In Defense of May (and Marriage)

Tra la! It’s May! The lusty month of May! That lovely month when ev’ryone… Guenevere belts exuberantly. Everyone, what? The fantastical composer of Camelot would have us believe…

It’s mad, it’s gay, alive, a lust display
Those dreary vows that everyone takes, everyone breaks
Everyone makes divine mistakes.
The lusty month of May.

Spectacular? Yes. Glamorous? Yes. Over-the-top? For sure? But there is absolutely nothing about May — compared to any other month — to justify the disparaging suggestion that it is a time when dreary vows everyone takes, everyone breaks.

Quite the contrary! I’m honored to have been asked to officiate at a couple of weddings in the next few months. My considered assessment based on interaction with these couples suggests something beautiful, wonderful, singular and sacred.

Officiating is being invited to get up, close and personal with the intimacy shared by a couple. But we all witness the same mystifying magic when two people commit to loving their one-and-only unto death. It’s not as rare as cynics suggest. However, it’s more precious than even we can imagine.

My husband and I enjoyed dinner with one such couple this weekend. Below is my thank you to them from the next day. I share it here in the form of an open letter with the hope that its contents express something worthwhile for others as well.  Of course, names have been changed and descriptors generalized to protect this precious couple’s privacy:

Dear Ginny and Peter,

It was wonderful to reconnect and renew friendship last evening. We had a really enjoyable time with you over dinner and covering a broad range of topics in conversation. Thanks for your warm and generous hospitality — the prep time it took to prepare such a feast (homemade pasta!!!!) is recognized and appreciated!!! We also love Willow and cannot wait to introduce him to Jeb the Dog.

Savoring our time with you, a few more thoughts have come to mind. For example, I cannot say often enough, prepare for your marriage every bit as much as for your wedding. Yes, you’ve got great experience of living together as a couple and significant knowledge of each other. Don’t take that for granted, build on it!

You might simply reflect — personally as well as together — on the question, “What does it mean for me/us to make a public, permanent ‘I’m-not-going-anywhere-without-you’ commitment?” Make a point of talking with each other about the details of, and dreams for, your relationship even more than the specificities and practical details of your wedding.

Take advantage of the wisdom that surrounds you in your families and communities. You might say to people and couples you admire and respect, “We look forward to our marriage as much as our wedding. We really appreciate the way you live your life and believe you have tried and true wisdom to share. What good counsel would you care to share with us based on your experience?”

The sort of people you’d want to ask that question would be deeply honored — and probably humbled — that you’d seek their confidence. Then listen, listen, listen! Engage them with questions that further plumb their wisdom. These conversations may turn out to be more valuable than any wedding gift you receive from them.

Another thing occurred to me this morning while walking with Jeb the Dog at the creek… The link between spirituality and intimacy. A crude but accurate way of expressing it is, “Sex and love-making is not just about our bodies!”

Intimacy — deeply satisfying, other-centered, life-giving connection — is not just about being physically naked but by being emotionally and spiritually transparent, received and treasured by your one-and-only. In this way, your lives will deepen and your ongoing commitment will be greatly enhanced — both on your wedding day and all the years to come. Begin cultivating now this desire and capacity to actively engage each other spirituality.

That might sound pretty abstract, even disembodied. Here’s a practical way it might take shape for you… Today I am ordering for you a copy of Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Radical Spirit: Twelve Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life from Barnes & Noble. Not because it’s about marriage, it’s not! I’m sending it because anything Joan Chittister writes is worth reading.

I propose that you read it together and talk about it as you go. It’s not “homework” from the guy officiating at your wedding. It’s simply an explicit invitation to you as a couple to develop the habit of continuously deepening your capacity to share intimately about your spirituality — to be transparent, received and treasured in this core part of who you are personally and together. You both seem to like books. Perhaps sharing some spiritual reading is a practice you will want to continue in the years ahead.

Do this, or something more to your liking, because you want to as a lead-up to your wedding day. Keep doing some practice of explicit sharing of your spiritual selves as an ongoing enrichment to your lives throughout your marriage. It’s then that you will enjoy the cumulative gifts of deeply physical, emotional and spiritual love-making — the greatest proof for, and most intimate encounter with, the love of God we can experience this side of whatever else is next!

This sort of marriage will be my heartfelt desire for you as I officiate at your ceremony but also all the while we are enjoying a great celebration of fun, family and frivolity.

Again, thanks for a most enjoyable dinner and conversation last evening. The two of you, together, are a blessing.

Richard

Of Planned Parenthood and the NRA

This is likely to offend, even anger, almost everyone. Such is the predicament in which we find ourselves — entrenched, heavily defended, convinced of the rightness of our own position. I once tried to raise this topic in a casual weekend gathering of liberal-leaning friends (of which most of our friends tend to be). Wow, I was shut down in no uncertain terms! Even I know when to shut up.

But I simply cannot keep quiet. The question continues to haunt me, perplex me, goad me. Be assured, I restate it here with real trepidation. Perhaps in the protective security on my own blog I can express it safely in a manner that is inviting rather than incendiary. Perhaps from the privacy of your own space you will be better prepared to entertain the same question with civility and curiosity.

Here is the rough, raw and unrestrained way the question finds itself expressed in the private recesses of my brain: “Is Planned Parenthood to the Left what the NRA is to the Right?” Or, for the sake of fair, unbiased representation: “Is the NRA to the Right what Planned Parenthood is to the Left?”

Here’s another way the question has presented itself, “How can we defend a woman’s very personal and unfettered right to end a pregnancy and not equally defend the unrestricted right of every American to bear arms for personal defense and the protection of one’s family?” I’d really like to know.

It feels like it is apostasy deserving of shunning and expulsion to voice any position other than the absolute, ultra-orthodox position of one’s own ideological subgroup. Neither side of the polarity seems willing to concede any restriction or hint of compromise. Somehow such intransigence and conviction — about any issue on which good people disagree — just doesn’t sit right with me.

When I tossed this question out at the party with my liberal friends you would have thought I’d betrayed women, exposed myself to be grossly ignorant or deserted to the dark-side. But the question hasn’t gone away. I’d really like to have a mature, mutually respectful conversation about our values, convictions and moral beliefs.

As a nation we seem wholly incapable and unwilling to engage in respectful dialogue with anyone other than those who espouse our very same predispositions. I leave too many gatherings of such like-minded friends reminded of a hamster running madly in its squeaking wheel — like a whole lot of energy has been expended getting nowhere with nothing to show for it but a lot of repetitive noise.

Its far too late in the game to ask how we got ourselves into this predicament. It’s time to start listening to voices other than our own and truly hearing what is being said. We either get ourselves out of our entrenched, heavily defended “correctness” — of whatever stripe — or I truly fear for the future of our democracy.

The way all this finds expression in the private machinations of my brain is often an exasperated, God help us!

Shocked, Right Here at Home

I was shocked, personally challenged, finally proud.

How could it be? A land-locked state in the geographic center of the contiguous 48 has the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees! It has no ports of entry favoring coastal states. In fact, it can’t even boast of an international airport.

This state is rock-ribbed conservative and solidly “red”. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that the state with the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees voted for Donald Trump by a wide margin and has a solidly Republican delegation in DC, Republican governor and a state legislature dominated by the GOP.

The highest per capita rate of resettling refugees of any state in the nation belongs to my home state, Nebraska. This fact come as a complete surprise and challenges many stereotypical presumptions. Though I often feel alienated by the state’s conservative politics, this statistic makes me very proud.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked.  The fact was reported Monday on the front page of The Washington Post [link].  The story reaffirms what I know about the place I will always call home — Nebraskans are inherently good, generous, fair, hard-working, welcoming and kind.

I’m proud so many new-comers will receive their introduction to our country through the hearts and help of middle-America Nebraskans. But I dare not lallygag in complacent satisfaction too long. Clearly more than a few inaccurate presumptions and lingering stereotypes need challenging — on all sides, from every perspective!

More than at any time in my life we are a nation at odds, separated within closed enclaves of social homogeneity, separated into antagonistic camps willing to listen only to arguments that bolster narrow preconceptions. As a nation too many of us are hardened, intolerant, even angry.

Often enough we get shocked back into reality by seemingly innocuous facts. Yes, rock-ribbed conservative, Trump-loving Nebraska quietly — and likely with no forethought of intention — surfaces as the state with a distinguished openness to refugees.

How can this be? Perhaps we need to base our judgments and opinions more in fact than presumptions we want to believe but are not true. Perhaps we should come out from behind walls that separate, categorize and define us long enough to discover the truth about one another — precisely the truth about those different from ourselves.

With all this still rumbling within my thoughts I stumbled upon the review of a new cookbook under the title, Binding the Nation in Its Love of Meatloaf [link]. At my age I have learned to take nothing as happenstance or mere coincidence.

When New York Times colleagues Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer concocted their idea to write a cookbook neither knew that Mr. Trump would become president. He had agreed to contribute a recipe before the election. The authors had already taken their cue from the divisiveness they saw in our country.

Bruni observes, “I don’t think meatloaf can save the world, but I certainly think in the coming tomorrows there will be a healthier appetite for comfort.” And with a prescience you’d expect from reporters of their caliber they explain, “It’s a quintessential American dish that can bind a nation!”

The Times reporters are surely onto something! Beyond comfort we are hungry for a renewed sense of community, the sort of familial warmth that keeps me going back to Nebraska as my favorite place for Thanksgiving dinner.

Could it really be as simple as sharing a meal? It’s certainly a good start. Plenty of precedent — religious and national — suggests breaking bread together can lead to shocking and challenging results, the sort that will truly make us proud about who we once were and might still become once more.

Hardest Thing I’ve Done

We pass the spot every time one us takes the dog for a walk. About thirty yards to the south, we see her house whenever we are coming or going. It’s the place where my husband fell on the ice and broke his ankle. Moments before he’d stepped out to take the dog for a quick walk so we could make a movie matinee. Six weeks later it still fills me with rage and resentment.

No, I’m not angry that he fell — accidents happen. I resent our neighbor for ignoring him on an icy sidewalk in front of her own house. She passed by within feet of him — twice — without saying a word. Not even a polite, “Are you okay?” These many weeks later I’m still seething about the three people in the car who were dropping her off just as I was arriving in response to my husband’s call for help. Not one of the chauffeurs even acknowledged that someone was obviously down and hurt on the sidewalk right in front of them.

The only offer of help came from a different neighbor who ran out of a house from across the street. Seeing an ankle at an awkward angle and recognizing the signs of shock, he wisely advised us to go directly to the ER rather than Urgent Care and took the dog after helping lift my husband into the car. The compassion and generosity of this neighbor doesn’t begin to quell the seething resentment I hold toward the other.

As with so much anger, I haven’t spoken a word about this to anyone. It just festers. My husband sings my praises for my patience, kindness, generosity and good care shown to him. He’s even told others that he lives with a saint. I silently take it all in.

Another thing we haven’t spoken about is that all the wonderful qualities he praises in me can just as easily be the shadow side of my persistent desire to be in control and to be seen as perfect. As the 1930s radio hit The Shadow introduced every episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Yes, it does.

Not far below my carefully crafted persona lurks a robust ego and a heart capable of all manner of revenge. That’s ever-present as I wish that our neighbor would fall on the ice so I’d have the chance to obliviously walk by her. It flashes forth as I plot nasty vendettas each time I walk the dog past her house. It’s barely constrained while rehashing all sorts of nasty gossip I know about the woman. This virulent undertow reveals my vengeful side, belies a deep familiarity with eye-for-an-eye morality.

After all, I’m certainly justified and in the right! Am I not? My efforts over the past six weeks have been pretty decent and generous. Yet, we must also be honest. My motives can be much less virtuous than they appear. Yes, I have tried hard and do think I’ve been a patient, generous, attentive care-giver — a loving and supportive husband. I am a good guy — though sainthood is probably down the road a piece!

Here’s what I’d like my husband to know… on this morning’s walk with the dog past our neighbor’s house on the sidewalk where he fell, I noticed that her Sunday paper was much closer to the street than her porch. It’s been this way many Sundays so this was nothing special. But today I paused, suppressed my raging thoughts, leaned over, picked it up and tossed the paper to her front door.

“Honey, just so you know, that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do during the past six weeks.”

Grandma had a Grandma, Too!

Going to Grandma’s house was never much fun. I didn’t have the words then but now I’d describe her as austere, rigid, stoic, an old woman for whom life had been a disappointment. Memories make me wonder if she was ever truly happy.

There are no photos of her smiling, no family stories of joviality, no warm hugs like those we enjoyed from our other Grandma. A snapshot taken in front of the house on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954 shows a couple standing at attention, conspicuously separate from the other, Grandma taller than our retiring Grandpa.

Dad always sympathized with his Dad. He’d recall from time to time, “There was no question who wore the pants in our family.” More than once, Mom said, “It’s really a shame that a son would feel that way about his mother.” Well after Grandma died in 1967 Dad would rehash such memories. For a long time they seemed to still hold him bound.

One account suffices to capture how these memories could slide into resentment. At the height of the Depression, Mom and Dad were struggling farmers trying really hard to hold on to the farm (they succeeded). Grandma, on the other hand, made a big production of buying a new fur coat. Mom and Dad were buying the farm from Grandpa and Grandma and knew they dare not be late with a payment. Dad was desperately trying to feed an ever-growing brood not buy his Mom a new fur coat! Really, what kind of Mother or Grandma would act like that?

Well, this week — fifty years after Grandma’s death — a flood of insight, compassion and affection has taken me off-guard. It came in the form of an even older family story unknown until it seemingly appeared out of the blue through the wonders of the Internet. It’s an obscure story recorded in her native German by a Franciscan Sister from LaCrosse, Wisconsin that tell of events from 1826. The story is about Grandma’s grandma!

Sister Colomba, OSF tells how her mother, Anna was born to Johanna Druffner on July 26, 1826 in Rottweiler, Schwarzwaldkreis, Wuerttemberg, Germany. Her father is listed as unknown on birth records. The family would dismiss his anonymity with the facile explanation that “he had an accident in the forest.” But Sister Colomba tells more!

Citing a man with knowledge of that time and place, Sister’s story recalls “a rover who would work for a farmer, get a daughter in trouble, and escape into the woods.” According to her source’s account this happened on numerous occasions with numerous young women. When area farmers concluded this was the same man perpetrating these crimes, “they went searching for him in the woods.” There is no report that they found him, just a curt note simply stating he was never seen again.

Other genealogical sources combine to profile a woman who knew a lifetime of hardship, sadness and loss. Grandma’s grandma would leave her homeland, marry at 23, spend seven unsettled years with her husband in Philadelphia, all before moving on to rural Iowa. She would bear ten children, five of whom died in infancy. The sole photo we have of Anna and Wilhelm presents a sinewy, intense, tough woman peering somewhat blankly into the distance.

Widowed at 60, Anna lived for a time with her son, William on the home place. The story further explains that she “kept wandering away because she wanted to go ‘home’.” Eventually, Anna found her way to LaCrosse where her daughter’s Franciscan community reserved seven rooms on the top floor of their hospital “for people who needed a home.” There she died in 1908 and was buried, a final resting place separate from her husband who was buried near their farm in Iowa. She was 81. Grandma was now 24, married, had just given birth to her second child, building a home with Grandpa in Nebraska.

Scripture says the transgressions of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation. We say this more colloquially, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “He’s a chip off the old block.” It’s been nothing short of revelatory for me to discover that the Grandma I didn’t like very much had a grandma, too!

A kind of liberation comes with this deeper appreciation for why Grandma may have been the way she was. What is still reverberating is the realization that I am alive as the consequence of a rape. Still unsettling is the awareness that one of my distant grandfathers likely killed the father of his granddaughter, my Grandma’s grandma!

Driving down the wintry parkway yesterday, ruminating over these new-found facts, sifting through sundry emotions, a fresh warmth and unforeseen love began to take hold. That previously tedious and obscure Gospel account of Jesus — the one about so-and-so being begot by so-and-so — came to mind. Jesus’ own genealogy contains harlots and murderers too. Ours is precisely the humanity God chose to embrace.

In retelling the story of our salvation, it remains essential that these accounts and people be remembered, named, and in so doing, embraced. I’m coming to believe this is what real love looks like!

For Better, For Worse

My marriage vows are meaning much more to me these days — not “wedding day” vows but the promises we live daily through the ups and downs of the everyday. Yes, I’m talking about “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.”

This deepening appreciation was set in place by a nasty sprain and ankle fracture two months ago. No weight-bearing use of the leg and inability to drive for nearly seven weeks almost drove me crazy. The hardest part was accepting my powerlessness and dependence on others, primarily my husband. I rued the day tables would be turned and questioned whether I’d be able to match his patience, generosity and kindness.

Well, the fates have a wicked sense of humor. The very day after I got out of my “boot” and was able to transition to a Velcro brace to support my fledgling mobility, my husband fell on an icy sidewalk just outside our house when taking Jeb the Dog for his daily afternoon walk.

The tables were more than turned — with a nasty sprain, two fractures and an actual break he will have surgery to implant a plate and numerous screws as soon as the swelling is sufficiently reduced. His injury was far worse than mine! As if the fates wished to place a huge exclamation point on the coincidence, his surgery is scheduled for the precise day and hour I was previously scheduled to begin physical therapy on my healing ankle. My injury? His injury? Distinctions collapse in marriage.

“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.” Familiar words, often expressed as a naive wager that things will always be okay if not easy. Words often spoken as an either/or, as if life proffers a dualistic one-or-the-other. Rather, we learn that what we profess is actually the warp and the woof of a single fabric and it’s our gift to weave it all into a seamless tapestry.

And there is more! From the cruel depths of this Minnesota winter — with the two of us hobbling around begrudgingly needing others for help, depending on the incredible generosity of neighbors, with Jeb the Dog thoroughly confused and bodily inconvenienced by disappearance of any semblance of routine — the worse, poorer and sickness part of the formula takes precedence. All the while reminding us that the horizon of death can not be ignored.

And, still more! The begrudging admission of powerlessness, the icy starkness of winter, our cruel fate and dependence on others, all yield another gift — the truth of love, the safe harbor of relationship, our reliance on one another. Who would know if the risk is not taken, the promises not made?

Strange, isn’t it! Love surely shines forth in the easy and happy times. Yet we discover an unplumbed depth, find an untested resilience, desire to affirm what we have vowed when we discover the face of love from that place of need, poverty and dependence. Such is the nature of love, it’s most sublime gift.

Amid the depths of winter we are taken off guard by the gift of Love, the presence of Love, overcome by the Presence of One who chooses to be with us precisely when and where we need love most.

Of the One and the Many

Thanks to or our friend Sheila Wilson for this timely excerpt from The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

” It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘ I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with any one for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as any one is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. but it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’ “