their illness through death.

After listening to the war stories told by several of the chaplains and social workers, each one of them questioning how we change a culture that is so hung up on death avoidance, one of the young nursing students spoke up. She said that she’s of Finnish descent and in their culture, death is accepted as a unique part of life. Death is talked about and embraced as part of life from childhood. No one tries to hide from it or avoid it. People talk about their final wishes with family, including young children. She went on to say that her grandmother had called her last year to let her know that she had taken a woodworking class with another family member. The grandmother had designed and built her own casket and she wanted to make sure everyone in the family knew where it was being stored so when the time came, she could be buried in it. This is clearly a lady who is at peace with the reality that she will die one day.

I have to admit, as I listened to that story, the image that popped into my head almost immediately was of the third brother in the Tale of the Three Brothers from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  (If you’ve never seen it you can watch the short clip here.)

The third brother didn’t see death a power to be wielded or as something to be conquered. Rather, he lived his life well, knowing that death was inevitable, and when the time came, he greeted death as an old friend.

If we truly believe in the God we say we believe in, the God of everlasting life, isn’t that the way we should live? Let’s be honest here, death is inevitable for every single one of us. Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about it? Rather than kicking and fighting death all the way to grave, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge that death will come? Wouldn’t it simply be sensible to plan for the care we wish to receive to keep us comfortable and to maintain the best quality of life for as long as possible, while knowing that quality of life is not about extending life as long as medically possible. Admittedly, it’s much harder when illness strikes a young person, but knowing that death comes for every single one of us, why are we so afraid to accept it, to embrace it, and to talk about it?

As tends to happen with a really good conference, the questions asked raised more questions to take home and ponder for awhile. The biggest question on everyone’s mind was: How do we change the culture? One point that every professional and every speaker drove home was the same one: We need to start talking about these things. We need to help people understand what end-of-life care looks like before they get to that point. And in order to do that, we need to meet people where they are, which for many is stuck in a fear of death and dying. I think, for many, ultimately the fear of death is not so much a fear of the end of life as it is a fear of what comes next. And for Christians, what comes next is a face-to-face with God.

At the end of the day, I went home and, in classic introvert fashion, changed into pajamas, brewed a good strong cup of tea, and curled up with a new book. Eleven pages in, I came across this:

“I was afraid to make decisions for my life that would lead to greater happiness because I was afraid I’d get it wrong and end up on the wrong end of God’s wrath…

For those of us who get stuck in fear, we reach a point where indecision is no longer a plausible option if we want to truly live. The months and years of running from fear and abdication our full engagement with faith and life have a way of catching up to us. Eventually the walls close in. The trail ends. The sun dips below the horizon. We reach a point where we either have to close our eyes and spend the rest of our lives pretending we’re not dying or we need to embrace a bold authenticity about who we are and what we believe. We need to embrace life itself.”  [Benjamin Corey, Unafraid]

And it struck me that if we’re really going to meet people where they are when it comes to end-of-life care, we need to start talking about fear. Fear of illness. Fear of weakness. Fear of pain. Fear of dying. Fear of death itself. And especially, fear of what comes next. Because as Christians, we say we believe that God is love. And if we truly believe that, and if we truly believe that God walks with us through any illness, pain, suffering, and even dying, then we can trust that God will help us overcome our fear of talking about death. We can help our families to overcome their fears by talking about our own. And if we find that the fears people have are not just fears of dying but of God’s wrath, of hellfire and brimstone, then we need to start talking about that too. Because all of this fear is keeping people from living well and from dying well.

Reformation

sparrow

Four years ago, I wrote a post titled Ringing Hollow. I wrote, in part:

“I can’t seem to put the laws and practices of this [Catholic] church together with the Jesus who chose to hang out with the most broken and rejected people of his time. The more I’ve come to accept that it was never God who rejected me, the harder it becomes to stay in a church who rejects so many. More and more, it all rings hollow to me and I’m starting to wonder, is it time to walk away? To finally accept that this relationship cannot be salvaged? I don’t know yet. Emotionally, I’m running into the same feelings I had just prior to filing for divorce. Spiritually, I feel like I got dropped into a briar patch. It hurts to move and it hurts to stay where I’m at.”

It has taken me those four years to really even begin to work through the grief that comes from having the religion I grew up with completely unravel in my hands. Long about the time I think I’m doing okay, I find myself in a situation where I am most definitely NOT okay.

One of the greatest lessons, I’ve learned since my divorce is that I tend to prefer my own company. I jealously guard my time alone. But there are times, typically very sad times, when I think maybe having a partner to lean on would be nice. A couple of months ago, I attended the funeral for my friend’s 21 year-old daughter. She had fought a short, heartbreaking fight and I was heartbroken for my friend. I had a five-hour ride alone to contemplate the difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It didn’t take all that long to run through the basic facts of my life. I don’t have strong connections in either my Lutheran or my Catholic parish. My connections at the university are limited. Between work, school, the kids, and homework, my schedule is such that it’s hard to find time to spend with the friends who know me best. And now, here I was driving through tears and I was so keenly aware that there was no one to make that drive with me.

No one except Jesus.

Trust has never been my strong suit. That morning, I felt like a bird who had flown into a window: too stunned to fly and more than a little scared by everything I was feeling. Something changed in my relationship with Jesus that day. I’ve had some powerful experiences of presence before but this time was different. It was quiet. It was just a sense of not being alone. It was as if a pair of strong, steady hands had picked me up and would hold me until I was ready to fly again. For the rest of the drive, throughout the funeral and as I stopped for a cup of tea before driving home, I felt that quiet, steady presence. And that is new territory for me.

This past Thursday, I found myself at another funeral. This time for a dear, sweet old lady from my former Catholic parish. She had visited my dad many times when he was in the hospital dying of cancer and was a source of comfort, joy, and laughter in some of my family’s darkest hours. During the years that I attended Mass every day, she was a fixture there, always quick with a smile and a laugh that was infectious to say the least. I was completely unprepared for the waves of emotion that came over me at her funeral. I cried the rest of Thursday and a good chunk of Friday. There was something final in this particular visit to my old parish and it took about a day or so for it to really sink in. To be in that space, surrounded by a community that I had once called my own, to pray hand-in-hand with people I used to see every single day could have have been a source of comfort. Instead, I felt quite intensely that I was a visitor to a place that was no longer home and no amount of hugs or handshakes or warm greetings is ever going to change that. It was like visiting the home of a friend – pleasant, but definitely not home. I found myself again finding my only refuge in that quiet, steady presence.

Saturday night, I had the opportunity to see Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at an Episcopal church in Greenwich. Having read both of her books, many of her sermons, and having seen or read many interviews with her, I was still blown away by her honesty and her passion to understand people wherever they are. It was a powerful thing to see so many women clergy present, some of whom I know from Twitter.

This morning, despite the stormy weather, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than in my Lutheran parish. I find joy and love there that I don’t seem to find anywhere else. To hear a woman preach and to hear a woman proclaim the consecration affirms something deep within me. I feel like I’ve found home.

So on this Reformation Sunday, 500 years after Martin Luther found himself with the religion he grew up with unraveling, I find myself with my own faith being formed and re-formed, expanding in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I don’t know where my own re-forming will lead me, but I do know that I won’t be alone. More than ever before, I know I can trust the hands that hold me steady.

 

The Message We Send

What does the Church hold as more important: conformity or Eucharist?

If you think that sounds like a loaded question, you’re right. It is. But it is a question we need to be asking. Recently, a little girl in Indiana was denied her place at the Eucharistic table because she wanted to wear a suit rather than a dress for her First Communion. The parish insists that they issued a dress code requiring girls to wear dresses with long sleeves. But clearly the dress code wasn’t about modesty or being dressed appropriately because the suit she wore was both modest and appropriate for a First Communion. Her parents were told that either she wore a dress or she would not be allowed to participate with her class. Instead, she would receive Communion after the Mass, privately with her family and the deacon and there would be no pictures. Intended or not, the message sent to that little girl told her:

There is something wrong with you.

You don’t belong here.

You aren’t good enough.

If you want to be part of the Church, conform.

The message also sent to her classmates and their families was that there was something wrong with her desire to be herself because that self didn’t fit a particular image the Church wanted to create. Because she did not fit that image, she should be hidden away. Because she did not fit that image, shaming and excluding her was acceptable.

Her family ultimately opted to find another Catholic school and another Catholic parish rather than force the tearful, confused child to wear a dress just to fit in. What should have been a joyful celebration instead became a traumatic experience that caused deep and unnecessary emotional and spiritual wounds.

authenticI don’t want to debate dress codes or gender roles or images of femininity and masculinity.  I don’t care. I don’t care if she prefers suits and ties to dresses and frills.  I don’t care how short or how long she wears her hair. I. Do. Not. Care.

I do care very much that a child was denied her place at the Lord’s Table and she was denied her place within the Body of Christ. This. Is. Wrong. There is no spin, no list of rules, no tradition, no hermeneutic that can ever justify keeping a child from Jesus and, worse, telling her that it’s her own fault for wanting to come to the Table as her most authentic self.

A 9 year-old does not have the spiritual maturity nor the theological wherewithal to differentiate between God and Church. Through the eyes and understanding of a child, the Church, the priests, the deacons, God, and Jesus are all rolled into one. Because of this, the Church must be very conscious of the messages it sends to our children and the message the Church is sending to its girls and young women is emotionally and spiritually harmful.

Our girls are growing up being constantly told that their shorts are too short, their pants are too tight, their shirts are too low, their shoulders should not be bare, and their makeup should be more subtle, but also that dressing too much like a boy is wrong. Our girls are growing up knowing they are not permitted to be ordained. In some places, they are still growing up knowing they cannot serve on the altar. They are growing up with the message that somehow being a girl is shameful.  More concerning, our girls are growing up with the subtle message that even though Jesus loves you, he expects you to meet a certain standard in order to earn that love. They are getting the message that it is perfectly normal to have to surrender your authenticity, in part or as a whole, in order to be loved. If it is okay for Jesus to expect these things, it is only natural to expect the same in other relationships.

Then we wonder why our young women, who have been raised in the Church and have been taught since childhood about the all-encompassing love of God, are so easily drawn into unhealthy, unloving relationships. Parents and Church leaders will scratch their heads and wonder: Why do our young women try so hard fit in with society? Why are they so willing to give up their very identity for any person or group of people who merely say the things they want to hear?

I think what we really need to start asking ourselves is whether or not it could be because we’ve taught them to be fake. Could it be that the reason they work so hard to mold themselves to their group of friends is because they’ve been subtly taught from childhood that conformity is the path to love and acceptance? Could it be that the reason they tolerate disrespect in relationships is because a disconnect between hearing, “I love you” and actually being treated with love and respect seems normal to them?

Amazing, intelligent young women raised in loving, faithful families, are reaching young adulthood and selling themselves out. In part, they do this because they have been taught that to do so is not only normal, it’s expected. Until we start broadcasting and reinforcing the message that our girls are beloved daughters of God – full stop, no checklists – then the Church will continue to fail her daughters.

Claiming My Right To Life

human rights blog

Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

Preamble

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …

Now, Therefore 

The General Assembly

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance both among the the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. …

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I no longer feel especially confident in my security of person or in my right to life. Why? Because the United States, a signing member of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has spent more time and energy going through the moral and political gymnastics to protect an antiquated and misused amendment to its own Constitution rather than to protect the lives of all of its citizens.

I do not feel secure being in public spaces because, all too often, those spaces have become a target for gun violence. Universities, movie theaters, concerts, nightclubs, churches, and even elementary schools have all seen innocent people gunned down for no other reason than they were out living their lives and happened to find themselves in the crosshairs. They had a right to life. They had a right to feel secure in their person. Their basic human rights were violated.

Now I know there are those who will say we shouldn’t talk about gun control in the wake of the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. We should mourn the dead and help the wounded. It’s not the time or the place for politics. But how long do we mourn? How long before we can channel our grief into actions that prevent this kind of thing from happening ever again? Sandy Hook was nearly five years ago. Are we still mourning the slaughter of those little children and the adults who tried to protect them? Or do we stop mourning them so we can mourn Las Vegas? Do we compound the mourning and if so, then do we ever really stop mourning given the number of mass shootings in this country? Is there a body count threshold we need to meet before we should mourn as a nation? Let’s be completely honest, this latest mass murder is exceptionally newsworthy because of the sheer volume of dead and wounded. Would it have made headlines if only two or three people had been killed? Probably not. Maybe the local news would’ve talked about it for a night, two tops. Would it have mattered as much if only two or three died? Absolutely. One life lost to violence is one too many.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948 by the newly formed United Nations. The member nations were united in their avowal that the horrors of the Holocaust must never happen again. The Holocaust did not happen overnight but rather it began by the incremental, and gradually legalized, stripping away of the most fundamental rights to property, to security of person, and finally the right to life itself. The United Nations recognized the wisdom in protecting human rights from precisely this sort of incremental loss. When we no longer recognize the sanctity and dignity of all human life, our own human rights are in jeopardy.

Why has the right to bear arms become more important than the right to life? How many have to die on the altar of gun rights? At what point do we begin to demand that our basic universal God-given human right to life be honored over and above the right to own a gun capable of killing scores of people in a matter of minutes?

But wait, what about the right to bear arms? What about the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution?

Amendment II

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

The Bill of Rights of the United States of America was written in 1791. These are amendments to the Constitution and are described therein as “proposed by Congress and ratified by the Legislatures of the Several States pursuant to the Fifth Article of the Original Constitution.” When the Founding Fathers included the right to bear arms in the Constitution, they could not have imagined the types of firearms that now exist. The United States was an agrarian society with vast stretches of wilderness that made owning firearms necessary for hunting and as a sensible form of protection, thereby providing security of person. What they did not envision was that a single person would have the ability to amass a cache of weapons and unleash hell on other innocent civilians gathered in a public space.

There are those who would argue that the United Nations Declaration is non-binding as the United States is a sovereign nation with its own laws, standards, and guarantees of rights. For those who would dismiss the United Nations, I need point only to the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

There, in the very founding document of our nation, is the declaration by the Founding Father that all of us has the God-given right to life. We also have the right to peaceably assemble. We have the right to attend schools. We have the right to worship in peace. All of these rights are human rights. These rights have been defined and declared in our own laws and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And every single one of these rights have been violated by those who invoke the right to bear arms.

So do we strip away the right to bear arms altogether? The right to protect self and property? The right to hunt or target shoot for sport? Not necessarily. But we do need to have a serious, soul-searching national conversation about whether the right to life should be held in higher regard than the right to bear arms. We need to have a serious, soul-searching national conversation about defining limits on the right to bear certain types of arms and perhaps by certain people in order to protect the rights of all people to live freely and with security of person.

Would gun control laws be a slippery slope to an incremental stripping away of fundamental rights? I don’t believe so. But what I do believe is that the lack of gun control laws is incrementally stripping away our fundamental right to security of person and our right to life.

Our right to life is God-given. Our right to bear arms is a human invention.

Which do we hold in higher regard?