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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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.