Second Sunday of Lent: Lent and Joy

 

It may seem an odd combination, the symbols of penance and the rebirth of spring. Why does the church’s long wisdom juxtapose something that suggests dark death with something that leads inevitably towards new life?

 

One explanation comes from environmentalists, who teach that the muddiest mulch produces the loveliest flowers. In a compost heap, dead leaves, rotten vegetable skins and over-ripe fruit create a rich and fertile soil. If this all sounds too earthy, remember that the rites of the church have always reverenced the ordinary: water, oil, candle wax, palm branches, bread, vines, wildflowers, ash.

 

In a scriptural context, read the Book of Esther, which is admittedly a bit risqué. The beautiful queen who had hidden her Jewish identity from the king suddenly faces a situation where she must break the law, risking her life to save her people. She prepares by setting aside her jewelry and rich ointments, covering her head with ashes and dirt (4:13). She asks her people to join her; their gesture says: confronting mindless oppression and brutal violence, we feel ashen within. The mark on the forehead symbolizes a recognition of our human flaws, our desperate need for God. Esther is ultimately victorious: new life for the oppressed and preview of Easter joy!

 

Even in still-wintry climates, the days grow longer. We appreciate the extra daylight and look harder for the first hints of spring: crocuses, warmer temperatures or green shoots. Do these activities suggest how much we long for God’s reign of light?

First Sunday of Lent–New Wrinkles

As ashes were signed on foreheads Wednesday, some heard what seems like a more meaningful translation: “Turn from fear; trust the good news.” What does that mean? Turn from all that drags us down. Trust God who has always been faithful; it’s the only door into the future.

 

And what shall we fast this Lent? The old practice of giving up candy bars or cigarettes was almost too easy. It only addressed one side of ourselves, the physical. This year, try fasting from negative put-downs, anxiety, time wasted on fluffy entertainment or games that are beneath us. Substitute compliments, a deliberate direction of the brain channels away from anxiety, time spent in quiet reflection. That will make it seem like a breeze to forego the candy bar!

 

Why We Marched

No, Mr. Trump, we did not march to celebrate your economic gains, as your tweet mis-defines us. But then, we’re not so crass as to vote ourselves millions in tax breaks, or hold fundraisers at our own hotels, neatly paying ourselves. If over 150,000 people in the Bay Area marched Jan. 20, there were probably as many reasons why. As one marcher lamented: “So many issues. So little sign.” Just a few:

Because no one should toy with nuclear weapons which could kill millions of people

Because a president who publicly admitted to sexual harassment is still in office, when many others, not even proven, have resigned.

Because it’s unconscionable to deny health care to poor children (CHP), endangering nearly 10 milion lives and rewarding billionaires.

Because we cherish our national parks and monuments and hate to see them destroyed or diminished

Because it’s immoral to deport 260,000 Salvadorans to one of the most violent countries on earth

Because drilling in our oceans could cause irreparable harm

Because 43% of the Nigerians you slammed come to this country with a BA degree or higher.

Because we can’t stomach racism, sexism, any other ism, or return to the 50s

Because Dreamers, Muslims and immigrants of every shade are valued as part of our national fabric

Because we’re embarrassed by the face of our country which you present to the world

Because some children are afraid that if they go to school in the morning, their parents will be deported by the time they get home

Because we believe what scientists say about global warming

This list only scratches the surface.

It’s tempting to quote the signs, succinct enough for even one who doesn’t read books. For instance: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”

You probably don’t read Shakespeare, but he said: “She may be little, but she is fierce.” Stay tuned.

We’ll be marching again in November. To the polls.

A Trinity of Women and a Long Tradition

Hooray for the emergence of strong women telling Arrogant Ole Boys, no more exploitation! Let’s focus on three women who’ve been in the news recently. Oprah Winfrey touched a chord when she spoke of being a child, sitting on linoleum floor, amazed to watch Sidney Poitier receive a Golden Globe award. The unspoken message: things could be different for her. She alerted viewers: other little girls are watching this broadcast. How will we change the current climate for them?

Jane Goodall opened the doors for young women in science. The movie “Jane” showed her at 26, fearlessly and curiously going to Tanzania, accompanied by a supportive mom, to study the chimpanzees. Her arrival there in 1960 began “one of the longest and most rigorously conducted inquiries into animal behavior. Her finding, published in Nature in 1964, that chimpanzees use tools — extracting insects from a termite mound with leaves of grass — drastically and forever altered humanity’s understanding of itself; man was no longer the natural world’s only user of tools.” (“Jane Goodall Is Still Wild at Heart,” NEW YORK TIMES, 3/15/2015)

She continued to work tirelessly for conservation, traveling all over the world to promote “Roots and Shoots” for children and the Jane Goodall Institute, a conservation NGO she founded in the 1970s. A fierce advocate for forest conservation and sustainable development, she also completely reformed the methodology for contemporary field biology.

Kay Graham didn’t choose to be editor of the Washington Post at a critical juncture in its history. She thought it perfectly natural for her father to turn the family business over to her husband Phil. But when he committed suicide, she inherited the job. The film “The Post” recounts her dangerous decision to publish the Pentagon papers, despite furious threats from President Nixon.

The leak, through Daniel Ellsberg, revealed years of lying to the American public about a war in Vietnam that authorities knew was unwinnable. Unwilling to admit colossal mistakes, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara perpetuated the sham, as countless boys continued to die. Graham’s own son fought and survived, but she seems clearly motivated to prevent more needless deaths. She risks imprisonment from a vindictive president, but boldly chooses for freedom of the press.

And the tradition of bold women? Stay tuned for the blog: “The Real Wonder Women.”

Resisting Nuclear Holocaust

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), Trappist Thomas Merton wrote prophetically: “The ‘nuclear realist’ can be quite cool and deliberate in his games with his computer and his ladders of escalation… perfectly calm dementia…”  (p.209)

How appalled Merton would be by the unstable leaders of North Korea and the US today, threatening nuclear war, boasting about the size of their “buttons,” apparently oblivious to the tragic toll in human lives they so cavalierly ignore. This demented circus seems to have numbed the outrage one would naturally expect from thoughtful people everywhere. It shows how low the bar has sunk when some of the clearest opposition is coming from the entertainment arena.

“Sound and Fury,” the 1/14/18 episode of “Madam Secretary” showed the process of a president’s removal through Article 25 of the Constitution.  It can NOT have been mere coincidence, although the plot is somewhat contrived. President Conrad Dalton begins to act wildly out of character, loudly denouncing Russia, threatening an attack out of proportion to the cause, which turns out to be groundless suspicion. To his credit, the Secretary of Defense refuses the order to bomb, knowing it will lead to world war. He is summarily fired. Secretary of State McCord begs with the president, “you’re not well,” enlists his wife’s help, and confers with the Chief of Staff. All agree this is not the measured, careful person they’ve known for years.

When the president continues to rage and refuses to back off his military escalation against all the advice he receives, the Cabinet convenes, invoking  Section 4, which outlines procedures for the removal of a president deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” After some debate, they vote for  removal. Elizabeth McCord explains eloquently how the Constitution privileges the lay person, the ordinary citizen represented by Cabinet members. Perhaps the founding fathers foresaw the threat of military coups.

It’s all wrapped up a bit too neatly for viewers stuck with 3 more years of escalating  rhetoric  and impulsive leadership. Turns out the president has a benign brain tumor pressing on the frontal lobe, disrupting his objectivity, planning and response functions. With some medication and simple surgery, he’s back to himself.  Indeed, Dalton goes on national television to thank the Cabinet which took the drastic step of removing him from office. In a moving conclusion, the camera pans the ordinary North Americans watching his broadcast, then shows beautiful, illuminated monuments such as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.

All of this—our most ordinary meals, conversations, jobs, sports activities, church services, family reunions, classes, etc.—would be annihilated by a nuclear bomb.  Daniel Ellsberg believes only 1% of the human race would survive the ensuing nuclear winter.

If hopelessness stems from failure of the imagination, then we must vividly imagine what could happen—and alternative strategies. Would the current Cabinet have the courage to intervene if the danger worsens? What are we doing to preserve our beautiful blue-green planet, the human race beloved of God?

Feast of Marianne Cope, “God’s Aloha”—Jan. 23

“People on Molokai laugh now—like other people in the world, laugh at the same things, the same dilemmas and jokes.” — Sr. Magdalene, Cope’s nurse

We of miniscule penances and negligible achievements envy Sr. Marianne Cope. We huddle close to security; she embarked on uncharted waters for a risky and unpredictable mission. We admire her clear call, when ours seem muddled, her brisk rolling-up of sleeves to scrub a filthy hospital, when we feel paralyzed by too many choices, “falling in love with her work” when sometimes we can barely drag ourselves to ours.

Born in Germany, Cope moved as an infant with her family to central New York.  Joining the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse at the age of 24, she quickly became a leader in the community. After serving as a teacher and principal, she helped found and administer two hospitals. There, she instituted policies which seem common now but were revolutionary then: accepting patients regardless of race or creed, insisting on patients’ rights, treating “outcasts,” such as alcoholics rejected by other hospitals.

The medical protocols she developed there were transplanted to Hawaii when she cheerfully volunteered to serve those with Hansen’s disease. In 1883, the Hawaiian government was searching for someone to run the Kakaako Receiving Station for people suspected of having leprosy. More than 50 religious communities in the United States and Canada refused. Thirty-five Syracuse sisters volunteered immediately; six actually went. In her letter accepting the request, Cope wrote, “I am hungry for the work…I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”

Kalaupapa, Hawaii is a peninsula cut off from the mainland by high cliffs and from the rest of the world by the ocean. The sick were cruelly ostracized there, dropped off on the beach by boat, quarantined from their families because the disease was incurable and contagious. While St. Damien had first brought hope there in 1873, Sr. Marianne was able to assure him when he lay dying that his work would continue. Indeed, after his diagnosis with leprosy, the Church and the Government were afraid to welcome him. Only Cope offered hospitality, after hearing that his contagious condition had made him an outcast.  He died in 1889, six months after her arrival, probably confident that the work he began would continue in good hands.

Beyond making the community clean and safe, Cope must’ve known like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that “we are saved by beauty.” Artistry might seem the last thing anyone would worry about, overwhelmed by lepers’ needs. But Sr. Marianne proposed that large, wide-necked bottles, decorated with shells, would make beautiful altar vases.

Her artistry flourished—trimming hats for the girls, requesting the latest fashion magazines for their dressmaking, creating lovely bows. As Sister Antonia Brown wrote, “viewed from the back, one would think they were New Yorkers.”

What made St. Marianne tick? Most powerfully, in her own unique way, she followed One who, shortly after teaching the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, touched gritty reality. Approached by a leper, he stretched out his hand and cleansed him immediately (Mark 8:1-4). He also promised his friends, “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do and will do greater ones than these” (John 14: 12). As Cope wrote in 1905, the time to do good is short:  “Let us make best use of the fleeting moments. They will not return.”

Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In Liturgical Press, 2015, litpress.org, 1-800-858-5450

 

 

Baptism of Jesus—Jan. 8

Scholars say that the mythic elements in today’s story– the sky opening, the voice of God, the descent of the dove—are common to spiritual experiences in many religious traditions. What makes Jesus’ unique?

Even in more ordinary circumstances, he remained attuned to the source of that experience: to God his father. Whether he was engaged in hot debate, confronting hideous disease, or teaching in the marketplace, Jesus didn’t forget that voice, that spectacular affirmation. He acted always as God’s beloved child. Furthermore, he saw everyone else through that same lens—no matter how cantankerous, sick, or stupid they were.

Do we? When doing dishes or driving, do we remember we are precious? Confronting a crisis, do we carry into it the same qualities that have gotten us this far: our courage, strength or skill? When we’re angry, mistaken, rejected, exhausted, ill, betrayed, depressed, unemployed, or told we’re worthless, does that sense of affirmation rise up within?

What God said to Jesus, God says to us: “you are my dearly beloved child. I’m pleased with you.” That should matter more than all the applause or awards in the world. And we should in turn hear that same description of everyone we meet.

This experience marks a pivotal point for Jesus: he emerges from it energized and inspired for his public ministry. Even in the long desert days, he must hear the echoes of that voice. When we’re tempted to focus on the criticisms, we could turn instead with joy to that life-giving praise.