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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An Unimaginable Ejection

Right around 3:00 a.m. on November 9th, I saw that the unthinkable had happened. Donald J. Trump attained 278 electoral votes and Hillary Clinton conceded the election.

Stunned, overwhelmed, absolutely crushed, I wanted to scream:

How could we have done this? How could we have just elected a man who had spent months promoting racist, sexist, xenophobic notions, almost all built upon lies?

Where am I?  I couldn’t help but wonder.
Surely this couldn’t be the United States I know and love,                                                            not the country so widely revered for its devotion to freedom for all.

Of course, there had been warning signs. I saw them. In his rallies, when Trump mocked a disabled reporter, people laughed; when he encouraged people to rough up protesters, they did; when he called for a return to law and order, they cheered; and when he even admitted to groping women and rarely – if ever – paying taxes, they shrugged. Clearly, the man appealed to people.

Yes, I saw all that, but this too I knew.

We had come so far as a community. Rather than teasing the disabled among us and taunting foreigners, we increased accessibility to both groups, and benefitted greatly from their labor and talents. Instead of bullying each other into submission, we peacefully protest wars and unjust treatment, and celebrate LGBTQ weddings. Realizing that the ruthless crime bills of the past were decimating neighborhood and lives, especially those of color, our community leaders have begun to repeal “stop and frisk” and “three strikes you’re out” policies. And as for greater respect for women – well, his opponent was our greatest symbol of just how far we thought we’d come.

Yes, I knew that debates raged about costs, true patriotism, traditional values, and the safety of our streets. And yet, I honestly believed that once people entered the voting box, and the excitement of being in such raucous crowds had settled, that our respect for human dignity and personal freedom would prevail. But as I stared at the numbers on my cell, I knew that I was wrong. Feeling absolutely defeated, I stumbled back to bed only to toss and turn the night away as one image dominated my thoughts:

Everything I held to be good and true had been completely uprooted.

Grief wrapped itself around me as I mourned the apparent destruction of my deepest values. How I ached for those who would be most affected by the changes of policy that may accompany those taunts and jeers of Trump. Even with my husband next to me, I felt so insecure, so alone, ….. so isolated. It seemed as if I had been kicked out of a beautiful garden and into a cold harsh world I do not know. How I pitied myself, and those I loved, realizing then that I wasn’t the only one so awash with grief, the only one jerked into a new reality. Many of us that night were ejected into unpredictable, unknowable, uncertain territory. Again, I wanted to scream:

How could this have happened? How could you do this to us??

But who were the “you”? Our analysts tell us that it was the white working class – non-college educated men and women – who most supported him. They were the ones who marched into our polling places eager to elect someone who promised to make their America great again. None of the rest of us saw or understood their passion, their determination to uproot the system.

We didn’t see it coming – not at all. But this I’ll admit, I should have.

In having been raised within a working class family by parents who never went to college, I once lived in a home where money was earned through hours clocked, not a salary contracted, a social class which valued strength and common sense, not book-smarts and good manners, a life where everything could be threatened by a lay-off, an accident, or a politician’s refusal to respect laborers. Yes, I remember that experience well. One Saturday morning stands out. For over two hours I sat crying at the kitchen table after having broken both arms. The day before my dad had been laid off, so, without health insurance, they needed the cheapest hospital, a search that took time. That delay cost them. My arms swelled so badly that I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for three long and expensive days.

In fact, as I was growing up, my parents’ very lives were threatened more than once by low pay, unexpected lay-offs, and heavy tax burdens. Fortunately, given the arc of their lives, when they retired in the early 1990’s, they possessed ample savings, and their combined benefits covered most of their needs. In contrast, a generation or two later, those who would be their peers do not have such resources. Well-paying jobs have been made obsolete by technology; manufacturing plants moved; robots eliminated much of the need for skilled labor. Once respectable service jobs are now viewed with disdain and rarely provide living wages. Routine, even sacred, benefits are inadequate or even nonexistent. In short, women and men who do not attend college – of any ethnicity – no longer have the ability to create and sustain stable and secure lives the way my parents’ generation eventually did.

I must ask myself – if I had never won the scholarship that allowed me to attain a college education – what would I be doing now if that were still my reality? At the very least, shouting, even screaming for attention, for justice. I may even have voted for Trump, the one who says he’ll bring back jobs, hold companies liable, make such a life great again.

That last thought humbles me.

It forces me to realize this: long before this election, other people were ejected from their beloved gardens of security and safety and into a cruel world they did not know, a world which – by all indications – no longer valued their labor, their service, their very lives. That world, however, was actually already populated by many of today’s targets of Trump’s cruel jests, people who had never been able to reap the riches and rewards of our society. Rather than accepting each other as victims of injustice, though, the inhabitants – both new and old – believed those who told each group: “There is your enemy! He is to blame for your suffering!” And so fear, hate and despair flourished. And we are where we are.

In having been ejected from my own small, safe world and into this one:                            what am I going to do?

Am I going to blame others for creating this mess? Reject Mr. Trump as “my” president? Allow self-pity and fear to conquer me as I struggle to stand in this new place?

No, I’m not. It’s time for me to release my place of privilege, to enter more fully into the experience of others, to seek to see and possibly understand the suffering of all people, not just my chosen few. It’s time to plant seeds of beauty, hope and trust out in the open, not just in my own small zone of comfort. It’s time for me to believe that somehow – all shall be well,” a task dependent upon accepting this truth:

we are “many members, yet one body,” and so,                                                                                “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” *                                                             regardless of who that person may be.

It’s time for us to work together to unite the many states of mind among us.  Only then  may the collective insight, wisdom and compassion we so desperately need arise. Only then do I believe we can overcome what we’ve done.

*lines from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12.

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.

Love came first; change followed.

For the past week, I have criticized the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of excluding some people from full sacramental participation. One reason for my focus stems from the upcoming Synod on the Family this fall. It seems that regardless of the hope some have found in various statements of Pope Francis, others believe that little, if any, will change regarding these matters. In spite of my being just an ordinary person, I feel compelled to contribute my “two-cents” to the discussion. Mostly, however, I write for another reason: my own experience. In being blessed with a powerful, even overwhelming, experience of God’s unconditional love, I can’t help but know that that same love extends to each and every person. Once again, I can use a reading from the daily retreat offered through The Riverside Church to share it with you. This was the reading for our final day of the retreat:

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me?” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 1:40-43)

That day’s prompt was very simple, telling us to picture Jesus walking up to us and asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”  We were told to reflect upon whatever came to mind.

What came to mine was a day almost 30 years ago, a bright sunny Southern California day, one so beautiful I just had to walk the three blocks from my apartment to the beach. On the way, though, I wasn’t as happy as I probably should have been. Rather, in spite of my recent success in obtaining adjunct teaching positions at local universities (and with the Navy too), I was lonely, very lonely, so lonely that I found myself saying words I never thought I would, having declared myself an atheist a few years earlier. “God,” I said, even while looking upward. “This is my last prayer to you. I promise. If you’re up there, please send me someone I can love and who will love me in return.” And then I went on with my day.

Not long afterwards, a funny thing happened. In one of the classes I taught for the Navy sat a young man who was really quite friendly so I decided to invite him to see a play with me. Of course, with him being my student, I was a little apprehensive, so, on the night I planned to ask him, when he went to walk out the door while another student stood at my desk talking to me, I thought I’d just forget it. But then, as the door closed behind him, it seemed as if in a second I saw my whole life – my future life, that is – flash in front of me. One question arose: “What am I letting walk out that door?” Instantly, I excused myself from the other student and ran out to invite him to the play. Ten days after that first date, I told my closest friend that this man would be my husband. Now, at that time, I found the timing of my prayer and that experience to be a nice coincidence, but really? Would God really answer my prayer so directly? I thought not, especially given what I had done, who I had become. But God, it seemed, wasn’t done with me.

Because Dan, as a practicing Catholic, wanted to build a life on faith and prayer, I knew that the only way our relationship could work was for me to  return to the Church. My identifying as an atheist wasn’t the problem because, all along, I knew I was just using that title to somewhat justify the abortion I had two years earlier. (It was easier to say that I, the atheist, had an abortion, than I, Catholic woman.) Complicating the matter though was my total lack of guilt or remorse. Because that abortion did allow me to continue my education uninterrupted and to keep my job as a line cook, while also enabling me to remain free of serious family issues, I saw it as something I had to do, no question about it. And so, I wondered, could I return to Church, a place where, if anyone knew what I had done – especially given my lack of guilt – I would not be welcome? In spite of that doubt, on a week-end when Dan was out-of-town, I found a nearby Catholic church to visit, just to see if, maybe, I could return. That Sunday morning, as I dressed, I decided to make one more request of God: “God,” I said. “I’m going to need a sign. You know who I am; you know what I’ve done. If I belong there, I need a sign. If I don’t get one, I’ll just end my relationship with Dan and that will be that.” Yes, I was that bold.

As I slipped into a pew of that small church in Long Beach, I couldn’t help but experience the familiarity of it all. Gaudy gold paint, lots of statues, lit candles – all the usual contents of a Catholic church – surrounded me. The diversity of the parishioners impressed me, a diversity similar to that of my English classes at CSU,LA. The liturgy itself was also pleasing especially since it included a few of my favorite songs. “Could such things be my sign?” I wondered.  But yet, as I stood for the Gospel reading, and looked about, I could only imagine what those people say and do if only they knew my truth. Preoccupied, I began admitting that I probably needed to end my relationship. Once we sat back down, though, the homilist regained my attention by waving a copy of Time magazine before he began his sermon, a rather good one, not too long, one that focused on actual issues of the day. He ended it, then went to take a seat, but just a step or two away from the pulpit, he turned around and went back to the mic. “I forgot to tell you. A family of Cambodian refugees are moving into the neighborhood. I would like our parish to sponsor them,” he said, before adding that food, furniture, clothing and the like would be needed. As he returned to his chair, I admitted I was impressed, given my own interest in refugees. And then this happened: Right before he sat down in his chair, the priest returned to the pulpit one more time to make one last request: “I need an English teacher.” Only then did he finally sit.

I was stunned, absolutely stunned. Could that have truly been my sign?

Yes, it was. In the years since then, as I have returned time and again to that moment, I have been humbled by what happened. There I was, by Catholic definition, an unrepentant sinner, having committed the worst act a woman could. But even without my feeling the tiniest bit guilty at all, I was not only given a sign, I was told I was needed. In fact, when I went up to the priest after mass and introduced myself as his English teacher, he was confused before remembering he had made that request, a request, he told me, he made at no other mass, a request he had not planned to make at all. I cannot emphasize enough how much that request, those five simple words, affected my life from that point on. Yes, I did return to the Catholic Church; yes, I did marry Dan; but even more than all that, I saw in that one moment the absolute unconditional love that God has for each of us, even me.

And so, when I read that passage and heard Jesus ask that question, “What do you want me to do for you?” and recalled what had been done for me,  I couldn’t help but wonder why we as Church don’t initiate all conversations, all relationships, with that question.

Rather than establishing the conditions people must meet before they are to receive Eucharist or any other sacrament, why don’t we choose to model Jesus directly by asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Oh, the humility such a question demands of us;                                                    oh, the love that is revealed.                                                                                          And oh, what a response it garners!

That man in the parable, in regaining his sight, did not run away, jubilant, yes, maybe even grateful, to return to his previous life. Rather, we are told, the man then followed Jesus on the way. With that image in mind, and my own experience as well, I can’t help but wonder why the Church doesn’t see that throughout his life Jesus never insisted on conditions to be met before teaching, healing and loving the people who approached him. Always, he met their needs, requested or not; always he extended the loving touch of the One whom he incarnated.

Love came first; change followed.

Not the other way around. And why not?

Because the expectations of worthiness are not those of One who loves us unconditionally,                                                                                                              They are, instead, the ways of humans,                                                                      the means through which hierarchy is created and maintained,                       the means through which obedience, not relationship,                                       and power, not communion, are established and maintained.

I am compelled to write the prayer of Jesus one more time:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:21-23).

May we love each other as we have been loved….                                                      so that in that love we may, indeed, become one.

May we come to see that we are already one –                                                         one in fear, one in joy, one in sin, one in love.

May we come to know the glory of Christ.
May we bring Christ to all.
May we love.