Kudos to the Governor of VA

After the shooting of 13 in Virginia Beach, Gov. Ralph Northam called the VA state legislature back to consider enacting basic gun control measures. Notably, he said the devastation should bring “votes and laws, not thoughts and prayers.”

Home to the NRA headquarters, VA has previously smothered such obvious bills as those proposed: a ban on silencers and high-capacity magazines, mandatory, universal background checks before gun purchases, a limit of one handgun purchase per month and prohibition of guns in city buildings. Northam also wants every lawmaker to go on record for or against his proposals during the special session. He’s the same leader who faced a scandal about a photo in blackface which he said wasn’t his, but let’s support any efforts to curb the gun epidemic. His “F” grade from the NRA is a badge of honor.

Even feeble attempts become noteworthy in light of a cover story in Time Magazine 11/29/18 about the parents of shooting victims, and how they try to comfort each other. They don’t necessarily agree on solutions, but they know the vast abyss confronting each new group of victims’ families and turn out to console them. Among the heart-breaking quotes:

“One father tells Time that for weeks after his son was killed, he set his alarm and left the house at 7:30, even though the school drop-off was no longer necessary. Another mom still catches herself reaching for her daughter’s small hand before crossing the street.” It took months for Nicole Hockley to stop calling her six year old son Dylan, killed at Sandy Hook, to dinner. “Pamela Wright-Young, whose 17-year-old son Tyrone Lawson was shot to death outside a high school basketball game in Chicago in 2013, had to consciously break her habit of walking sleepily to his bedroom to wake him up. ‘Something in you stops when your child dies,’ she says.”

Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed in Parkland, was elected to the Broward County school board in August after campaigning to improve school security. When 13 people died in a mass shooting in Binghamton, N.Y., “that punched through the fog” of her grief, she says. “I’d always thought that someone was going to do something about this, because we live in America and we’re taxpayers and this is a civilized country. But I realized no one’s stopping this. It’s just going to keep happening and happening. And that’s on us.”

It IS on us. And where oh where is the concerted religious voice of all denominations calling gun violence a life issue and roundly condemning these ceaseless, unnecessary deaths?

The Last Week of School

The jasmine, honeysuckle, other vines and bushes are flowering with dizzying sweetness. That harder-to-identify breeze is a collective sigh of relief heard across the land: “We made it through another school year!”

In November, first or third or fifth grade seemed interminable. Now, children have sprouted another foot or two, and walk confidently into class because they know the routine. (It’s only their addled grammy who dreads confusing Crazy Hair Event with Fancy Dress Day.) Their teachers deserve a brass band marching up the hill to school, serenading them all as the superintendent bestows plentiful raises and prodigious bouquets.

The day-in, day-out work of elementary schools is seldom applauded, but how miraculous it is when a class of varying first languages and ethnic backgrounds enters with chins lifted in anticipation. They can sniff some interesting potential here… And they walk out able to read, divide, draw, sing, write, subtract, and more or less get along with each other. Such formidable achievements from such small people!

Don’t forget their entourage of support staff: the cafeteria cooks, crossing guards, school secretaries who keep track of sick kids and lost lunches, aides, bus drivers, principals, parent-teacher associations and bedraggled dads who every morning, haul the scooter and helmet back home. Kudos too to the grandparents wearing saris, burkas, hijabs or turbans who bring their little ones into an environment which must seem utterly strange, yet do so with high expectations. Maybe they’ve not yet mastered all the American customs or nuances of English, but odds are great and hopes are high this child will. And some fortunate native speakers will leave with some newly acquired fluency in Mandarin or Spanish.

For those who haven’t been part of the school scene recently, it’s worth a stroll down a block or two simply to observe this quiet phenomenon. Not to idealize that all schools work miracles, but many do, and the daily procession in and out is worth watching to gain a wee dose of gratitude or joy. As the academic year winds down, some achievements are surely worth celebrating.

Viva Viriditas!

Depending on geography, spring is finally springing now (perhaps dubiously, perhaps vigorously) for most readers. This annual resurgence of life, warmth and energy prompts me to  reflect on the concept of “viriditas.” The word which combines the Latin for “green” and “truth,”was coined by Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) to mean the greening power of God, filled with connotations of vigor and freshness.

Hildegard also assumed ground-breaking roles for a woman of her day: artist, author, composer, mystic, pharmacist, poet, preacher, theologian, scientist, doctor, and political critic. Named a saint and doctor of the church in 2012, she believed passionately in God’s presence and activity in creation, as well as being a life force within. While we can observe “viriditas” in gardens and forests, Hildegard believed we could also cultivate it in our souls. Learn more at: https://www.healthyhildegard.com/hildegards-viriditas

Contemporary Dr. Victoria Sweet has utilized the idea in medical treatment, believing that the body isn’t a machine to be fixed, but a plant which will grow and heal, given sufficient time and nurture. “In Dr. Sweet’s TEDx talk at Middlebury College, (‘The Efficiency of Inefficieny’) she describes Hildegard’s belief that human healing resembles the greening power and regenerating capabilities of plant life. In 2014, Dr. Sweet published a book on the subject called God’s Hotel.  More recently, Dr. Sweet published a related book, Slow Medicine, also featuring viriditas as a central theme.”

During her seventies, Hildegard completed two medical texts, which catalogued over 280 plants, cross-referenced with their healing uses. She saw humans as “living sparks” of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun. She thought connection with nature brings people a “primordial joy.” More than eight hundred years after her death, her message rings so true that she could well be considered patroness of environmental awareness. Although she would’ve been appalled by the destruction to the planet, she would’ve cheered robustly for efforts to save it.

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere

 

I may be late to jump on the bandwagon praising Celeste Ng’s second novel, but it’s a skillfully crafted, absorbing read. She writes from the unique perspective of the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who came to the US, both parents pursuing and earning doctorates. Ng wanted to explore “what it is like to feel in between two different cultures, to have to negotiate that gap.” As that experience becomes more common, it helps to have a wise navigator’s insights.

Ng starts with a fire that destroys a wealthy family’s mansion, set by their youngest daughter. At the beginning, it seems implausible, unfathomable: why?? By the end, it seems perfectly logical: the clues or little sparks have been planted carefully throughout. Three intertwining stories make up the plot: complex, but easily accessible and seamlessly interwoven.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking sub-plot raises the question of adoption. Does a Chinese child belong with her birth mother, despite her mistakes and poverty, or with an affluent couple, desperate for children, who can meet every material need? That question seques into the larger one of motherhood: several relationships portray different styles. The anxious, controlling mom whose primary concern is for rules, order and perfection, loses her daughter in the end. That daughter is drawn to another mom who flaunts the rules, and cherishes her own daughter through an unconventional life as a vagabond artist. The reader is left reflecting whether anyone can ultimately control what matters most.

The setting itself contributes: Shaker Heights, OH, where the author grew up, so precisely planned that unsightly trash cans are never placed on the street,  but concealed behind the homes and discreetly picked up out of sight. The novel is filled with such rich metaphors for the human condition.

Ng quotes novelist Ian McEwan: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.” At a time when some people seem to have closed the shutters on the experience of others, it’s refreshing to read Ng’s thanks to her readers: “who have taken the great risk of stepping into another person’s mind and experience and letting it change them; who have allowed their minds to be open to another point of view, even if only for the space of a book.” And readers are grateful to her for graciously opening that door into another world.

May 21—Feast of Christian de Cherge and Trappist Martyrs of Algeria

Born in France, Christian de Cherge spent his youth in Algeria, where his parents taught him to respect Islam. His dad told the kids, “Let’s not kill each other over names.” As a young adult, he could share God-talk more easily there than in France. One friend, Mohammed, the father of ten, who shared a common love of God intervened when thugs aimed their rifles aimed at Christian. Because he defended Christian as a godly man, Mohammed was himself killed that night.

 

Christian later wrote, “In the blood shed by this friend, who was assassinated because he would not practice hatred, I knew that my call to follow Christ would be lived sooner or later in the same country that gave me a tangible sign of the greatest love possible.”

 

Studying for the priesthood in Paris and Rome, Christian added intense study of the Qur’an. He wanted to seek “the notes that are in harmony” between Christianity and Islam, incorporated in a “both/and” spirituality. Later, as prior at Our Lady of Atlas monastery in Algiers, he created there a safe space for respectful Muslim-Christian dialogue and prayer. Chapel bells mingled with the muezzin’s call to pray. Christian once counseled a Muslim woman worried about marrying a Christian, “we are only an envelope around a soul. Don’t worry about your skin.”

 

The Trappists farmed, became friends with local villagers and distributed medicine to the sick. Yet as violence escalated, the monks debated whether to remain, knowing they were in danger.

 

When one monk said, “we’re like birds on a branch—we don’t know if we’ll be leaving,” a Muslim woman complimented their commitment: “We’re the birds. You’re the branch.” Eventually all came to peace with the decision to stay, realizing that they rested in God’s embrace. They relied on their strengths: God, each other, their common prayer.

 

Eventually, rebels kidnapped and killed seven monks, but Christian had written a prophetic and forgiving letter three years before. He worried that his death would intensify anger at Islam. Despite his concerns, the last testament is filled with gratitude, extending even to his “friend of the last moment.” He meant his murderer, whom he would meet in heaven “like happy thieves,” who had both stolen paradise.

 

No Planet B

It seems like time for another Dunkirk. To briefly refresh World War II historical background before drawing the parallel: In May 1940, Nazi forces invaded Belgium and northern France. The retreat of British and allied troops to the coast of France became a race to evacuate before the Germans could occupy Dunkirk, the only remaining port on the English Channel.

On May 27, bombing by the Luftwaffe destroyed much of the harbor, so that many of the 4000,000 men thronging the beaches had to be ferried out to sea by petty craft pressed into service by the Royal Navy. The British Admiralty had been calling forth every kind of small craft it could find to rescue the troops; a scholar describes how “one of the most motley fleets of history—ships, transports, merchantmen, fishing boats, pleasure craft—took men off from the very few ports left, from the open beaches themselves.” (https://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-II)

In the 2017 film “Dunkirk,” Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) of the Royal Navy sees the desperation of the situation, and hopes originally to rescue 30,000. Then he sees a small dot on the horizon coming from the direction of England; it materializes into the little fleet which with the support of the Royal Air Force, saved 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops.

Climate change today imperils all the people of planet earth. We’re familiar with the litany of devastation, addressed by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si.” Natural disasters, extinction of species, the damage caused by fires, floods and hurricanes should alert us to the horrific problems caused by global warming and rising sea levels. Some scientists estimate that only twelve years remain in which to make major changes before catastrophic loss. Yet some governments, including ours, seem oblivious to the urgent need.

When the institutions in which we’ve placed trust fail, we look to small but mighty individual efforts. Perhaps these will be like the heroic fleet that saved the troops waiting patiently at Dunkirk. It’s been especially heartening to watch the actions of young people, who will live with the disastrous effects of adult inaction.

In California, young climate strikers skipped school to attend with their parents and teachers the May 8 CalSTRS investment meeting. The California teachers’ pension fund has over $6 billion invested in fossil fuel companies; the students advocate divestment. Their motto: “stop funding to destroy my future.” As a retired teacher pointed out, “we worked for years to prepare students for their futures; how bizarre that pensions are invested in companies that depend on destroying the planet.”

The 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg leads the school strike movement around the world. She stands as a silent reminder outside the Swedish parliament every Friday. Addressing the U.N. climate summit in Poland last December, she asked, “Why didn’t you do anything when there was still time to act?”

In his poem “What Fifty Said,” Robert Frost writes, “I go to school to youth to learn the future.” Following the youthful lead, I’ve divested from gun manufacturers and fossil fuels. May we all learn to launch our small boats towards the Dunkirk of today.

What Every Girl Wants: A Man Who Cooks (Third Sunday of Easter)

Sheer genius how Jesus takes ordinary stuff and forms of it salvation. Nets, fish, boats, light garments. Simple words. Burning charcoal. No ponderous treatise. Not a footnote in sight. No titles nor tuxedoes. No rehearsals, no tension, simply a call we’ve heard before.

“Come, have breakfast.” The invitation sounds routine. But on closer look it means: “Be nurtured. You’ve probably not eaten for twelve hours or more. You’re looking woozy; food will energize. A full day ahead—you’ll need your strength.” We’ve heard it from mom, spouse or friends. But hearing it from Jesus?

Even better: what if we thought he’d died? There he is, calmly placing bread on the grill, asking for more fish. Why do we make him so distant, perfect, unreachable and glorified, when he is as close and natural in his serving role as a waitress who’s refilled the coffee 97 times this morning?

He doesn’t crow, “let me tell you about MY weekend!” Nor does he rehash gory details of Peter’s betrayal. Instead, he puts friends at ease, concerned whether they’ve caught anything to eat. With one word, “children,” he touches the sweet, needy, vulnerable self beneath the polished or cantankerous surface. He looks on them fondly: dripping, bedraggled, dazed with grief and sleeplessness, sloppy, dear.  He intersects that moment of their longing, and names their deeper identity: “children of God.” How intimately he knows human hunger, felt its ache himself. Feeding that the necessary prelude to any lofty mission. To be near him, even the less impetuous might jump into a lake.

Originally published as a reflection in Give Us This Day, 4-1-16.

See Kathy Coffey’s article on Columbine in the 4/15/19, 110th anniversary issue of America Magazine. Sadly, nothing significant has changed in gun control during the 20 years since it was first published.