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Family Gardens

OUR FREE RANGE TOMATOES

I just picked another day’s bounty of beautiful tomatoes. As I did, laughing, I thought of how similar our garden is to our efforts at parenting. At first glance, you see that red, juicy collection in my kitchen. Different varieties, all healthy and just right–a tomato’s tomato.

But look at our garden! It’s like Jack in the Beanstalk meets Eden-after-the-Fall. I literally wade in, trying not to crush the plants, while I lift up heavy ropes of stem and pluck off the ripe ones. There are at least a hundred still clinging to the vines, stretching out our harvest into late September. There are lots of weeds, and I think some bell peppers or hot peppers, I can’t really tell.

We’ve had gardens before, but this year decided to just plant a couple of tomato plants and forego the typical lettuce, squash, basil, peppers and beans. Past seasons have shown us that we don’t pick the vegetables in time or that we have way too much squash for our many squash averse family members. So this year, we started off intentionally with our little tomato garden.

Andrew prepared the soil, got rid of the winter weeds, added some fresh dirt and planted our tender starts. He watered and watched the fenced in space for at least a couple of weeks. Then we went on with our life. Not that we were traveling–we were home, all the time. But tomatoes don’t scream, so we mostly paid attention to the loudest attention getters.

The next thing we knew, our purposeful garden had exploded into a number of tomato plants, most volunteers from last year. We had at least six varieties. They were haphazardly entwined with each other, some climbing the netting that keeps away deer, others sneaking under the loose spots into the backyard. Distributed across the garden bed were tomatoes gently resting on that nice soil. Sharp thorny weeds enjoyed the space too, but most were crowded out by the tomatoes. A few other pepper types from last year crept in among the thicket. So much for the soil.

We thought about staking them. But we had so many, it didn’t seem worth the effort. The vines break if handled too much when already heavy with fruit. Our free range tomatoes were doing well without a lot of interference at this point. True, some didn’t get enough light as they kept extending along the ground. It apparently rains enough for them, since we don’t water. (Even though a sprinkler sits at the ready nearby.) I’m enjoying the gift of these tomatoes, even if I can’t take credit for them.

I can’t help but smile, even as I write, as I consider how much our garden reflects our family life. There are always seasons, some better than others. Andrew and I are often full of good intentions. We do our research, make plans and get off to a well executed start. But follow through is hard, and let’s be real, often full of painful weeding. Ironically, sometimes families find that all that constant work is reflected in a tidy home life, but may not always result in a bountiful harvest, or a lot of variety.

We had grand plans for a sweet family life marked by order, tenderness and constant care. We started well. We wondered why some people seemed to struggle so much with a couple of babies. It was easy! But pretty quickly our brood multiplied faster than we had imagined and we found our order often replaced by entanglements, constant growth out of our boundary markers and lots of fatigue among the caretakers. Those darling little starts grew up and redefined for us what it meant to be parents.

I’ve learned a lot through the years of family tending. It does matter to make the soil rich in life-giving nutrients. But there is no getting around the down side of family dirt. Weeds thrive and choke and poke. A lot of what we grow in our family is because of volunteers–those unexpected gifts of children, personality, temperament and talent that sprout up without our help or control. It never really looks like what we planned. So much is out of our hands, no matter how expert we are at the idea of parenting. Just like those garden books on my shelf, parenting books are mostly for decoration and an occasional glance. They aren’t much help in the day to day reality.

And we fail at so much–sometimes not giving enough attention, or the wrong attention. I’m sure there were times a child needed us to be a stake to lean on for support, and we were busy with something else that seemed more needy. We didn’t hover, wanting our children to find their way according to how they are made. Were we too carefree, or too rigid? Our parenting has always been marked by a feeling of inadequacy as we look at the families others have grown and wonder how we might ever reach their distinction of master parents.

The truth is, I’ll never be a master gardener or a master parent. But I sure am grateful for my family garden and smile when I consider our bumper crop! Despite our lapses, there was evidently enough sun, shade, water and attention to make it to this stage. Thank heaven for the graces in all that. Apparently there are plenty of ways to grow tomatoes, and families, that turn out well, even if it looks messy and a bit unappealing. A little taste of carefree is a welcome drink on a long hot summer day.

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COVID-19, Culture and Christian Ethics

Faith, not Fear! Love your Neighbor! Freedom of Church and State! Individual rights and liberty! These sound bites—or scream bites—are proclaimed at protests, across social media and in political campaigns. Some are opaque, such as faith, not fear. Faith in what? Your own decision? Anti-science? Or faith in a God who also says love your neighbor, help the poor, assist widows and orphans? Fear not, for even if you feel trapped right now, I am the same God I’ve always been—is that what faith over fear may mean? Or as protesters imply, does faith in God resist any attempt by society to persuade, or even coerce, one to act against their own desires on behalf of community good? Why is love your neighbor a retort rather than a common claim?

But I digress. For six months, I’ve witnessed a distressing America. While I hoped that my own specialty of public health would now have a rightful place at the leadership table, that has not happened with any vigor; rather, a surprising resistance to the idea of public health as a shared good has arisen. Truly, political leadership at every level has failed us. But so has the catechism of so many who identify as Christian. More than ever, I see a failure of a practical notion of Christian ethics in general, and of a faithful bioethics in particular. And I think if those who identified as Christian had incorporated the central tenets of our faith more fully into our lives pre-pandemic, we would have seen a different social response than we do now.

Ask most people on the street to define Christian ethics and they might give you the Ten Commandments. That’s ok as a principle ethics—and it is also a Jewish and an Islamic ethic. But it is really about law and order. Maybe they’d respond that Jesus summed up the law and the prophets into “Love God and love your neighbor.” Ok, but that is also not unique to Christianity, as it is found in every religion and in the Buddhist philosophy. Love your neighbor as yourself gets a little closer to Christ’s ethic, and certainly is a tall order for all, particularly when we throw in the story of the Good Samaritan. Love your enemies is even more challenging, as it turns out our neighbor can also be our enemy.

Of course, the various Christian denominations have their own ethical emphases. The Sermon on the Mount, the church described in Acts, the church in Hebrews, the Last Supper and the reinvention of a Jewish temple based system all guide branches of today’s Christian churches. But for everyday “mere Christians” is there anything unique that should influence our daily moral response in society? 

Classically, Christian social ethics has been divided in four groupings. Some say stand apart from the world (Amish, fundamentalists); others say transform the world (Reform theology); and still others say rise up above the world (Catholic, Orthodox). Lastly, you can just allow paradox, and do all the good you can, knowing it will never be enough in a flawed world (variety of congregations). But are these distinctions more rational and reductionist than they are theological? And what do they have to say about COVID-19 concerns? How, for Christian Americans, is their cultural sociopolitical understanding separate from their theological understanding as it pertains to ethics in a time of pandemic?

For me, two theological words set apart Christian bioethics from any other system of ethical thought. Those words are incarnation and Trinity. Jews have a tribe and a land, Muslims have a prophet and five pillars, but Christians have a body, whose head is Christ, and a mystical communal relationship with a Triune God that exists through all time and space.

Did that last sentence seem too weird? Sadly, the idea of the Trinity isn’t well developed in today’s congregations. Yet it gives special meaning to our COVID-19 response and directs a practical Christian view of bioethics. In Christianity, individualism always dances in community. I am never set apart completely from you. Individual liberty is an American ideal, but not as much a gospel one. In the great Philippians passage about Christ, he was said to empty himself for us, to take on the form of a servant, a man, so that we might gain. That passage wasn’t just meant to set Jesus apart from us as wildly other. It was to also show us how to live. When he says we are his body, his hands and feet, he isn’t just talking about when we are doing charitable acts. He is saying we are always living expressions of himself in the world. Not just when we deliver Meals on Wheels.

Incarnation is radical. It sets our faith apart. It sets in motion an ethics that is much more than the WWJD bracelets of the nineties. The body matters. We aren’t just spiritual beings. Earth, humanity, all creatures, have deep meaning in and of themselves. How we care for own bodies, for the world, and for each other’s bodies is a sacred duty for every single one of us. Pro-life, that charged moniker, may really be better expressed in a Christian (rather than political) sense, as pro-sacred creation, pro-image bearing, pro-beauty of the earth, pro-Shalom. That understanding stretches out love God and love your neighbor a bit more expansively.

Trinity is absolutely peculiar to an orthodox Christian ethic. Not to be disrespectful, but to only ever hear about Jesus is to miss out on knowing, loving and following a Triune God, known as Creator, Spirit and Redeemer. I think maybe this is why Jesus used the image of the body—he knew we needed to know how interconnected we all are, to fundamentally understand ourselves as never separate from God—who in his very being is interconnected—and never separate from each other. Paul echoes this message—nothing can separate us from the love of God; not even a pandemic. Paul also refers again and again to the body of Christ as the Christian collective. Communion is the culmination of that idea as it joins us physically and mystically all at once. If anything, it is our central pillar of identification, and meant to shape the way we see the world and our place in it.

So how does this circle back to the pandemic, the scream-bites, the ethics of response? First, the church needs to teach that while individuals are responsible to God for responding in faith freely, to choose that Love of Loves ourselves and with integrity, that doesn’t mean our faith is an individual endeavor. If we align with the faith that claims the Trinity, then we align with indivisible community. We go where the body goes. When part of the body suffers, we feel it. When part of the body dies, we die a bit too. There is no true individual liberty separate from connectedness and interdependence. Second, the church is supposed to help us see where we fit in the body—are we a hand, a foot, an eye? We aren’t to be jealous of the other members, but to cooperate for overall health. Comparisons of status or demands for ourselves must give way to participation in the function we are best able to demonstrate on behalf of the whole. Third, the church needs to make sure its faithful have a healthy dose of mystery injected into their assurances. Very little of our faith can be reduced to a sound bite. The Trinity? How crazy! Yet so essential. Dwell with it for a while. Get caught up in something bigger than you can ever imagine or understand. Be in awe. See the wide beauty. Be humbled.

Arguing about masks, medicine, vaccines and public closures are a distraction. They aren’t where we are supposed to be focusing. As a body, we are in a pandemic. It isn’t a hoax. Can’t we feel the aching death in our own body as the toll rises? What are we called to be right now? Hunkering down in opposition, or only gathering with people who are just like us, makes the body incomplete—it ends up missing all its feet or all its eyes. The Christian ethic, as it relates to the body, is an outward facing one, alive and vigorous toward health and goodness, the fulfillment of Shalom. We all need to find our place in it and be the best body part we can be.

We must act like there’s a Trinity. We are all mysteriously connected through time and space. No political divisions, national borders, or separate religions will change that. We all belong. We have to believe in an ethic of sufficiency, not scarcity. There is more than enough. We truly have nothing to fear. The loaves and fishes hinted at this, as did Peter’s catch of fish. Only by turning from a response of self-protective grasping to a posture of open handed generosity will we be able to actually visualize what our faith claims is true. What needs to be let free in each of us, what fears need release, what can we give as well as receive in the dance of communion with God and the world? In the view of eternity, what is our present life proclaiming about the love of God?

If Christians claimed an ethics grounded in ideas of the Incarnation and Trinity, we would not only have practices that truly reflected our faith, but we would withstand cultural constrictions and temptations. Individual liberty, the American elevation of the individual good over the community good, would be newly understood in a Christian context as rightly protecting the sacredness of every life, but not worshiping the rights of individuals over the health of the whole. The particular and the general are both celebrated in Christian theology. If I help the least of these, I truly do help them. They can become well. But I also mysteriously help us all, and God receives it as gift of his own. And ultimately, that transmission is imbuing goodness into my own life, making me healthier, more complete, more alive. The ramifications are timeless. 

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Omissions, Commissions and Admissions

He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labor.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

I can still feel the sensation of the padded kneeler dropping just a bit to the floor as I placed the full weight of my body on it in the confessional booth. That kneeling movement triggered a light, letting the priest, and all outside my closeted cell, know that someone was in there, awaiting their turn. We used to watch and see how long the light stayed on. And sometimes, to get a laugh, we tried to sneak in a few bounces on the kneeler, making the light blink back and forth.

Dread was my usual response to going to confession. I didn’t want the priest to know who I was. Should I mask my voice? I didn’t want my friends to think I was in there for a long time. I didn’t like remembering my sins and saying them out loud. But what I really feared, were those sins I couldn’t recall.

We were to review our time since our last confession, and come up with a list. Mortal—God, I hope not—and venial sins; those of commission and omission. I lied—commission. I resented my sister—commission. I failed to say anything when my desk mate was teased—omission. But I always knew my list left out things I simply forgot. Was I still guilty for those? Was it a hopeless effort to get oneself into some state considered, if not blemish free, at least good enough? And how long could that state possibly last? My penance, those prayers I was told to do after reciting my multitude of wrongs, was never very difficult. Nor did it really seem like it matched the crimes—they were just prayers that we said all the time, when happy, sad or in between. But I always ended my penance with a sort of good luck charm—and God, I’m sorry for all the sins I forgot, or for those things I didn’t realize were sins. I really hoped that covered it.

Sometimes, I was asked to make restitution, and that made more sense to me. It was tangible. I could see I did my part to right my wrong. My clearest such memory was after stealing five Bazooka Joe bubble gums from the convenience store. I needed those five for the wrappers—then I could mail them in and get a prize. But they fell out of my hiding spot under my shirt as I returned to the car, and my mom marched me right in to apologize and return them. The manager scowled and gave me a quick lecture. We zoomed straight over to confession, where I admitted to my thievery. The priest told me to repay the amount, but I told him we did that before coming to the church. He paused, clearly puzzled on the other side of the wooden screen. Then you are ok, he said. But just to be safe I said some rote prayers. This time, I left off all those things I couldn’t remember. I felt free.

I haven’t been to confession in years. Just like phone booths, those wooden confessionals are mostly relics of a past era. Now, you can go “face to face” or simply attend a Mass where everyone gets absolved all at once, whether they remember every sin or not. I’m not sure if people still wonder if they are in a state of grace or not, but clearly, culture has moved on from those days of my childhood.

I find my myself worried again, though, about all those unannounced and unknown sins. Even though I’ve worked my whole career as a minority in a majority brown and black setting, there is so much I am still learning about my white privilege. My unearned freedoms, power and even supremacy. How could I have been so careful to bend toward justice and equality, to align myself with the poor and marginalized, and still be so culpable? What do I do? Will it ever be enough?

My grasp of God has also bent toward grace, a word full of meaning about unearned privilege, power and freedom. How do I reconcile all these things, my faith, my culture, my place in the midst of the universe? I remember that now we know in part—someday fully, but not now. I remember that all of us are fallible—any sense of our perfection makes the angels crack a wry smile and let out a few belly laughs. And yet, I am responsible for participating in efforts at transformation, actively engaging in the work of justice, humbly.

I think of another religious image, one I mocked in my youth. Tent revivalists, shouting Repent! Repent sounded like such a backwater term. Let me bop you on the head and tell you to repent! But maybe that is actually just right for our present predicament. Repentance, from the Greek, is metanoia, which is understood as a fundamental transformation, a new view of looking at the world, of turning around and seeing things as God does, as they are intended. My penance was meant to show me this, thus the same prayers that were said in celebration were said in forgiveness. 

Repentance is a necessary precursor to reconciliation; the latter is the more modern term for the sacrament of confession. Repentance does not favor incremental change. It is radical. It is active. It makes us responsible for what we do know, and suggests that if we really do recover a holier vision of the world, all those sins done in ignorance will meet a timely death. 

Today, we resist fully turning away from our familiar visions. Turning away from our idol worship—graven images, those statues of war heroes or icons of celebrities that tell us our way of thinking must be kept supreme, powerful, privileged. We say all people are of equal merit, yet we clamor to honor some as superhuman. Can we pivot from our love of symbols, of statues, of filtered victory stories, to embrace the idea that in this world, human glory is always a both-and, a troubling paradox?

The monuments I’ve admired in the past did affirm for me some of what is truly wonderful about historic leaders—they protected lands, opposed slavery, wrote incredible declarations that soared with spirit. But they also had public and private sins of omission and commission. They cheated on wives, enjoyed the servitude of others, hoarded wealth. What did they know about the extent of their iniquity, and how much sin topples one from a pedestal? How do we honor them now and yet speak truth? Is there anyone who ever deserves a statue? Or are all such figures just graven images we are prone to falsely worship?

Where is that fleeting sense of a state of grace? I’m not sure how we unite in these times. I think another garden full of heroes will just create more golden calves. Who is in and who is out? Who decides? Can we all turn, somehow, away from a lust for graven images and toward a love for image bearers? That would be radical. Even worthy of a tent revival and a dousing with holy water. 

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It’s All Greek to Me

Pandemic. We have had so many things interrupted, shut down and put on hold. Schools are shuttered. But learning isn’t, and now students are turning to the internet via google classrooms to continue their curriculum. Adults too, are trying out new subjects—I saw a post on learning the Hebrew alphabet with a Lutheran pastor. 

I learned the Hebrew alphabet a few years ago, in graduate school. I also learned ancient Greek. I don’t remember much of it, but the Greek was simpler than the Hebrew because so much of the vocabulary of medicine and science is built upon Greek ideas. Pneumonia is from pneumon, lung. Pneuma is ancient Greek for breath, also used religiously for soul and spirt. The Hebrew ruach is often referred to as a Biblical term for breath or spirit of God—it translates in the Greek to pneuma.

Whether we want to or not, we are all learning a little more Greek these days, as well as science and math. Pandemics, viruses, immune systems and exponential growth are topics that cycle constantly in daily newscasts. So, here’s a bit of a tutorial (and some wondering) on the Greek root, pan.

Pan means universal, the most all of all. The Greek god Pan was the god of all the wild, the woodland, the goats and shepherds. He wasn’t exactly a benevolent god. Humans feared him, leading to the word “panic.” He caused sudden fear and terror, thinking it funny. Pandemonium, another word from the Greek, often follows panic. Look at its main root—demon. It is a spread of harm and evil caused by stress, terror and fear. The fear surrounding Pan, the panic, was understood as in some sense irrational, spreading into a situation that was losing the ability to control a response through logical means.

In what must be humanly understood as a fortunate thing, the god Pan was the only Greek god to actually die. Whew. Demic, the other root in pandemic, means pertaining to a population or a local group of people. Endemic illnesses are within a population as part of their typical lives—hepatitis is endemic in many countries. We don’t try to wipe it out there. Epidemic means over a population, with epi signifying on, upon or near. Basically, an epidemic is visited upon a population like a cloud over its inhabitants, difficult to isolate. As I write, New York is an epicenter—another Greek usage meaning centered over or upon.

Okay, that’s your Greek for today. But certainly, all learning is meant to have a life application? What else could pan signify right now? (And not bread, that is from a Latin root, though it does conjure up Christ as the bread of life and our own desire to feed the world in this time.) What would be the opposite approach of the god Pan? How do we say pan-love? Panagape? Sounds like an exotic appetizer. 

One of my dearly loved relatives stated this pandemic shows how important science is and how ridiculous a religious belief is. If there is a god, why doesn’t she/he respond? Why pray when we see the catastrophe unfolding? (And I did speak to him of the evidence that thoughts and prayers have healing powers, but he wasn’t having it.) That of course, the question of suffering, is the ancient question of all questions. The pan-question. While I can’t answer it satisfactorily, I do recall something said to me once when I was dealing with PTSD from a long ago incident. I wanted to know, if God were with me then, why didn’t he rescue me? Why did he watch, allowing the terror to proceed? I could hate him for that, if he did exist. My counselor, not with any religious affiliation, asked—“What did you expect him to do?” Hmmm. 

I’m not much for sci-fi and action movies. But during this strange time, one of my daughters has me watching all the Marvel movies. I had never seen any. So now I know who Captain Marvel, Ironman, Hulk and The Avengers are. I think we often wish God were a superhero. But he isn’t made in the image of those guys. He isn’t going to swoop in and save the day with a flashy suit and special effects. Many of us though, hold that he already has swooped in, just more quietly and completely than an epi-hero might. He has come in a pan sort of way, not needing to swoop again and again and again. It doesn’t look like the movies. It looks like Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 

Maybe that answer still angers and frustrates some of my friends and relatives. But the pan-God I lean in toward doesn’t conjure up fear, terror and demons. The pan-God I think of universally makes available a love that transcends populations, geography, language, sexuality and even scientific understanding. Yet, it is compatible with all those things. We get love distributed through every cell and every breath. That is how this God showed up for me long ago. Presence in my suffering. An idea that there was more than this awful moment. A hope for peace and joy and light. And a deep sense that it was possible and even a pan-truth.

So many have shared that love and light with me in their actions and words through the years. They may not have used the same words I use or expressed a certain belief system, but their kindness had the feel of pan-kindness. We recognize it when we see it. Maybe this is how we overcome a pandemic and put it to death with its terrible Greek god. We cover the world with the love of God, however you name it. 

This is more vulnerable a blog than my usual, but we live in vulnerable times. Pan-Shalom be with you all.

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we are all musical

Before I went into the exam room last week, the nurse told me my patient had “white coat syndrome.” His blood pressure was very elevated and he was clearly anxious. I reviewed the chart before entering the room, but there wasn’t much information available on this new student. I entered the room to find my adolescent patient doing deep breathing exercises. He apologized, and told me he was anxious. I sat down quietly, doing my best to reassure him and offer him whatever support would help. 

We lasted a few minutes talking about things like where he was from, what he enjoyed, and what he hoped to study. Then he decompensated, grabbing his head and starting to cry. I knew by this time that he had autism spectrum disorder, though it didn’t seem he knew that. I offered options I knew worked for others—we could open the door, I could wait to see him until another time, we could change rooms, we could even go outside. 

He didn’t want me to change anything. He kept trying to change himself. He allowed me to quietly stay seated nearby. Then I asked him if he liked music. His face relaxed ever so slightly. Yes, and he loved to sing. Could he sing a favorite song for me? He smiled and loudly complied.

Next, he sang again while I retook his blood pressure. I grinned, telling him he had a beautiful voice AND an excellent blood pressure. It’s hard to keep the intensity of an anxiety attack going while you immerse yourself in a favorite song. The rest of the exam was a relative breeze, and I later heard him belting out a show tune in the bathroom.

In truth, I was grasping when I asked him to sing. I was anxious myself, trying to help our situation, when the idea just popped in my head. I knew that most of the children I see with autism love music. Some are even quite gifted in it. I just wanted to connect with him and to get him to a different place—free from the crushing hold of anxiety. And in that moment, I thought that it would be hard to keep a blood pressure elevated while singing a happy song.

Afterwards, I wondered about my approach. What did the research say about music and anxiety? I know that I always feel a profound calm when certain types of music are played. From the time my oldest was just a little boy, he could play improvised piano pieces that we referred to as “movie music,” and each time he did, my spirits soothed. The biblical David played the lyre to calm Saul from his desperate moods. Spotify has countless pieces sorted as spa, relaxation, chill and Zen.

Well, the research says quite a lot. Music has been used as a component of medical therapy since ancient times. Asclepius, the Greek god who gave us the medical symbol of the staff and snakes, used music to treat mental illness. Musicians worked alongside physicians in the Arab world. The Latin West followed suit. Over and over again, the historical record shows that music was used to both maintain health and to treat disease. 

Currently, music is one alternative to opioids in the treatment of both acute and chronic pain. Some emergency departments are hiring professional musicians to play the harp, sing or otherwise perform pieces for patients who request them. Hospice centers have a long history of using music as a palliative tool. Music therapy is itself a specialty, formally used for a variety of problems, including autism.

Curiously, the research shows that exposure to music is supposed to increase our language ability and strengthen social attachments. I say curiously, because these are the very issues that people with autism struggle with, and yet so many seem particularly drawn to music. Music exposure assists the formation of new neural pathways in our brains, increasing our connections. It also seems to increase our human connections. The emotions produced by music have neurochemical roots in the amygdala and hippocampus, but also produce what is called an “emotional contagion,” spreading these effects to others within the hearing group.

Most of us have had moments when a piece of music overtakes us. We had no intention of being emotionally vulnerable, but find ourselves brought to tears. Faith communities have long included music in their worship, both to collect the community into a gathered oneness and to distant the constant distractions of our everyday thought and replace them with something more open to mystery.

Researchers say that some emotions that music elicits might be particularly desired because they are rare in everyday life. They offer that wonder and a sense of the transcendent are two such emotions. And, they add, music does not provoke emotions of shame and guilt. (Unless they are accompanied by the lyrics of certain hymns!) These ideas seem particularly fascinating to me. 

Transcendence is when we are ultimately connected to each other, the Divine, and all that is.  Wonder is when we are in a state of encountering something beautifully inexplicable. I felt both of these emotions on a hike the other day, when the sun was bright, the lake sparkling, and the whole earth seeming to tilt toward spring. I thought then, on that walk, about awe, and about how gratitude seems to be wrapped up with being able to feel awe. I think if I had heard a symphony orchestra play right there on that trail, it would have seemed absolutely fitting.

So where am I wandering in this wondering? I’m not sure, except I think there is so much more to know about what it means to be human, to feel and act and interact with each other. We are all mysteriously connected, even if our connections also have distinct pathways that seem paradoxical to the idea of wholeness. In reaching toward a sense of transcendence and wonder, we stretch out of ourselves and into the world. No wonder shame and guilt aren’t prominent—they are so very inward looking. I think my patient is able to transcend some of his inabilities to communicate every time he sings. And I can be fully with him in that musical interlude, even if just for a moment.

Although the research is chock full of things I haven’t even touched on, I think it’s fair to say that all of us are musical.  And everyone belongs.

*If you want to read a comprehensive study on music and emotions, see: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5705548/

Ordinary Time

Time, that human construct, seems neither precise nor reassuring at the moment. The moment. How might we even describe it? Have we any idea where one moment begins and another ends? We say our time is limited, but what we mean is that we are limited. Our days are numbered—by us. Days, nights, seasons and eons progress as the universe demands—we just hitch a ride and try to make sense of it all.

So—how do we make sense of it all? Of pandemics, of being in the midst of racism, of climates changing while we inhabit the earth, of the past, of the present? We humans, since the days of Eden, give meaning to our world by assigning names to all we encounter. Naming allows us to have power over that which we experience. Names are always subjective, always revealing more about the namer than the named.

  • Pandemic: an illness covering the whole world at one time, a human experience shared by all alive and requiring a global response to remedy it. 
  • Chinese virus: A virus discovered in China? A virus only infecting people labeled as Chinese? A virus not in Taiwan but in Hong Kong?
  • Diversity: a wide range of differences within a particular type of thing. A central feature in biology, as complexity increases the strength of the whole biome. 
  • Race: a non-biological assignment of human classification that has social implications. Scientifically, race does not exist, though categories of race do have genetic and environmental differences that are made visible in ultimate health outcomes, made more marked by constraining races to certain subsets of class within society, reducing diversity amongst all humans.
  • Systemic Racism: Promotion of some categories of people, largely based on physical features, over the well-being of those who are classified as inferior; this gives disproportionate power to one category, usually that of the Namer. This promotion is evident in civic and social structures, such as education, city planning, housing, professional opportunities, law enforcement, transportation, food availability, and health care access. Due to the structural effects, individual actions or beliefs are largely ineffective at ameliorating the problem; new policies, institutional structures, and reparations are required.
  • Black Lives Matter: A popular phrase that was coined by Black leaders in 2013 in response to violence against African-Americans. It is an international human rights movement, campaigning against systemic racism against black people.
  • All Lives Matter: A response in opposition to the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It directs attention away from the central reality of systemic racism against black people, and asks that the present effort be diluted to encompass all people. Some even include anti-abortion efforts in this response to undo the unified call to end racism. Every other injury to people is considered a valid equivalent to black racism, whether looting or unemployment or other non-fatal, nonviolent circumstances.

Ok, it is easier to name some of this than take power over it. But naming matters. And so does time, that other human construct. Time is something we also try to control in order to have a sense of power and of meaning. We communicate across society by our references to time, and often feel close to our own tribe, those who help shape our meaning, by agreeing how to mark our times together. We give special names to particular times we wish to honor in memory—feasts, festivals, fasts, homecomings. 

Most people around the world will recognize times such as Christmas, New Year’s (January or Lunar), Passover, Easter, and Ramadan. Even if they don’t join in the worship, traditions or disciplines associated with those times, they understand the weight, the import, of the season. Regular life is interrupted, whether just a bit, or a whole lot, and most of us have to accommodate to it at some point.

The Christian liturgical calendar has marked the rhythms of worship and daily life for centuries. Colors, food, liturgies and practices are shaped by distinct seasons. There is Advent, Christmastide and Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost (Trinity Sunday, and perhaps more). These are dramatic in nature, collective in experience. We share songs, food, service, and charitable expressions of faith. We have a chance to be amazed again, smitten with stories full of miracles, angels, rescue and hope. God comes crashing into our lives over and over, and we can almost feel the heat of the flames overhead by the time we make it to Pentecost.

And then there is Ordinary Time. What? That’s a big chunk of the year. That’s the season we are in now. Ordinary Time. How poorly named, you think. In fact, the name just came from ordinal, number. It was a way to number our days. And most of them are designated to be in this ordinary time, where it seems the angels are preoccupied with their own concerns and miracles are things we scoff at. 

But I wonder about this plain time that doesn’t employ brass bands. We’re becoming accustomed to a pandemic, returning to our business. Some want a full return to their old ways, before the last ordinary time took us to a Great Lent. The protests are continuing but are somehow also routine. Others long for summer travel, and many are looking for jobs and hoping to get health insurance. A few churches are back to their previous practices, but most are planning new configurations. We are not identified as a collective during ordinary time; we are more of a diaspora.

We’re trying to consider what to do next. We may struggle against the idea of the ordinary, the banal. How do we keep the momentum against racism? How do we promote health and safety for all? How do we learn from the good as well as the bad of this era? There is fear we will forget, become numb, if we go back to ordinary time. The power seems to be in those other seasons.

But when I look at the liturgical calendar, I see that most of Jesus’ life was spent in ordinary time. The birth was a big deal, but what about when he was a toddler in Egypt, an immigrant, a refugee? What about as a boy in a typical home? An adolescent? A laborer? All those weekly synagogue trips and occasional pilgrimages that no one writes about…how did those shape him? Three years of actual public work—how was it possible he did so much in such a short life? Ordinary time is where Jesus made daily choices, learned about the world and built relationships that allowed him to be the one we know in the gospels.

Ordinary time is a time that needs our focus. It is where the real action is. We have to name this time as one that won’t be a numbing return to the past. Ordinary time prepares us for the next big event. It is the time of our daily work, our vocation, a time of choosing to orient one’s life toward justice, of taking opportunities to learn, of being corrected when we are wrong. Like an athlete, we train in ordinary time, so that we can bring something lasting to the briefer public moments of collective gatherings. Change, renewal, transformation—in the healing of our social as well as our physical wounds—is dependent on steady collaborative work behind the scenes. If we are wise in our ordinary time, there will be plenty to celebrate together in times ahead. What are you called to do, persistently and energetically, in this season we name as ordinary time?

Contagious Charity and Creativity

In light of the deluge of questions I’ve received about contagion, children, closures and Covid 19, this post is a quick note of ideas I have in response to social distancing. It is informed by science, by my life’s experiences and by those of some of my elders.

My mother and her family were quarantined when polio afflicted my aunt. I have heard the stories of how the house was tagged with a notice of quarantine, and how groceries were left on the doorstep. One day, a bouquet of roses was left. That day, everything changed for the better. My aunt recovered, in ways that some of her family attributed to Divine intervention. They had prayed to the “little flower”, St Therese. Then the roses appeared and she quickly improved.

They eventually were told that a florist had passed their house daily, feeling sad for them as he saw the sign on the door. One day, his scheduled delivery of roses didn’t happen, because the address wasn’t correct or there had been a mix up. So he decided to leave them as a gift, anonymously, at the door. That gift has been remembered for 90 years.

Older generations grew up with contagion, quarantine, fear and resolve. It was a familiar pattern of life, undoubtedly stressful, but not shocking. I imagine some managed it well and others showed their worst sides. I know that before my aunt became ill, a little boy mocked her every day on her way to school, calling her a “dirty little Irisher” and throwing pebbles at her and my mother. He was of some other white American ethnic background, living in the same PA town. When they complained to his mother, she voiced her approval of her son.

Those two stories told to me by my aunt have me thinking of how we can respond now. Friends ask if they can have their children go to play spaces or plan play dates. People are stressed at the idea of isolation. So what if we practiced safe isolation, helped others in isolation, and got creative? Here are some ideas, in no particular order, and certainly not exhaustive:

  • Play “Tag the House”. At Halloween and Christmas, I have seen doors tagged with a fun paper signs that show treats have been left for the occupants. The tag stays up during the season, and the occupant is meant to tag someone else’s house. Invent a fun icon and tag a house. Make copies of your icon for others to use. Get creative–maybe you can even leave a roll of toilet paper!
  • If you have play dates, plan to have them with the same three friends for the whole month. Don’t mix and match, or it defeats the whole point. Absolutely no play spaces like those areas at fast foods or anywhere indoors at big play areas.
  • Play Pioneer Days. I still remember going to a friend’s house when I was nine, and we did an old fashioned taffy pull. It was so fun! We dressed up in “pioneer” clothes.You can teach your children to sew by hand, you can make a corn husk doll (I did that too), you can even learn to make a quilt together. If you are doing this with a couple of friends, you can contribute patches. Or knit a prayer shawl for someone in the hospital.
  • If this sounds too girly, try tug of war, sack races, whittling (for older ones), or building a fort. Make a campfire (safely) and sleep outside in your back yard, if it is warm enough. Let your children stay up late and look at the stars. Learn constellations. Hunt for 4 leaf clovers. Go on a walk and identify all the birds by name and the plants. Make a leaf press and then make a cards with the leaves or flowers. Send the cards to nursing homes. Paint pictures for people in nursing homes. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know your children.
  • Why does May Day have to happen just once a year? Gather little bouquets or make early spring wreaths and secretly drop them at someone’s house. Children love to surprise others.
  • Go Corona Caroling. Most families have never been Christmas caroling. We did it with our friends years ago and were amazed that no one in our neighborhood had experienced it. The older folks really loved it. The Italians are singing from their balconies. Who cares if you can’t carry a tune? Make some homemade instruments and go in groups of 8 or less (the same groups, remember) and go sing some songs to folks who are shut in.
  • Write letters. Who doesn’t love snail mail? If you want to stay in Pioneer Day mode, help your children learn some script. Any script. It isn’t taught anymore. Surely, you have some friends and relatives who would love mail–including your own children and their friends!
  • Paint some furniture. It is easy to get a sample size can of paint and paint an old chair or old table or even a picture frame. Let your child pick the color. They will love it for years.
  • Don’t distance yourself from fun. Or learning. Or worship. Stretch, like the taffy. Creatively interact–even without a computer! Map your walks and try to amass miles with your family. Share what works. You don’t need to try to keep everything you had. Enjoy less materialism and more creative, contagious charity (love).
  • The End

optics and images

Molokai Double Rainbow

The last week has had an intensity about it, whether viewed through the lens of home, work or politics. It has been one of those weeks where life seems generally out of order and more distressing than reassuring. Parents of a child born after a long struggle with infertility must hear that their little one has autism. I try to comfort them as they weep. Adolescents who have never experienced the feeling of being wanted, ask for medication to help them feel less anxious. Loved ones feel misunderstood by each other, labeled and stereotyped instead of heard and treasured. And social media serves up a constant barrage of outrage aimed at whoever stands across the aisle. It’s demoralizing.

That word, demoralizing, means to lose hope or confidence. Its origin is tied to the French Revolution, where it was meant as a corruption of morals. A demoralizer was one who undid someone’s morals. Weeks like this past one can make me lose confidence in a good and beautiful universe, a place where morals matter for human flourishing. 

Fortunately, the science of optics helped me see things in a more positive light. As I thought about the child with autism, the turbulent adolescent who others fear, the family member who struggles against stereotypes and my own difficulty in neatly fitting in to this complex world, I considered refraction. Well, not immediately.

It started with feeling the ache of how we all want to be understood for who we are at our core—our particular selves, not some version of a broadly defined identity. I don’t want to be stereotyped as white American cis-gender woman. Or as any kind of Christian other than an earnest one. I’ve been sorted and categorized so often, many times by well-meaning folks. My professional degrees, marital status, birth date, Zodiac sign, credit rating, enneagram number, and Myers-Briggs letters have all been requested in the past ten days. When I’m asked what I do for a living, I now know to start with, “Well, I’m the only person with this particular set of jobs, so it won’t fit neatly into a category.” Otherwise, it’s just confusing.

So how do we allow people to be particular while also honoring the universal nature of what it means to be human? How do we hold as precious the inherent dignity of all and still show tolerance and affection for individual differences, for those things that may be shaped by culture, genetics, personality or mystery? I’ve seen intolerance on the left and the right—it is generously spread around. Instead of focusing our vision on what we fear, find unfamiliar, or dislike in others, what if we looked for a flash of beauty in that different way of being in the world? 

So, refraction. It’s a property of light. Light is a universal idea, a pocket of energy, both wave and particle in character. Light reveals, dawns, warms, and banishes darkness. We celebrate the return of the seasonal light, the wonder of star light and the mystery of God as light from light. We ask each other and ourselves to be points of light, to be beacons of hope as we try to be like that Light from Light.

If God is light, then we share that light as divine image bearers. But I don’t think that means we are just a mirror image of a sunbeam. Light bends and changes as it enters the material world—it is refracted. That’s why we see colors in raindrops, stunning sunsets in cloudy skies, rainbows in the mist. Science teachers show us refraction by putting pencils into a beaker of water—suddenly the pencil looks bent. Light takes on an individual shape as it responds to qualities of the matter it encounters. 

Maybe we are all bent images of God’s light. We all have our own refracted beams, different aspects of a prism. None are, by themselves, all the light there is. But all have a refraction of it, and all contribute to the infinite truth of what it means to be light. As refractions of light, we can be known as both universal and particular, without either identity overpowering the other. We still cling to what is true about light—there is no darkness in it—but we give space for its expression in its personal setting. We don’t corrupt our moral goods, but we do invite new ways of seeing them be fulfilled.

I’m wondering how best to see that bent light in others, particularly in those I readily stereotype or color negatively. I’m reminded that in optics, the negative of an image is when its light areas are made to be dark. Hmmm. Lots to consider and still wonder about.

Wrinkles in Time

Meaningful Coincidences….

Carl Jung

I’ve got synchronicity on my mind. That isn’t a song, or even a musical reference. Synchronicity is the term coined by Carl Jung for those times when two seemingly random events coincide to reinforce the meaning we give to them. More simply, they are what Jung called, meaningful coincidences. When they happen to be noticed by us, we tend to be amazed, and typically, joyful. That latter response isn’t associated with what triggered this blog.

It was the memory of Henry the Hematoma. On Wednesday of this week, January 15th, our family trekked across the street to join a neighbor for brunch. Yes, trekked. A fluffy six inches of snow had fallen on our usually rainy land. The wind was icy, with temperatures in the teens–another rarity for us, even in winter. We happily tromped out of our driveway single file, each following in the footprints of the other. As we entered our neighbor’s driveway, a slick sheet of ice sent my foot sliding. I called a warning to those behind me. But like any good game of telephone, the warning didn’t get transmitted to the end of the line. A moment later, I heard her shout.

My daughter had slipped on that exposed sheet and tumbled down. Her wrist and hip took the brunt of the fall. “This better not be Henry the Hematoma!” she yelled. Henry was the name she had given a long-apparent giant hematoma (deep bruise) on her hip, one that landed her in a hospital. It had been caused by a similar slip in the snow, but on her driveway in Michigan, a few years back.

Fortunately, this time the immediately-appearing hematoma resembled more of a Little Hank than a Henry. We laughed about it and enjoyed our brunch. Later that day, my daughter told us that she looked in her records, and the previous fall had occurred on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. The current fall was the first possible Wednesday, January 15, since that one. And it was her first fall in the snow since that one, even though the two driveways were 2000 miles apart.

It seems pretty strange, doesn’t it? What are the chances? That’s how scientists explain this phenomenon away–the laws of statistics, of large numbers. But they can’t prove anything by the laws, they just assign meaning differently than those who find other forces at play. To be clear, we didn’t, as a family, assign any particular force at play except gravity. But it is weird.

And weirder still was what happened after we discussed the topic of synchronicity together. We all had examples of such events in our lives. I reminded my children about our Wrinkle in Time event. That was the title of a favorite family book whose author, Madeline L’Engle, was good friends with a dear friend of mine. On the day in question, I just learned that L’Engle had died. I walked my younger children home from school that afternoon when my son looked up and said, “That looks like a Wrinkle in Time sky.” Startled, I asked him what he meant. He had read the book, but there was no movie. He had never said anything about the sky in relation to the story before. He hadn’t read the book in ages. I hadn’t said a word about L’Engle’s death.

My son said he just saw the patterns of the sky and he thought of the book. There was no comprehensive explanation. Later that evening, his older brother spontaneously played a piano composition he had arranged the year before, after reading the book for his English class. His composition was titled, A Wrinkle in Time. He didn’t know about the sky comment or the death. He just felt like playing it, even though he hadn’t in quite some time.

I shared these happenings with my dear friend as they occurred and it made her glad. She felt the universe recognized L’Engle’s passing. I did too, mysteriously. We all hold the memory of that day as precious and awe filled. And we rehashed it together in light of Henry the Hematoma’s recurrence.

I decided it might be an interesting blog post. I read a bit on how people interpret these things, whether scientists or psychologists or religious folks. Then, as the day progressed, I decided I might not have the energy to write, and who really cares, anyway? So we watched an episode of Jeopardy together, annoyed that it was from two days ago instead of current. The Final Jeopardy category was children’s literature. One I actually might know! Eagerly, I waited through the commercial break for the clue. This was the 1963 Newberry award winner that adapted Einstein’s and Planck’s modern physics into the story.

What is A Wrinkle in Time! You’re welcome. And ironically, Planck spoke out against Jung’s ideas on synchronicity as being too concerned with pseudoscience! It comes full circle.

I still don’t know the meaning or cause behind this. I guess the meaning is what we give it. It does seem to happen a lot, at least in my life. Some say that if it happens too much, it’s a sign you’re delusional! Or narcissistic! Are they just jealous? Norms are just that–whatever gets named the typical standard. Maybe they were invented by boring folk to keep us from wondering so much. These events of synchronicity get discussed in psychosocial literature in rather condescending ways, as “folk topics.”

A lot of folklore is based on things we just haven’t been able to rationally explain yet–but eventually we do come to understand the “why” behind a lot of it. Deepak Chopra describes synchronicity as a “conspiracy of probabilities.” I like that. He also says it is opportunity meeting preparedness–much like the descriptions of epiphanies in the last post. The more we look, the more we see. Others describe them as an “anonymous gift from God.” Also nice. They are events connected by meaning, not cause. To me, they all seem to be like wrinkles in time. They are definitely about relationships. Relationships, says Archbishop John Wester, are the essence of God. That’s worth pondering, I think.

Epiphany

Christians close out the Christmas season with Epiphany. Twelve days of Christmas conclude with the visit of the Magi, who come to pronounce the child as a universally recognized king, not just a Jewish one. The word epiphany is tied to this Greek root, meaning a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being. Epiphany Sunday proclaims that the babe promised to the tribe of Moses is suddenly revealed to be the good news of the Christ—the anointed one, or Messiah—for the whole world. 

That indeed is a sudden insight, when you are referencing an idea of the Jewish messiah, a particular promise made for a particular people who took pains to be set apart from the rest of the world. Holiness seemed to depend on their very separation, embedded culturally into all everyday activities such as cooking, working, dressing and even bathing. But here the Gentiles worship the child and offer gifts meant for a divine king. It seems so sweet in our holiday songs and festivities, but really, if we think at all about it, it would have been shocking.

Maybe I am drawn to the whole idea of Epiphany because of its intimate connection with my own story. My mother recounts how I was brought home from the hospital on “Little Christmas,” a common term for January sixth, or the Feast of the Epiphany. I’d been born prematurely on December twentieth, so my birth may have been more a shock than my Epiphany arrival at my family home. There weren’t any camels in my story, but it sounded arduous enough, as my father had the flu, so my mother drove to the hospital while my father relaxed in the passenger seat. Of course, it was freezing cold and snowy—it was Chicago, after all. She dropped him at the front door, then parked the car and made her way back into the hospital, managing all the departure arrangements while he waited in the lobby with cigars and conversation. I sure hope he didn’t infect anyone with more than his humor.

Anyway, I’m intrigued by Epiphany and our common use of the term. I’ve often heard people proclaim they’ve had an epiphany, when what they mean is that they’ve had a promising idea or realization. I guess in a lower case setting, that is alright. In general, the word has lost a sense of the divine revelation and is more about the general idea of revelation or insight. Despite not being ascribed to God, it will often be conveyed that an epiphany came out of nowhere—we were just taking a walk, or in the shower, when suddenly we made an astounding discovery about a puzzling problem. A lightning bolt hit us or light bulb turned on. (The latter is a lot safer than the former).

Really however, those who study epiphanies—brain scientists and psychologists—say that our epiphanies are the product of long deliberate ponderings. Einstein thought deeply about relativity and the laws of physics, doing many imaginal exercises using available theories, before he had his epiphany in an elevator about special relativity. Archimedes was well-prepared to invent hydrostatics as his mind was steeped in math; Newton, also a Christmas baby born prematurely, was not only well educated, but had prolonged time to ponder independently as a scholar when his university was closed during the Great Plague. No doubt these men were geniuses, but their epiphanies didn’t fall from the sky. Their minds were readied to receive their enlightenment. Though not talking about flashes of insight, or epiphanies as we know them, Malcolm Gladwell, in his popular book Outliers, points to all the preparation and cultural facilitation that is commonly behind those who achieve what seems like out-sized success. Even the Magi fit Gladwell’s schema.

So, what does Epiphany, and epiphany, mean for us? For me, at least, it means to pay attention during what seem to be ordinary seasons of life. Notice the wonder that isn’t wrapped up with new babies and bright lights, but with new sunrises and night skies. Notice the breadth of what is gifted to me in this life—the universality of it as well as the particular. While newborns will always take my breath away, there is something to marvel at in the face of anyone I greet, and something to learn from rituals of the everyday. I’m a person more wired for intensity than patient progress, scanning the heavens for divine revelation but not necessarily readying myself to recognize it when it comes. 

On this Epiphany Day, I hope to return to my steady life with a mind open to the wonders that imbue my daily comings and goings. I will ponder all the ways my Christ story has brought surprisingly good news from people and places I didn’t expect to see or know. According to some, the Hindu term for epiphany would be bodhodaya, from Sanskrit bodha‘wisdom’ and udaya ‘rising’. Wisdom rising sounds like something we could welcome all year. Let’s prepare for that.