“Lamps Shining in a Dark Place”

We must all be struggling numbly to wrap our minds around the successive killings and the torrent of hateful racism from the White House in the last week. Instead of spending a spacious August at farmer’s markets and swimming pools, we read terrible accounts of a two-month old who lost both parents, trying to shield him from gunfire at Walmart, a six-year old who should’ve been starting first grade, killed at Gilroy, a murderer’s deranged, on-line rant that mirrored the president’s incendiary language about immigrants.

But in a letter from 2 Peter on Tuesday, we’re encouraged to attend to the bright lamps. Where are they? First, the crowds who greeted Representative Ilhan Omar, the Somali-born Democrat from Minnesota and target of the Bigot-in-Chief, on July 19 at the Minneapolis airport chanting, “Welcome Home.”

Second, the clergy at the Washington National Cathedral who denounced “the escalation of racialized rhetoric from the president.” (washingtonpost.com/…/have-we-no-decency-local-church-leaders-respond-trumps-criticism-baltimore) Bishop Mariann Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C., protesting outside Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office Aug. 6 also rejected “a sense of false helplessness” and said, “We will look back on these days and wonder how it was that we could have been so collectively aligned to such a needless proliferation of weapons meant to take human life.”

Third, a statement from the Religious of the Sacred Heart that actually recommends specific gun control measures (rare in the abundance of vague abstractions spewing forth):

  • a total ban on assault weapons, which passed in 1994—but which Congress failed to renew in 2004—that definitely saved lives
  • measures that control the sale and use of firearms, such as universal background checks for all gun purchases
  • limitations on civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines
  • a federal law to criminalize gun trafficking

Let’ add to that age restrictions, and up the ante: Any legislator who votes against such common-sense measures, violating the express will of the majority of people they were elected to represent, should be required to clean up the carnage after the next killing.

Seems clear that the wanton destruction of life is an issue which all religious traditions, indeed all people lucky enough to be alive, should condemn—and immediately change the laws. Why can New Zealand ban assault weapons within a week of a shooting in Christchurch, and the US still procrastinates after endless carnage? (Little has changed since Columbine, over 20 years ago.) Hasn’t the NRA, which seems to be collapsing internally, and represents a small minority, dominated the will of the American people long enough? Where is the collective outrage?

Feast of St. Ignatius—July 31

The Basilica of Loyola, Spain is a massive pile of grey stone. But if one persists into the castle, a refreshing simplicity marks the birthplace of St. Ignatius. A simple wooden column stands on the second floor, marked “Inigo, 1491” –his Basque name, the year of his birth. A stunning plaque says simply, “Aqui nacio.” On a literal level, it means St. Ignatius was born here. Symbolically, it reaches vaster regions. Here began an alternate narrative to the sad, centuries-old history of church power and clerical control.

Both Ignatius and Teresa of Avila lived at a time when the clergy were the only intermediaries between ordinary people and God. They begged to differ. What graces they brought to the spiritual life, he saying to regular shmucks: “God has a dream for you,” and she: “the soul’s amplitude cannot be exaggerated.”

Ignatius would later be carried into Loyola castle with a war wound so serious he was given the last rites. But he recovered there, looking out at green mountains, reading the lives of the saints. In nine months of convalescence, some new seed took root. Then Ignatius crossed the worn, mossy stones at the front entrance of his family’s residence. He left behind the fortress mentality, and began a long journey, eventually exchanging his sword for a walking stick. The violence that once constituted the macho drama of a knight’s life, traded in for a mysterious process—he had no idea where it would end, but limped into it trustingly. He made false starts; his dream of Jerusalem didn’t work out. But instead of despairing, Ignatius asked God, “Where else are you? Where are you leading next?”

That journey would take him to the mountaintop of Montserrat, the cave of Manressa, the port of Barcelona, and eventually, to Rome. With genius and craziness, Ignatius realized he wanted his followers in the swirl of cities, where plazas and squares offered places to preach and exchange new ideas—not isolated and distant in monasteries. (Most Jesuit universities are still planted squarely in the midst of cities.)

His directions for Jesuit life are remarkably flexible: no office, no habit, no required fasts or penances. After every directive came the realistic qualifier to fit the circumstances: “or whatever’s best.” At Ignatius’ death, there were 1000 Jesuits.  Indicating their perpetual differences with the powers-that-be, they’ve spent more time in jail than any other religious order.  Their alternate view of Christianity didn’t emphasize external rules, but the long interior process of the Spiritual Exercises, hence not a what? but a who? Called into “conscious living relationship with the person of Christ,” they have achieved greatly, or like St. Alphonsus Rodriguez in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, faithfully watched the door in Majorca.

Perhaps the most famous Jesuit today is Pope Francis. He reflected the Ignatian tradition when he said, “the whole purpose of the church is to create conditions in which anyone can have a relationship with Christ.” Rejecting the usual palatial residence, his words sprang from a long habit of discernment: “I felt in the depths of my being a ‘no’ to the papal palace.” Ignatius points us not to airy realms beyond but to our current reality, bracing, frustrating and ambiguous as it may seem: “Now. Here. This.”

I’m grateful to Matt Malone, SJ, editor of America Magazine for his insights on Ignatius, shared as he led a pilgrimage through Spain, October, 2018.

Book Review: The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, mental illness in the household, loss of caregiver, homelessness and bullying have long been known as toxic to the developing child. But no one understood the full effects and possible healing before Dr. Harris entered the scene. A pediatrician with a master’s in public health from Harvard, working in a rough neighborhood of San Francisco, she implemented basic care where there had been only one doctor for over ten thousand children.

But she was puzzled. Why did that community, where she saw marvelous families struggling mightily, have such a dramatically reduced life expectancy? Why was a child raised there 2 ½ times more likely to develop pneumonia than a child in a wealthier area, and 6 times as likely to develop asthma? Why would serious health problems plague these children into adulthood? She eloquently describes distress over her patients: “At the beginning, they are equal, these beautiful bundles of potential, and knowing that they won’t always be is enough to break your heart.”

Her crystal-clear writing can be humorous too: “like a soap-opera wife whose husband was stepping out with the nanny, I would understand it only in hindsight.” Most people know that the human stress response has helped the species survive, cueing the first people to run when the lion roared. Cortisol helped the body by increasing blood sugar so the brain could think and inhibiting growth and reproduction during food shortages. But children exposed to high doses of stress have “overloaded systems” which can cause long-range health problems and significantly shorter life spans.

This attempt to describe complex processes in a short space with accessible language obviously has its limits, and should nudge the reader to the original text, which reads like a fascinating mystery. With sheer delight, Dr. Harris found exhaustive research done in 1998, linking ACEs to the leading causes of death in adults. Children who experience prolonged adversity and terrifying situations have a de-regulated, near-constant blast of cortisol, or in Harris’ metaphor: “the body’s stress thermostat is broken” and the brain shows measurable changes. The best intervention? An adult caregiver, who serves as a buffer and in many cases, needs therapy as well.

With high energy, Harris relates how she and her team created an ACE screening (which she hopes every doctor will require for every routine physical). They learned how effective it was to talk about the trauma, even with very young children, to avoid their creating an explanation that blamed themselves. The best therapy treats parent and child as a team: child-parent psychotherapy (CPP). This treatment has tremendous effect, as did other interventions Harris  explains:  in mindfulness, sleep,  exercise, nutrition and healthy relationships. Because of her success, the book is joyful: scientific detectives can make enormous improvements in peoples’ lives, especially those who need it most.

But she also tells painful stories, her personal experiences and those of her patients. She pleads for a conversation on ACEs and the courage to implement change. Harris is not only brilliant and heroic, but grounded in reality: the daughter of a Jamaican doctor and mother of four boys. She contributes a splendid voice towards efforts for a more just and healthy world.

Kudos to Creative Churches


While the Catholic Archbishop of Indianapolis wastes time bullying Catholic schools into firing gay teachers, (bravely resisted by the Jesuit Brebeuf high school) it’s heartening to read of Episcopal churches responding to the housing crisis and building affordable units on their properties. While the crunch in the Bay Area is one of or perhaps the worst in the country, most areas face a terrible shortage, hence aggravating the situation for many homeless people.

To several congregations, it seemed like an obvious way to help. Every movement needs its slogan so this is “YIGBY,” “Yes in God’s Backyard” contrasted with “NIMBY” for “not in my backyard.”  St. Paul’s in Walnut Creek, CA is finishing construction of 44 affordable apartments, and has already received over 5,000 applications. It’s rare to combine a community eager to help with property zoned for residential development. Sometimes it takes a long slog through local ordinances, and many efforts to ease legal restrictions.

But as Senior Pastor Gerald Agee in West Oakland said, “we felt we didn’t need a lightning bolt from heaven to let us know what the direction should be” (reported in the EAST BAY TIMES, 6/16/19, p. 1). Some church property, bought decades ago, is valuable real estate, but attendance is declining because members can no longer afford to live in the area. Half-empty sanctuaries and parking lots could become homes for children who’ve known nothing but shelters their whole lives. As Father Bruce Bramlett, serving as priest assistant of St. Jude’s Episcopal Church, Cupertino, CA says, “it’s the wave of the future.”

Anyone listening out there? Any parish got some unused land, some courage and creativity?

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens


This best-selling novel begins in heartbreak, sweeps through lyrical descriptions of North Carolina marshes, and ends with a stunning surprise. Each day, I’d look forward to reading it in the evening, and hated to see it end.

The story opens with a six-year old named Kya being abandoned by her mother and siblings who can no longer live with her abusive, alcoholic father. She has no money, no electricity, no running water and no food in a shack miles from the nearest town. The action begins in 1952, slightly more credible that the social services wouldn’t have been all over her case. An effort to get her to school fails miserably when the other kids make fun of “swamp trash.” She never returns, though the food is tempting, choosing instead to make sea gulls her companions. Wistfully, she feeds them and turning seven, confides, “it’s my birthday.” A later comment underscores the tragedy: “loneliness had become a natural appendage to Kya, like an arm.”

Before the plot gets too depressing, a bright light enters: Tate. She’s startled when he knows her name, but he will remain Kya’s true friend for the rest of her life. (Understandably, she has abandonment issues, fears the townsfolk and finds it hard to communicate.) He teaches her to read; a black couple give her donated clothing and a little company. Meanwhile, she grows resilient and becomes a collector of and expert on the surrounding nature. Her maturation is interwoven with the puzzling details of a murder, the son of the town’s wealthiest couple, slightly older than Kya. It’s unclear to the reader how that fits, but one continues, pleased that Kya seems to be the proverbial flower growing through asphalt, the tireless spark of the divine in the human that can flourish in the worst circumstances.

Her life grows slightly more complex, but still revolves around the tides and the rich life of sea and marsh. She becomes a superb naturalist, like the author who has won awards for her wildlife writing. The descriptions of grasses, feathers,  shells, snow geese and stars  are like a psalm to creation. Dialogue sounds stilted, and is clearly not Owens’ strong suit, but the Kya character is too appealing to fault. Rare good times with her father (notably he once calls her “hon”) cease; he vanishes. Despite countless setbacks, she thrives and the reader cheers her success against impossible odds.

By the time the book climaxes in a courtroom scene, the reader’s heart pulses in the throat, tensely rooting for Kya. It emerges then that the townspeople who seemed so distant and bigoted also have that spark of the divine. A small coterie protects her, and the small efforts others made years before to help the lonely child are revealed.

Perhaps we respond with empathy to Kya because there’s a little of her in all of us: isolated, shy and afraid. We cheer her smallest victories and yearn for her happiness because she is such a poignant expression of ourselves. A constant subplot is the devastation wrecked on Kya’s mother and her children by domestic abuse, but a slight twist for justice and glimmer of change comes at the end.

An Ambivalent July 4

I’ve always loved this holiday: the fireworks, the small town parades, the family parties, the watermelon. This year, however, when the Oakland symphony played the national anthem before the fireworks over the bay, we rose hesitantly. Appropriately, the celebration happened on July 3, the Feast of St. Thomas, patron saint of doubt. So much was wrong, but still, we could stand because we have the right to protest. And in the case of the children jailed at the border, a compelling obligation to say, “Stop it!”

As thousands of people did around the country on Tuesday, July 2. In San Francisco, the police cleared and shut down Market St., a major thoroughfare, so an estimated one thousand people could march from Sen. Feinstein’s to Rep. Pelosi’s office, chanting, “Shut down the camps…NOW”  and “Feinstein, do your job, and “Pelosi, do your job.” One eloquent sign said, “Do all lives still matter? Asking for the kids in cages.”

By now, the visiting attorneys’ reports on the Clint, TX facility have been well publicized. Most poignant is the image of hungry, inconsolable children trying to comfort each other. Congressional representatives and media cameras were denied entrance to many detention centers. The secrecy makes it even more compelling to ask: What are they hiding? Even Border Patrol agreed that their facilities weren’t designed for “vulnerable populations.”

That’s the understatement of the century. For specific horrors, read “What a Pediatrician Saw Inside a Border Patrol Warehouse” in the July 3 Atlantic:  www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/07/border-patrols-oversight-sick-migrant-children/593224/. Dr. Sevier in Brownsville, TX reported “a baby who’d been fed from the same unwashed bottle for days; children showing signs of malnutrition and dehydration; and several kids who, in her medical opinion, were exhibiting clear evidence of psychological trauma.”

After separating 2600 families, the Trump administration ended the policy, but had no plan to reunite parents and children. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts (see  https://twitter.com/hashtag/CloseTheCamps?src=hashtag_click&f=image) reported that asylum seekers have been criminalized for trying to saving their children’s lives, and held for 60 days when they are supposed to be jailed for only 72 hours. CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) seems chaotic and cruel. I sent them a letter of protest https://help.cbp.gov, which said in part, “Donald Trump may well be a sociopath, but surely SOME of you have a conscience?” The immediate answer was so glib and pat, a robot could’ve written it.

Meanwhile, plans were afoot for an extravagant military display in Washington DC, touting the achievements of the President. Does this reek of hypocrisy? Frederick Douglass said in 1852, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” Does anyone else squirm, reluctant to agree? Knowing how deep and long-lasting the effects of trauma on children, how can we let this human rights atrocity continue?

Book Review–Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others


Barbara Brown Taylor is a favorite author, an Episcopal priest who sometimes presents with Fr. Richard Rohr. Her latest book began when she taught World Religions for 20 years at a small liberal arts college in Appalachia. She had grown burnt-out and weary in parish ministry, so she opted to learn “about other ways of approaching the divine mystery that were strange enough to upset my parched equilibrium.”

Sometimes an author describes to a T the journey we’ve been on ourselves, so we sit up and take particular notice. Brown speaks of an experience where she declines Communion because the Jewish friend standing beside her refuses. The sentence “I had chosen to abstain with him rather than to participate without him” rang bells, because twenty years ago, I did the same thing.

I was attending a Mass and graduation ceremonies at the Catholic Biblical School for my friend Jo, now deceased, one of the holiest people I knew. Her husband was an Episcopal priest; she too was a reverent Episcopalian. The diocese had issued the dire warning ahead of time—“no Communion for anyone but Catholics.” It was so sanctimonious, so reeking of unfriendliness, so unlike Jesus, that I made the same decision Brown did: “I did not want to celebrate any Communion that did not include” Jo.

When you’ve heard for years that you’re God’s only child, it rocks your boat to hear about other faiths that have sustained millions of people for centuries. The “rude awakening” of many Christians to the world’s pluralism led to Krister Stendahl, a Scandinavian biblical scholar and dean of the Harvard Divinity School, coining the term “holy envy.” Brown translates this to her own “spiritual covetousness”: of  Hindu inclusivity, Buddhist non-violence, Muslim prayer and Jewish sacred debate. Young folk are aware that the Christian path is one among many ways to God, but have we relaxed our staunch truth claims to help guide them?

Since “religious illiteracy is a luxury they can no longer afford,” Brown wisely leads her students to the major mosques, synagogues and temples in nearby Atlanta, and asks their respective guides to introduce the “saints and villains” every tradition has.  Initially, some students worried about “losing their faith” (this was in the south, where Christians made up a large majority), but they, and Brown found it only deepened what they already had, or introduced “the way of sacred unknowing.” She puts it better: “I want to keep leaving my comfort zone on a regular basis in order to visit the neighbors, without expecting them to exemplify their faith any better than I exemplify mine.”

This approach back happy memories of a spirituality group I led in Denver, who made the same kinds of visits. I remember how touched we were to see synagogue furniture that survived the Holocaust, and how hard we tried to keep scarves from slipping off our heads at the mosque. I continue today with monthly meetings of Muslim, Jewish and Christian women who have become fast friends as we try to understand our differences and similarities.

Giving up the hard, fast certainties of the “one true faith” preached in my youth is never easy. Brown encourages: “You will have to leave your bags of spiritual sweets behind….Sooner or later you will have to leave all your soothing props … entrusting yourself to the God who cares more about your transformation than your comfort.” She is unstintingly honest and gracefully humorous about that process: what a blessing to have such a companion.