Ejected from Fort Clinton

Oh how challenging these past few weeks have been! The world is truly upside-down. img_4292Tho
se who expected to be celebrating a shining moment in U. S. history, have taken to the streets carrying signs that declare, “Not my president!” The ones who were readying themselves for protests just a few weeks ago now mock the others. In fact, on my FB page last week, I came across an image of a crop-duster flying low over a field. These words were written:

“Too bad we can’t fill one of these with pepper-spray!”
A comment below clarified its intent:                                                                                                    “It would drive away the protesters in a New York minute!”

Who posted it? A friend who has visited me here in NYC and enjoyed dinner in my Louisville home several times. I could only respond, “It grieves my heart to see such things posted,” before trying to let it all go.

However, the image – and its implications – lingered.

Given my long immersion in social justice – “liberal” – concerns, anyone who knows me knows how I voted. And yet, a friend joked about doing harm to people like me. Why? Incapable of answering that question, I headed to the northern end of Central Park.

The fall colors being at their peak, I ventured up a pathway to one of the forts that the British had established in the Revolutionary War, and that the Americans later used in the War of 1812. How lovely the sight was! The still waters of The Meer reflected the red and yellow leaves of surrounding trees and the silhouettes of nearby buildings. Breathing deeply, I was glad to be standing upon such high ground. As I sat on on a bench, I imagined the soldiers of years past using that vantage point to espy their enemies as they might approach. That image then revealed a metaphor I hadn’t expected. I was standing on high ground that was once used to identify and then attack an enemy. The words “high moral ground” came to mind.

Oh my, I couldn’t help but wonder….  Is that what we’ve been doing? All of us, standing on high moral ground?

With that thought in mind, I looked to the west, towards the other two forts along that rocky area. Atop the furthest one, Nutter’s Battery, I imagined a group of people known to strongly defend and protect their own highest value – the Second Amendment. Yes, I could see the NRA and their most avid supporters atop their high moral ground, ready to attack anyone and everyone who would come near them. In allowing that image to take hold, I realized that they perceive everyone who supports gun control as their enemy, even the parents of children who have been killed in a classroom.

Atop the other hill, on Fort Fish, I saw another group, pro-life advocates. In defending the lives of unborn children, they are absolutely convinced that they stand on the highest of moral ground. And how tenaciously they cling to that ground, seeing anyone and everyone who suggests otherwise as enemy – even pregnant women themselves. They’ve become incapable of seeing the significant ways they threaten, even imperil, the lives of so many women while in their defensive posture.

And, then, I had to admit, if other people are doing such things, surely, I, too, may have stood on high moral ground myself. And so, standing atop Fort Clinton, yes – that is its name – I needed to ask, on what moral ground have I stood?

Seeking to answer that question was so very challenging – not because I cannot name the values and principles which I so dearly treasure. My protests against the Afghanistan and Iraqi Wars, my teaching social justice in a high school and the many hours I’ve spent serving refugees, Appalachian communities, homeless men and women, and inner-city families touched by HIV all reveal my principles, my highest morals.
 I must ask, in defending my values, whom have I allowed to become my img_4307enemy?
What cannons have I aimed at them?
What rocks have I hurled?

NONE! I want to declare.                                                                                                             Or, at least, none that weren’t well-deserved. Or, at least, none that truly hurt anyone…. after all, I choose my words so carefully.
However, if I can see so clearly other people standing on their high moral ground, I cannot deny that I have stood on such ground, probably attacking my own enemies. But what am I to do? Am I to leave those values behind? To say that now I stand for nothing?

Of course not! Values and principles must be upheld, promoted and protected.                 So what am I to do?

A few days ago, when I noticed an article in NYT about the rise of alt-right groups claiming victory in this election, a course of action arose. I decided to share it on Facebook. First I told my conservative friends that I respect their decision because I assume they don’t stand for such hate, and then I requested that they let the president-elect know that those groups do not represent them. There, I thought, I was being considerate, while also making clear my concerns. Within an hour, though, I was admonished by one of my liberal friends.

Apparently, she took offense that I said that I respect the choice to have voted for Mr. Trump. As I read her remark, I noticed that another had clicked a sad face for my post. It seemed that in trying to communicate with “the enemy,” I was deemed to be no longer one of the liberal team.

I felt as if I were being pushed right off “Fort Clinton,” and down into the trenches.
Confused, I deleted the post. But what are we to do?

Of course, my FB conservative friend doesn’t want to hurt me or anyone else. However, whenever violence can be laughed at, well, that’s a problem. Even worse, some people have already been attacked, mostly those alienated by Mr. Trump as he campaigned. That violence and the potential for even more must be stopped now. To do that, we must lessen the anger that now rages among us.And here my metaphor spoke to me.

Somehow, we must find it in ourselves to trust each other so that each of us may descend from the forts we’ve built. A beginning point for both sides of this matter may be to put aside the accusations, the name-calling, the condescending jokes, and anything that hints at violence. Only then, in standing upon common ground, will we be able to respond appropriately and united to the many issues now arising through our president-elect’s recent choices, choices that will hurt all of us, it seems, except – maybe – the very rich. Only then, once we have disarmed ourselves, will love, indeed, trump hate.

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Longing to trump hate? Become love!

fullsizeoutput_2468This past week, I felt I had been forcibly ejected from my own garden and into a world I do not know. More specifically, it seems I’m in a dense forest where I am incapable of making sense of all that surrounds me. Overwhelmed, I’m tempted to locate a snug den, a deep cave, where I can hide and protect myself until this whole thing ends. Such hibernation, though, serves no one, and so I must venture further in – but where? How? The path ahead seems so uncertain.

I’ve been told by some that it’s time for us to protest, to take to the streets to let our voices be heard. It’s cathartic, people tell me. Furthermore, they insist, because such protests play important roles within the legacy of social justice, we must accept our own responsibility. I see the truth in all they say, and yet, I hesitate. In fact, when I bumped into a protest occurring in Midtown the other day, I didn’t join in, even though I participated in some of the earliest protests against the war in Afghanistan. Why not?

The goals seem uncertain; the tactics too varied.

Other than being bound by passionate emotion, protesters appear to have little else in common. In the protest I watched, some participants, with heads bowed down, seemed to be praying as they walked; others shouted chants as loudly as they could; a few more aggressively pushed their way forward, obviously angry, and maybe even willing to lash out at anyone who dared obstruct them. To many, such an image of diversity is beautiful, and I did glimpse some beauty. But this I know:

Those of us who didn’t vote for Trump are not the only ones who see this image; neither are we the ones who control what others see.

The signs people carried varied widely. Probably, the most striking was a hand-written one obviously made by a child that simply stated, “Boo Trump.” However, the two or three “F… Trump” signs present couldn’t be ignored – and they won’t be, not by any media unit that seeks to show how hateful, ugly and disrespectful Trump protesters are. Given the violent connotations of that word, our claim that our protests are peaceful and non-violent is discredited. Even worse, such a sign gives many people ample reason not only to condemn the march itself, but to hate those comprising it.

We also cannot control the message reporters choose to emphasize. The next day, I cringed as I read a New York Times account. The reporter noted that one of the apparent leaders of the march admitted that many had not even voted. My heart sank because I had to ask the obvious question: Why, then, in having not fulfilled their civic responsibility to act as informed citizens, do they expect to be given their right to protest in whatever way they choose? I could see the many ways conservative media outlets could manipulate that fact. Even more reasons to distrust, even despise, protesters now exist.

Therefore, because I do not want to magnify the media’s ability to promote and increase the hate that now exists, I will not march… yet.

I will march when we act in ways to fulfill the promise of the sign that far outnumbers all others in these protests: Love trumps hate.

And I know its possible to fulfill it. I have seen it happen.

Many, many years ago, when I was no older than 5 or 6, early one evening, my mother, who was watching the nightly news, began calling out, “Bernie, come here! You’ve got to see this!” Of course, I stared at the screen myself. On it, firemen were aiming big hoses at a crowd of black people. Even women were thrown back by the water’s force, and then onto the sidewalk, where they curled up in balls. By the time my dad joined us, my mom was crying out, “That’s not fair! That’s horrible. They only want what we want!” Due to the fact that nothing within those protests could justify at all the violence directed towards the marchers, my parents could see for themselves the brutal and dangerous injustice they faced. And, in that moment, my parents’ hearts were cracked open. Love, indeed, trumped hate. Although they never became activists, I’m pretty sure their voting habits changed. Neither did they raise my brothers or me in a racist, hateful household.

Therefore, rather than rushing to the streets so that we can release all these emotions that now rage within us, let us truly follow the paths of the justice-advocates before us.

Let us become the love that trumps hate.

We must calm our emotions so that we respond to the many threats now arising, rather than reacting immediately, sometimes without wisdom or integrity. We must also put aside our own egos and our insistence that each and every one of us has the right to speak and act as we please. Once we accept the discipline and humility required to be led, both wise elders and young prophets will come forth to train us, to inspire us to endure whatever anger and violence others may cast upon us. And they will unite us in vision, goals and tactics so we may move forward as one body, one mind, one heart.

We will become the love that will trump hate.

As for me, the path ahead emerges – there is a way out of these woods. Fear subsides; hope increases.

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The Rock of My Bitterness

Recently, I had the opportunity to lead the senior ministry team of The Riverside Church on a tour of Central Park’s north end. Having met at the Harlem Meer, we ventured over to the Conservatory Garden, before meandering along the paths that connect the forts, and then down past Lasker RinkIMG_1398 and Pool. When we reached the parking lot behind the complex, a few participants thought we would head up the drive to our left so that we could walk the main road to which it led. As soon as they looked to the right, however, they knew that was not the plan at all for before them was the most magnificent arch in the park: Huddlestone. Like the other 35 arches and bridges, this one was designed to provide an appropriate transition for what lie ahead, in this case, The North Woods, one of the most natural areas within the park. Needing to communicate something of the rustic beauty that lies ahead, Huddlestone Arch consists of boulders, each sitting one on another, with no mortar cementing them into place.

The rocks’ mottled coloring, the plants growing through the cracks, the uneven but beautiful lines drew us near, teasing us with a glimpse of what was to come.

We paused for a moment in collective awe, and then, knowing only gravity _MG_4590and pressure prevented the boulders from tumbling down, we entered, only to stop again. There, embedded in the wall was a rock that some estimates place at 100 tons in weight. Immediately we wondered aloud what came first: the rock’s original location which invited such an arch to be built or the arch’s design, one the planner knew would be enhanced if that rock were moved right there? Regardless, it was now quite apparent that the rock was an integral part of the arch – and of its experience as well. Truly, no one could pass by without pausing to wonder about its mass. Of course, that day, we soon moved on, continuing our tour into the North Woods. Recently, though I’ve had reason to return to that experience, to see what it may teach me as I process my most recent life decision.

Little did I know what that rock would offer me.

A little more than two and a half years ago, I joined a group with the intention of making a life-long commitment. How eager I was to become a member, to participate in their life-giving activities, to be part of a vibrant community striving so earnestly to transform our world. Through it I hoped to gain both identity and purpose, while contributing mightily to its work. I embraced my new community and role with gratitude and joy. Over time, though, as I entered more deeply into the experience, I needed to move further into its structure, into the back rooms, per se, where the work gets done. Usually when we enter such rooms, as everyone must when s/he joins a new community, we find that although imperfection exists, we can accept the methods, the goals, the culture that drive it. Sometimes, we cannot. Sometimes the deeper we enter into the backrooms, the more and more uncomfortable we become. Sometimes that discomfort reaches the point where we must admit that we just don’t belong. That is what happened to me. I could not remain, and so, I resigned.

In doing so, I am, of course, stuck with the consequences, the primary one being the question: What now?

As I ponder that question, I sort of feel as if I’m standing in the parking lot behind the Lasker complex. To my right is that magnificent arch; to my left is that driveway that can take me to the main road of the park, the road on which service vehicles, cyclists, runners and walkers all traverse. In some ways I feel as if I am being presented with a challenge that lies in scripture:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14).

Of course, I would never say that those who are traveling the main road through the park are headed to destruction. But, in my own life, I see that, if the drive represents the wide road with the arch being the narrowIMG_1400 gate, in opting for the wide road, I would destroy my own dreams. I must choose the arch. And really, there is some joy in being presented with such a choice. Haven’t we all heard it said that the road less travelled is the better one? Or what about that old cliché in which its promised that God opens a window whenever a door is closed – mixed metaphors aside? And, so I enter the arch, confident that a new path will emerge. But then, inside, awaits that rock – huge, ponderous, not only immoveable but absolutely necessary to the arch’s support. Seeing it again, I realize this:

I am standing under that arch, ready to begin a new journey, only because I could not find my place within that other community.

To be honest, such awareness overwhelms me. I must admit, for months I struggled through a myriad of emotions – confusion, anger, guilt, resentment, grief, frustration. Because I’ve done my best to appear to be a loving and forgiving person through it all, I’ve either hidden or even denied that I was experiencing them. I also wanted to leave the group, acting as if I could easily
walk away, unaffected by all that had occurred. Yes, of course, grief was appropriate to claim. As for all the other emotions, well, as I said, I’m a “loving” person….. But this, too, I must admit: if I don’t claim and work through all those emotions, I run the risk of allowing them to become so entangled that bitterness arises, a bitterness that may have the power to prevent me from taking a single step on my new path. In seeing that rock, however, I see that the entire experience I had with that group, good and bad, is now not only what pushed me out of the community: it is what’s holding up the gateway to the next phase of my life’s journey.

Suddenly, everything changes.

First, humility enters into my heart. What right do I have to be angry at “them” for not fulfilling my hopes and expectations? Of what use would it be to nurse the wounds I felt inflicted upon me? Such self-absorption not only denies what the rock teaches me, it would prevent me from passing through the arch, the narrow way into new life. Gratitude emerges, gratitude for all I experienced, all I learned, and all that brought me to this place. I see that rock, now, as the symbol of all the emotions I have felt during my entire experience, including the earliest ones of joy, abundance and deep admiration. Rather than it becoming the rock which I, consumed by bitterness, would have longed to throw, it has become the foundation upon which I build my future. Peace enters my heart. Not only can I walk away from the experience without bitterness; I can do so knowing and cherishing the vital role it has played in taking me to this new place. And so, in bowing to this rock and that community for all they have offered me, I move on, eager to leave the darkness, eager to step into new life.

Love becomes possible.

Of course, I cannot know what actually lies ahead of me now. But this I do know. The path that runs through the North Woods does lead us by peaceful waters, along which we may pause to rest, before coming to another arch, 20140806_193612Glenspan, and, oh, what a vision it offers!

Yes, hope springs eternal,
All, indeed, shall be well!

And, knowing that everything does belong, I may now offer to all I meet

love untainted by bitterness.
That is my dream.

“Why me, God?”…….”Why not you?”

Years ago, the summer I turned 21, I remember how, on days when no one else was home, I would go out in our backyard to scream, “Why me, God? Why me?” I just couldn’t understand why I had to bear the burdens I was: the need to live at home with a demanding, sometimes cruel father, my parents’ lack of support for my college education, my need to work long hard hours as a line cook, and, worst of all, my loneliness, my complete inability to fit in at school or to even be asked on one date. I felt absolutely alone at times, abandoned even, since it seemed that everyone else had so many friends, easy access to the things they wanted, and such loving parental support that, well, their lives seemed perfect – and so – in that back yard I screamed,

“Why me, God? Why me? Why must I work so hard, be so alone,                   suffer so much?“

Yes, the years have passed. No longer do I retreat to a backyard to scream. No longer do I feel so abandoned. And as I look back to my younger self, I am tempted to not only smile at the figure she must have presented out there, shaking her fist at that grand California sun; I am tempted to dismiss her claim of suffering. After all, now that I’ve endured the deaths of both parents, seen the torment friends have faced in losing their children, and experienced genuine failure and rejection in a whole host of ways, well, I am tempted to say that that young woman’s suffering paled in comparison not only to what lay ahead of her, but also in the face of the suffering of millions around the world even on those very days she screamed. But I can’t. However suffering arises – through crushing tragedy, relentless oppression, chronic pain and illness, even our ego’s obsessions, however justified or imagined – the actual pain of suffering is real, genuine, undeniable. And so we scream: “Why me?” a question that I found my self pondering not too long ago.

Throughout this past summer, more often than not, sleep eluded me. Oh, I often fell asleep easily enough, but two hours later, upon the raging of a hot flash, I would awaken, and then, disturbed by noises, temperature, textures and my own thoughts, I would remain awake for 2, 3, sometimes 4 hours before, right as dawn creeped into our room, I could sleep. Nothing, it seemed, helped. Not daytime exercise or good dietary habits. Neither did abstaining from caffeine, alcohol or even chocolate. Nor did the aids suggested by friends: valerian, black cohosh, melatonin – nothing. The worst nights were what I came to call my “night 3’s”, the third night in a row when the most sleep I could garner was 4 hours. It was on those nights when, after having drank warm milk, replaced my ear plugs, written out my concerns and even meditated, that as the tears began to flow, that old question arose: “Why me, God? Why can’t I just fall asleep?”

It was one of those night 3’s when, finally, I awoke, really awoke.

Lying in bed next to my husband, I decided to get back up once I could hold back the tears no longer. Frustrated, exhausted, I went to the living room and sat in our over-sized chair. It being 3:30 or so in the morning, I stared out our window through its transparent shade, at the buildings across the street and down an alley. Rectangles of yellow light marked windows, windows of homes where others, like I, were not sleeping. Pondering that scene, I wondered why they were not blissfully dreaming the night away. Yes, I knew, some may be enjoying the company of someone special, but this, too, I realized. Just as likely, worry, pain, fear – suffering – kept sleep at bay. Glimpsing that behind those curtains and shades were people sick with cancer, overburdened by financial debt or trapped in endless, relentless grief, I felt my heart crack open. Yes, the suffering I experienced from insomnia was real, but, I could so clearly see in that moment, I was not the only one to suffer. And then the buildings in front of me seemed to vanish. Suddenly, I could see suffering everywhere, suffering that, if it were mine, I knew I could not bear. Images of people living within war zones, terrorized by violence and incapable of even feeding their children one healthy meal a day humbled me. I could do only one thing: open myself to deep silent prayer, holding all close in that moment. As a tender love filled my heart, peace settled in as well. Returning to bed, I slept.

The next morning as I reflected on that experience, I began to write out that old question: “Why me, God?” This response arose:

“After last night, you need to ask?”

Recalling that peace that had emerged through the union I experienced, I couldn’t help but be grateful – not for the actual suffering I felt, of course; rather, for the communion it allowed me to enter. For those few minutes, as I basked again in that sense of union, another question emerged:

“Suffering? Why not you?”

The implications of that question stunned me. In spite of thinking that I was doing my best to “love my neighbor as my self,” I saw how miserably I was failing for one simple fact: I did not see myself as equal to my neighbor. Not at all. Somehow, deep down, I saw myself as exceptional, someone worthy of living a pain-free life. Of course, we all know that such an existence is impossible, but yet, that thought that I could demand of God, “Why me?” revealed something else I did not want to see.

I honestly believed that I was entitled – yes, entitled – entitled to pursue as comfortable a life as I could.

Of course, the pursuit of such a life lies at the heart of what we call, “The American Dream,” a condition that encourages each of us to acquire all the resources and materials we need to live comfortably. It seems reasonable enough. In that moment, though, as I acknowledged all the comfort afforded to me through the many resources I possess, I couldn’t help but see the irony between my experience of unity the previous night and the fact that what I possess creates not union but division. In so many ways, the stuff of my life allows me to not only avoid certain people, but to choose to ignore them entirely, even their suffering. In fact, when I am confronted with their suffering, too often I give into the temptation to name a reason for why they must suffer while I don’t. Rarely do I allow myself to see the connection between my own pursuit of comfort and their suffering.

Rarely do I ask myself as I pursue all I can to avoid pain: At what cost does this come?

The burden of that question overwhelms me, actually. In trying to answer it, I see so many ways that my desires contribute to the problems of others, both personally and socially, too many, really to name here. Just glimpsing them, however, brings forth two emotions I’d rather avoid – guilt and shame. Guilt in knowing that I have truly benefited from societal practices such as low taxation and/or wages, and shame in that I have refused to acknowledge how the subsequent lack of monetary resources hurts people. And with those emotions comes….. suffering.

A choice now arises.

Do I deny all that I have just acknowledged, reasoning that all is as it should be because our country is great and/or I have earned all that I’ve acquired? Many will tell me to do just that – it is, after all, the way of capitalism, of the American Dream. I need not feel guilt, neither shame. Nor suffering. Or,

Do I embrace this guilt, this shame, this suffering?

Already, it’s too late. The suffering generated in those few seconds of admitting guilt, bearing shame has done it again: it has cracked my heart open. How my heart longs to reach out to those denied the opportunities I’ve had, to those who’ve endured the consequences of my own comfort, to those whose suffering I now see. I feel helpless, yes, in this moment, knowing that as an individual I can’t make all things right now or even in 100 years. But, if I enter into the communion of all,

if I take my rightful place among my neighbors, allowing myself to be treated as they are,

maybe, just maybe, in releasing my own need to avoid suffering at all cost, at least a few others may not bear the burdens of those costs. Maybe the suffering they will endure will be that which is inevitable in being human, not that which is forced upon them by other humans.

Maybe I will finally be able to learn how to love my neighbor as my self, striving to establish justice, not comfort, as my central goal in life.

The Nothingness of Being One in 8.4 Million….

_MG_4344To celebrate our one year anniversary of living in New York City last weekend, my husband and I went to see Jim Parsons in “An Act of God.” As we walked through Times Square on the way to Studio 54, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized once again by the thousands of people congregated underneath towering flashing enormous ads. So thick was the crowd that when they moved, I felt as if I had no power but to go in whatever direction they were headed. I could see, too, that within such a crowd, on a specific block of a specific street in one city, I am only one amidst thousands, so indistinguishable to be practically invisible, one tiny speck of creation. Questions filled my mind as they had a year earlier:

Within such an astounding population, who am I really?
Of what relevance or even significance is my own brief existence,    my own short story of life?

Those questions actually haunted me those first weeks in the city. With only our doormen calling me by name, I couldn’t escape the anonymity of my situation, especially since life in Manhattan is very different from that in Louisville, KY. There, not only could I expect to see several people I knew at my local grocery store, regardless of the timing of my errand, I could also strike up conversations with the clerks behind the counters. Here, I quickly learned that one rarely sees the same people and those who work, work. To fill my considerable free time, I went often to Central Park, mostly to explore on my own, sometimes to take a tour offered by the Central Park Conservancy. One day in particular stands out.

In having ventured into the North Woods, I found the perfect perch atop a 450-million-year-old boulder of manhattan mica schist. As I listened to the afternoon song of a nearby bird, I became aware that other than the faint whispering of distant traffic, no other indicators of the city itself were present. In fact, I was alone, completely alone in that borough of 1.626 million people. Basking in that moment of perfect solitude, I reflected upon some of the facts I had recently learned on a tour of the park.

IMG_3287Designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Olmstead in 1858, it consists of 843 acres, running from 59th St. to 110 St, and between 5th Avenue and Central Park West. Its initial construction may have taken only 15 years or so, but its upkeep has been continuous and reflective of the city’s economic trends. When the city thrived, so did the park; when it struggled, the park’s neglect could be striking, the worst occurring in the 60’s and 70’s, an era of such disrepair that it inspired concerned citizens to create the Central Park Conservancy, the organization that currently runs the park through a partnership with the city and its people. Possibly, though, the most interesting detail I learned was this: other than the rocks in the park, nothing else is natural to the original state of that piece of land. Everything, absolutely everything, was intentionally designed, structured, built, and planted to fulfill the designers’ vision. Even the water in all the Park’s lakes, ponds and streams comes from an artificial source, the city’s water system. Taps and drains are used to maintain water levels and the health of their surrounding eco-systems.

20140806_193732In recalling that fact regarding the park’s artificiality, I pondered the many, many people who have been responsible for my ability to experience a moment of solitude in such natural beauty. Yes, Vaux and Olmstead planned it. Yes, specific people designed particular elements within it, Jacob Wrey Mould many of the park’s arches and bridges, and Emma Stebbins the Bethesda Terrace fountain, “Angel of the Waters,” to name only two. And, of course, many wealthy donors have supported the Park throughout its history, their many names commemorated on the Park’s plaques, benches and paving stones.

On that day, however, my attention focused on the thousands of people, who through their sweat and labor, brought the dreams and visions of others to life. These were the men who drained the swamps that once pervaded much of the area and then lay miles of pipes to maintain the new landscape. They, too, bore through yards of rock to create the tunnels through which the city’s streets could cross the Park without breaking it into distinct segments. Others crushed tons of that rock to pave the many paths and roads that ramble through the Park, while still more carved out steps, poured concrete and planted thousands of flowers, plants and trees according to the plans. In reflecting upon the contributions of so many unnamed folk, most of whom were paid less than $1 for a ten-hour day, I couldn’t help but be grateful. Now nameless, indistinguishable from each other in the texts of history, it was these people who were the foundation of what is today Central Park. Without them, I would not have been on that rock on that beautiful day, experiencing such a moment of ideal solitude within a city of millions. Without them, those people whose names we celebrate would never have seen their own visions fulfilled. Without them, the legacy that is Central Park would not exist.

In pondering those facts, I returned to the questions that haunted me:

Within such an astounding population, who am I really?
Of what relevance or even significance is my own brief existence,                  my own short story of life?

All my life, it has seemed, I have been told that I could become whoever I wanted, that I could fulfill the greatest of dreams, if only I put forth effort, if only I believe. And, so, for a long time, a part of me longed to become that someone special, one whose memorable mark on this world would be known for years to come. I wonder, though, if such a quest actually misses the point entirely. Yes, a few people do develop radically new ideas that enhance life for all of us; yes, some bring forth such unique talent and beauty that we are enchanted and enriched for generations. However, it is only through the collective efforts of all that any one person may fulfill a dream, may bring to fruition a stunning idea. And with that thought in mind, I could not help but wonder,

What has been my own role within our collective community  through which dreams and ideas not only come to life but also bring forth a shared legacy?

Humbly, I must admit, it hasn’t always been a gracious one. So focused on attaining my own identity, my own dreams and goals at times, I have overlooked not only the gifts of the community, but also its needs, forgetting that, even if I happen to stumble upon that one idea that will be my hallmark, whatever I achieve will be entirely dependent on the support and efforts of so many others. Sadness filled me as I realized that in being so focused on the need to promote and defend my own efforts, I may have trampled those of another person, not only one who may help me, but also another whose own gifts and ideas may surpass my own. A certain peace arose as well as I realized something else.

Really, for my life to have significance,
I need not worry about establishing an individual identity that will be known for generations.

I need accept my life only for what it is – one in a thousand or so in Times Square, one in seven billion in the world – and to accept the responsibility of fulfilling my unique role within it. In doing so, I commit myself to the legacy we create together, each of us having distinct roles, some through which a few names will be remembered, the vast majority of them not. Whether or not I am one of the named is irrelevant.

What matters is the relevance and the significance of our shared legacy, one, I hope, that will ensure our planet’s health, enhance all life, and weave together in peace all our myriad communities.

“Why are you afraid…?”

In the Catholic Church today much emphasis is placed on one’s worthiness for Eucharist, so much that some people are actually denied the right to participate if certain conditions aren’t met. In previous posts, I’ve revealed my own parents’ pain in having been excluded. Now it’s time to examine the costs to all people within the Church, regardless of their own personal worthiness. Again, I turn to a reading offered through the retreat provided by a Riverside Church minister:

“And when he got into the boat, Jesus’ disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt. 8:23-27)

The prompt for that day did change the setting a bit, inviting us to imagine ourselves sitting across from Jesus at a favorite coffee shop, but the primary question remained the same. Jesus, our prompt established, looks us in the eye and then asks, “What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid?”

In pondering that question, I found that the imagery offered in the actual story spoke greatly to me. In trying to name my fear – of being rejected, alienated from all others – I could recall how emotional terror arises in me whenever I sense rejection/alienation is possible, just as it recently had when I got into a conflict with a person I deeply value. I could feel the power of that terror’s ability to push me off course, to even spin me about, leaving me incapable of maintaining direction and focus. I could name so many times when being rudderless, I made mistakes, trying to gain control, trying to find a means of avoiding rejection, alienation. I also know that in those moments – especially more recent ones when wisdom guides me to prayer and contemplation – that it is through my relationship with Jesus/God that such seas are calmed, that such winds are stilled. And in that awareness, I turned my attention back to the Catholic Church and its identity as being Christ to the world.

Most often when I’ve heard people preach to this story, the emphasis lies in the power of Jesus to calm the storm, and then, the call for us to turn to Jesus when we’re in the midst of turmoil so that he may calm the storms of our own lives. Yes, for those of us who are attuned to such inner awareness of Jesus’ presence, doing such a thing does offer much peace. However, at times, it is not so easy to do so, especially when it seems that everything around us is raging so desperately that we feel our very lives are at risk. At such times, we need a place, a genuine place to go so that we may find such peace. And, I will admit, many of us do go to our Catholic churches. In fact, not so long ago, when visiting St. Pat’s here in NYC, I was moved by the number of people kneeling in the pews, heads down, apparently seeking peace, solace, something there in the middle of the afternoon. Yes, our physical buildings, so beautiful, so quiet, can offer much. But what about we who are in them? Do we provide the peace people need so that the storms may be calmed?

“Of course, we do!” we declare with confidence. And, in the many ministries offered through the Church – formally and informally – much peace is offered. But yet, let’s return to the fact that some people in our midst are not fully accepted, that some people are expected to change their ways before they can receive the ultimate comfort offered by the Catholic Church: Eucharist. What do they experience when they enter the Church?

As I’ve noted before, my own parents did not experience peace within our parish, especially not during mass. Knowing how obvious they were in remaining in the pews, they couldn’t help but feel judged. There they were, wanting only to share their love, to nurture their relationship as they raised  three children, while also knowing that if my mother were to become pregnant again, she would more than likely face yet another life-threatening situation, and what did the Church offer? Condemnation, not peace, because they chose the means that would allow them to love each other and their children without fear.

And what about couples who face divorce? What do they find as they pick up the painful shards of broken hearts? As they sift through the remnants of dreams unfulfilled?  In order to enter into new relationships, they must first give to a distant third-party the most intimate details of their heartache so that he may determine whether or not they are worthy of loving again. And, if he decides that they are not worthy, well, regardless of their being beloved children of God, they are never to be intimate again with another person. Is that the way a storm is to be calmed? Is that the way peace is offered?

I think not. Rather, what’s offered is more stress, plain and simple, stress that intensifies, not calms the storms of life. Have the bishops ever wondered what it’s like to fear pregnancy, knowing a woman may lose her life? Have they never pondered what it would be like to experience the breakdown of a relationship meant to last forever? Have they never looked at what they communicate about God when they insist that only if certain conditions are met that people are worthy not only of sacramental participation but full, intimate human love as well? I must ask: are they that blind? Are they really that insensitive?

“No,” they would insist. “We are not. We are only following God’s will.” They tell us that both Scripture and Tradition have revealed God’s will, that there are certain things we must and must not do. A man marries a woman: forever. A married couple is open to new life: always. Non-heterosexual love is an abomination: absolutely. Only men are to be ordained: without question. Whatever the Church decides is to be respected, because, they insist, Jesus told Peter, the first to hold the keys to heaven, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). Therefore, we are told, God wants only one thing from us as we strive to maintain relationship: obedience, obedience without regard to its very human cost.

But is obedience really the mark of true relationship? I think all of us know the answer to that: No. Other than between parents and young children, the expectation of obedience damages relationships. But what of our relationship with God? Shouldn’t obedience be the defining factor in that one? We need only turn to one of our favorite parables. Read the words of the elder son as he greets his father after the prodigal son’s return: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him!”  (Lk 15:29-30).

In having been so devoted to obedience, the elder son doesn’t even identify himself as son. Rather he sees himself as a slave. Bitterness pervades, especially as he refers to his younger brother as being, “this son of yours.” When he says that the father has never given him even a kid goat, we see, too, he has forgotten an important fact. Immediately after the younger son’s request that opened the story, this is what the father did: “So he divided his property between them” (Lk 15:12b). Through that action, the father clearly shows that he is genuine when he tries to reassure his elder son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours….” (Lk 15:29-31). That estate actually belonged to the elder son as well. Therefore, the son need not have waited or even asked for a kid to be killed; it was his all along, but in being so intent on obedience, the young man failed to not only see the gifts of the relationship but to know his full identity as son. Oh how heartbreaking that is, especially when we know how the story ends. We assume that the father joined the younger son to celebrate the return with a feast. As for the older, well, it seems more likely that he remained in the field, possibly with his hand to the plow, looking back, modeling for us the truth of words Jesus spoke earlier in Luke’s gospel: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).

With this image in mind, I must ponder one other aspect of our bishops’ call to obedience. In addition to hurting those incapable of meeting the standards the bishops set, does it also hurt even those who can obey “God’s will” as they define it? Does it leave those people believing that they are only slaves fulfilling God’s wishes, slaves who will one day be rewarded when their obedience has been proven beyond doubt? Even worse, does it interfere with their ability to see everyone else as sister, as brother? Does it prevent full union in the feast God so clearly longs to offer us?

To be honest, I think that is what the bishops’ call to obedience does. We see it in our communities and even in our parishes where people argue about who’s doing what right, who’s the best Catholic, whose most deserving of God’s loving acceptance. With such tension among members, well, we in the boat of the Catholic Church clearly are not capable of calming the storms of life. Not at all. All too often, in fact, we contribute to them. But yet, but yet, I will admit, being Catholic, being a disciple of Christ does require something: “To love God with all our hearts; to love neighbor as self.”

Just how are we to fulfill that command as a Church?

My role as a Catholic….

As I begin this blog, my focus will be first on my Catholic identity and relationship with the Catholic Church itself. A complicated affair it has been right from the start. Born in 1960, I came to consciousness as the Church was implementing changes directed by Vatican II and its many documents; as a young adult in the 80’s & 90’s, I read numerous pastoral letters and encyclicals that addressed a variety of social justice issues, while also seeing the examples of notable “men of the cloth,” including, of course, Cardinal Bernadin. I will never forget his loving presence even when surrounded by cameras and journalists who repeatedly asked him questions regarding his vow to celibacy and the accusation of sexual abuse that he faced. Accompanying all that was also the work of many nuns/sisters and lay women who devoted their lives to the Church. How can I not be moved by the martyrdom of the four women in El Salvador? How can I ever overlook the wisdom I gained by such a wide range of scholars, including Elizabeth Johnson, Joyce Rupp, Joan Chittester…. and so many more? And then, of course, there is the rich tradition of Catholic mysticism and spirituality. Who would I be today if I had not read works written by St. John of the Cross, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, St. Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton…. the list goes on. Yes, I am Catholic: formed and enlivened through a powerful tradition that extends back centuries.

In embracing that identity, I, with my husband, found it relatively easy to say, yes, we would raise our children as Catholics, educating them in Catholic schools, accompanying them to church each Sunday. The two of us also took active roles within our parish, and I, when needing to seek employment, was honored to accept the responsibility of teaching theology in a girls’ Catholic high school. Of course, we knew the institution was not perfect, but, no other institution is as well, so we did our best to remain loyal and committed, even as the sex abuse scandal began emerging. Our hearts ached as we heard the stories of so many, but still we hoped that, in time, church leaders would begin truly addressing not only the issue itself, but also the pain of so many people whose lives were so tragically wounded and permanently scarred at their hands. Unfortunately, such accountability has been slow in coming, too slow actually, and then it seemed, a shift occurred.

Increasingly, as the Church discussed “Catholic identity,” attention turned to who is and is not worthy of receiving the Eucharist. Of course, official teaching had always indicated such things, but, other than my childhood pastor, few of the priests I had come to know ever made such distinctions. Vatican II and its response to Pope John XXIII’s call to open the windows of the church have all but been forgotten. And who can overlook the Church’s official stance towards women. To even talk about women’s ordination brings the threat of excommunication. Even worse, however, is the public tone of the Catholic Church as communicated through many of the U.S. bishops and the Vatican. Rather than acknowledging that all people have the right and ability to live according to their own conscience, the Catholic leadership today too often insists that their own right to religious freedom gives them the power to dictate whether or not other people, even non-Catholics, have access to both the materials and the rights they need to thrive in our world today. Oh how my heart has ached!

As that ache grew over the years, my first reaction was to walk away, and, to some extent I have. No longer do I teach in a Catholic school; neither am I a member of a Catholic  parish. Initially, I embraced my freedom, thinking I need no longer concern myself with anything to do with that church. But, I overlooked one fact: I am Catholic – to my core. Baptized, confirmed, and so deeply formed, I can no more cast aside my Catholicity than I can my body. It is who I am. It is – through its sacraments, mysticism, and teachers – what has brought me peace, joy and solace at critical points of my life. Gratitude for those many gifts fills my heart, telling me that I cannot just walk away. But what to do?

Many of my friends who ache just as much as I do are active, loving members of their Catholic communities, hoping and believing that in remaining in their pews, their presence will enable the Holy Spirit to once again inspire and lead the Church to fulfill its own self-named role – to be Christ in the world. Some have left, a few even being baptized in Protestant denominations, convinced that the Church must be abandoned completely for it to see that change is needed. And still others are learning to live their Catholic identity in new ways, accepting their calls to Catholic ministry that do not depend on official approval and affiliation. The women’s ordination movement is doing just that. Catholic women who have been called to give their fullest selves in love and service to creation and all God’s people are accepting their rightful claim to ordained ministry. And, yes, I have taken the initial steps of that journey. In December, 2013, I was ordained a deacon. For several months I did play an active role in nurturing a small community in Louisville, along with a woman priest and a sister deacon. But then came my move to New York City, a place where, in having no connections, I have no community as well. In short, I feel as if I’m in limbo as an ordained Catholic woman.

Knowing no traditional parish would want me, I have joined The Riverside Church to stand in community with that diverse group so dedicated to promoting justice in all its varied forms. Yes, I have a role to play there, but yet, I am Catholic. How, without a Catholic community, do I embrace that identity, continue serving my Church? For now, it seems, given the time I have to ponder and reflect, free from both the joys and challenges of nurturing and serving communities, I am called to simply offer that…. my pondering and the reflections that emerge. As Catholics, we know that Jesus freely offered his life to us, teaching us, healing us, loving us so well. We, of course, are called to do the same. And so, with words from Ezekial in mind, I will not worry about what others might say, or be dismayed by the looks I may be given. I will simply offer what I can – a few words here and there given freely to be accepted or not. For now, it is enough. And so I will begin by addressing some of the issues that will be discussed at the upcoming Synod on the Family…..