Book Review: An Antidote to Poisonous Politics

I’ve long been intrigued by the work of William Lynch, SJ (especially Images of Hope), but a convergence of circumstances has led me to him again. The election year coincides with the publication of Building the Human City by John Kane (Pickwick Publications, Full disclosure: John and I have been friends and colleagues for many years. I wrote an endorsement for the back cover, but had a diabolically brief word count and an imminent deadline for that. Now, I’m re-reading with more delight, at a more leisurely, reflective pace. This web posting will be the first; several others may follow.

The book opens with the wonderful quote of Pope Francis to the US Congress 9/24/15 about the temptation to see “only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” How often this year we hear one group inveigh against another, demonizing the Other, canonizing the Self. Because Lynch warned repeatedly against the human tendency to leap to simplistic, magical, comforting polarizations, we need his voice especially today.

Since he grew up near the East River in New York City, it became a symbol for human passage through this world. The river is muddy and full of trash, but it moves steadily into a wider world: a port and then an ocean. Through the complexity and messiness of the human city, Lynch moved into an appreciation of the rich diversity which cannot be walled nor confined. “Everything I have ever written asks for the concrete movement of faith and the imagination through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ.” For him, the church isn’t a bastion of correctness condemning the world. Instead, it offers images of life and death to feed the spiritual hunger for a more authentic sense of self and a deeper sense of the divine.

This is just the beginning; complex material is best digested in small chunks.

Trinity Sunday

Today’s first reading from Proverbs is a delight:

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,

   the first of his acts of long ago…

Before the mountains had been shaped,

   before the hills, I was brought forth…

When he established the heavens, I was there,…

   then I was beside him, like a master worker;

and I was daily his delight,

   rejoicing before him always

Rejoicing in his inhabited world

  And delighting in the human race. (Proverbs 8:22, 25, 27, 30-31)


This biblical passage shows God and human engaged simultaneously in the same creativity. An interesting footnote to “like a master worker” in the NRSV translation says “like a little child.” Perhaps the two aren’t so different. They are equally fearless, totally absorbed, and thoroughly given over to delight. C.G. Jung writes, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”                 -–


Just as the baker gives his child a small ball of dough or a potter gives her child a lump of clay, so the child happily does the same work on a lesser scale. Latina cooks learn to make tortillas besides a mother or grandmother who weighs the ingredients in her hands and teaches them by example how to shape the perfect circle. In European museums, apprentices often cluster in front of masterpieces, learning to paint through imitation. So we, in a specific art or an artful life, imitate the work of God. Our happiness springs from God’s presence beside us, our parallel activity.


What is true of God’s creativity and ours is also true of the faithful life. Grace is essential: sometimes an unanticipated shift of direction, a new friendship or idea, a sudden phone call can make all the difference. Originality or uniqueness is also central. In literature we call it voice. No one familiar with their writing would confuse Milton and Shakespeare, or mistake Hemingway for Faulkner.


So in art the styles of Rembrandt and Monet are decidedly different. One who knows the music of Schubert wouldn’t think it had been written by Handel. No self-respecting music lover would confuse U2 with The Rolling Stones. Even musicians or writers of the same era place their distinctive mark upon a piece.


“But,” some may protest. “Isn’t faith a more dogged matter of keeping rules and attending religious services?” Nothing wrong with that.


Approaching faith through the arts is a different lens, the distinction made by Alejandro Garcia-Rivera between “textbook theology” and the living theology we remember better: of story, image and song. (A Wounded Innocence. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003, viii)


If we have inherited a treasure in our faith, as we say we believe, then why do we live like paupers? If we have such a short time on earth, why do we squander it? Let’s paint, as beautifully as we can, the canvas of our lives.


From THE ART OF FAITH by Kathy Coffey (Twenty-third Publications, 800-321-0411)


One of the most striking sentences in the first reading from Acts (2:4) describes people speaking different languages, yet still being understood. We all know that even those who speak the same language can have a hard time communicating. Pentecost reverses The Tower of Babel story, which tries to explain why people began speaking in different languages. The people that day achieved understanding, despite their linguistic differences.

Pentecost continues today, as African students in an ESL classroom learn English and across the hall, North Americans learn Spanish. A young California woman who had emergency gall bladder surgery in a Tokyo hospital felt alone and afraid, unable to communicate with or understand her nurses and doctors. She was placed in the oncology ward because a few nurses there knew some English. But another patient broke down the language barrier. She simply lifted her hospital gown and showed the American her scar, a silent signal that she could relate to the girl’s pain.

One way to celebrate Pentecost is to appreciate the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives. The processes of ordinary living are so fragile, so immensely significant, so fraught with terror, that we desperately need someone beyond ourselves. We need the warmth and power of the Spirit to help us in whatever we have undertaken.

If you look back over the last 5, 10 or 20 years, where could you could say this? “Ah yes. So you, life-giving Spirit and Guide, were there all along.”

Happy Mother’s Day

Carol Flinders writes in Enduring Lives, “There are families in South India that trace their ancestry back through the maternal line, and a friend who grew up in one of these clans used to swear that right along with the DNA, spiritual awareness flows down the mother-line…‘like a river.’” (p. 3)

Think of that lineage in Christianity. It includes some formidable women who came before us and cheer us on: Esther, Deborah, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Dorothy Day, Thea Bowman. They are a powerful “cloud of witnesses” that understand the human struggle and support us through it. Each represents, within her own time and culture, a flowering of compassion, generosity and creativity that mark her as a descendant of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. “Like mother, like daughter.”

Now we continue this flow of abundant grace and virtue. The support of other women has contributed significantly to the contemporary flowering of women’s art, poetry, music, drama, enhanced roles in science, politics, medicine and business. While advances in those fields garner most of the attention, quieter support systems also thrive: a mother telling her daughter she needn’t endure an abusive husband, a friend who fills in for the mother of an autistic child, giving her a much-needed break, women whose gifts take the form of listening intently, parenting well, being a faithful friend or spouse. The rallying cry of black women in South Africa describes their community: “You have struck the women; you have struck the rock.”

Kathy Coffey featured on local NPR Station

Human Trafficking on KQED Perspectives

Editor’s note: Kathy Coffey did a “Perspective” this morning on the local San Francisco NPR station, KQED, focused on human trafficking.

Imagine a child named Sheila. Aged 14 now, she was first trafficked at 9 by drug-dealing parents. She lives in constant fear. Not of taking algebra or getting a prom date, the usual worries of her peers. No, she is the possession of a human trafficker, who isolates, exploits, abuses her, makes big bucks off her. Her life expectancy is 7 years. It’s unlikely she’ll turn 21. She is convinced no one knows about her private hell; no one cares. No one has ever told her she’s bright or beautiful.

You can hear the full perspective on the KQED website: Children For Sale

Sixth Week of Easter

Because today’s reading from the last supper discourse comes so near the end of Jesus’ life, it holds a privileged place in John’s gospel. Jesus doesn’t have much time left; he can’t waste his breath on trivia. So what he chooses must be absolutely central to his message. We, in turn, should hold these words in our hearts.

The shadow of death hangs over Jesus’ head as it does for all of us.

He addresses one of the hardest things in any relationship—that we will someday say a final goodbye as he is saying now. Even before that, we sometimes fail ea other; we betray those we love most. In the rush of events or too much pressure or not enough time, we miss each other’s shining radiance.

But despite those failures, God still chooses to make God’s dwelling place with us. Other than college dorm or summer camp, we rarely dwell with strangers. Usually, we live with those we love most. GOD’s wanting to dwell with us should allay any anxieties about our failures.

In Praise of Movers

I go for years without thinking of them, then all of a sudden, they are center stage, vital figures in the unfolding drama of a cross-country move. Packing up a household, transporting it 1299 miles, then unloading it isn’t high on most peoples’ ideas for fun. Yet when the circumstances necessitate, you want these unsung heroes in your camp: movers.

They come, apparently, in waves. The first, the estimate person, calmly surveys the chaos of boxes, labels, tape, markers, and oddly angled furniture. He doesn’t bat an eye; he gives a surprisingly accurate guess on the weight. He must be attuned to the  emotional discombobulation of a person in this state of upheaval, and reassures, “you’re doing the tough part: deciding what goes and what stays.” (A process which disintgetrates dramatically in sharp correlation to the dwindly amount of time left.)

Then comes Moving Day, only slightly deterred by 2 feet of snow which shut down the city the day before. At 8:15 am the second wave of saints are shoveling the driveway, maneuvering a monstrous vehicle whose tires spin in the glacial canyons created by unploughed streets. Nothing fazes these guys: they introduce themselves courteously, shake hands with the shell-shocked homeowner, and move at whirlwind pace to inventory piles, tag, wrap carefully and load that van.

It’s a logistical nightmare, keeping my laundry baskets separate from someone else’s grill, the leaf for my table distinct from the leaf for someone else’s. But amazingly enough, after some delay, the third wave arrives: bringing it intact! My Stuff! It feels wonderfully familiar to see my couch in the rented living room, my pictures hanging on the walls. Despite unwieldly loads, monstrously heavy china cabinets and torturously narrow curves, stairs and hallways, the movers remain friendly and calm. When a piece fits perfectly into a designated space (sheer luck—no time to measure ahead), they exult, “Just like the movies!” and share my excitement.

After they drop my load, they’ll proceed to two more locations, until late at night, the van is finally empty. Then they face a long drive back. They will probably repeat this routine hundreds of times this month, and some have done this work over 20 years. I know: there are probably legitimate complaints about sleazy movers but I don’t want to hear them. I’m too busy being grateful and trying to decide: the armchair in this corner or that?