Friday, September 30, 2016

You No Hear Me

Dinah has Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), caused by a random deletion or mutation of chromosome-15, which is typically not inherited. PWS affects one in every 10,000 to 30,000 people worldwide. At birth, they have weak muscle tone (hypotonia), difficulty eating, poor growth, and slow development, resulting in a high infant mortality. They have distinctive facial features like a narrow forehead, almond shaped eyes, and a triangular mouth. They are also typically small in stature, have small hands, and feet. If they survive infancy, during childhood they develop an insatiable appetite resulting in chronic overeating (hyperphagia) and food hoarding often resulting in morbid obesity. People with PWS have significant intellectual impairment, low IQ (in the range of 40-60), and learning disabilities. Most suffer from temper outbursts, stubbornness, and compulsive behaviors like picking at their skin. PWS people require a lifetime of care and supervision and while life expectancy continues to improve, the average age is forty, more often dying of complications that result from morbid obesity.

Dinah fits the general profile of a PWS person, except for two anomalies. What had further complicated Dinah’s situation was that she had suffered from pneumonia and a 108-degree temperature at nine-months-old. My mother had kept Dinah breathing using CPR while my dad drove them to the nearest hospital over an hour away. Some doctors have speculated that the high temperature and lack of oxygen caused brain damage, subsequently effecting Dinah’s future ability to form words and sentences. Still, Dinah has beaten the odds of survival due to PWS and her lack of ability to communicate effectively. Leading to the second unusual aspect of her life, as I write this in 2016, at sixty-one Dinah is the oldest known living Prader-Willi in Arizona.

In 1998, while at ArtWorks in Tucson, Arizona, Dinah created a piece of art she titled Blue Jesus. It is an 8x10 linocut print. She carved her childlike stick figure of Jesus on the cross, onto a large piece of rubber-like material. From that carving, one print was made and I have it. Jesus’ head is oval as is his mouth. His eyes are somewhat square in shape. The eyes and the mouth are hollow; there are no pupils, neither are there teeth, just simple shapes. The trunk is a square box, out of which the arms extend at odd angles. The bottom half of the trunk in distended from which the legs jut, neither equal in length nor width. The arms and legs are not in proportional balance with the trunk. The way Dinah drew the figure it appears to be androgynous. Her sketch of Jesus makes him look misshaped, strange, odd, broken—disabled. Around the cross, she carved out, what look like, tears drops radiating upward from the cross. When the ink was applied, Jesus became aquamarine blue and the tears drops, dark red. Our eyes are drawn to the center of the painting by the contrast of the colors, as if it were a mandala.

I think Blue Jesus is Dinah’s self-portrait. Her art speaks for her, if only we can listen to what she and Blue Jesus have to say. Sometimes when my sister is trying to tell me a story, I simply don’t understand what she’s saying. If she gets weary of trying different ways to help me figure out what she’s trying to tell me, she’ll say, “You no hear me.”

In Jesus’ parable of the Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), I think Jesus might be feeling a bit of my sister’s pain. At the end of the story, Jesus says almost in frustration at not being listened to, “Even if someone were to rise from the dead, we wouldn’t listen to them.” I wonder if Jesus were still roaming around the earth today, 2,000 years old, would we listen to what he would have to say? Or would he simply be a freak of nature and someone we’d become so comfortable seeing that we’d stop listening? Like yesterday’s news as it were, no longer a novelty.

Today it seems that those who profess to be Christians don’t pay much attention to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ statement that we should love our enemies seems to be long forgotten. Most of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to follow, if at times, impossible—I imagine for most, much easier to ignore. For what seems to be the majority of those who call themselves Christians, it appears to be more convenient to worship Jesus, which he never asked us to do, than to follow his teachings—like love our enemies.

I wonder if Jesus were blue, would that make him interesting enough to listen to? Or would we find Jesus saying to us, “You no hear me?”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Peacemaking: Hope for the Future

Sunday was the fifteenth anniversary when two airplanes flew into New York City’s twin towers, destroying both and killing thousands. At the same time another airplane flew into the Pentagon, causing massive destructive. All the while, a fourth airplane crashed into the Pennsylvania landscape before it could be flown into the US Capitol. Since that infamous day, terrorism has become a chief topic of concern in our daily lives. Our concern for our safety has been expanded beyond our travel, to athletic events, concerts, and our schools; anywhere a crowd can gather. While political, economic, and culture issues are central to terrorism related issues, what draws the most heat in the conversation is religion; primarily the three Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have all played some role in international terrorism scene.

What seems to be at threat is our spiritual safety. Interfaith groups have taken on the topic of creating safe space in order to express one’s religion, while learning about other religions.

In March of 2010, I was invited to attend an interreligious conference at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) along with my colleague, Ahmad Shqeirat, Imam at the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe, Arizona. The conference was funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Twenty Anglican (Episcopal) and twenty Muslim leaders were invited to discuss a peaceful response to what would then be the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Ahmad and I had been invited because we were leaders of a gathering on September 11, 2009 in Tempe, which was held in response to the threatened burning of the Holy Quran by Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida.

The VTS conference was three, twelve-hour days packed with listening to intense stories. One of the most disturbing stories came from my friend, Ahmad. On November 20, 2006, he and five other imams were escorted off of a US Airways flight bound for Phoenix out of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. Before boarding the plane, the imams had said their noonday prayers in Arabic, apparently making some passengers waiting to board the flight, uncomfortable. Ahmad told us that one imam was blind. All six were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs, escorted off the plane, forced to walk unassisted down a ramp, placed in separate police cars, and taken to a detention center for interrogation. After hours of questioning, a federal agent determined their detention was unwarranted and the six were returned to the airport. US Airways refused to issue them new tickets or let them board another flight. The imams had to purchase new tickets from another airline in order to get home.
This kind of treatment of innocent Muslims who are US citizens is alarming.

Since that time Phoenix mosques, including the one in Tempe, have been defaced and picketed and their members threatened. And of course, in our current Presidential election, the basic rights of Muslim-American citizens have been called into question and the debate has extended to Muslim immigration. Because of fear, the atmosphere in America and Arizona has called into question one of this country’s most cherished constitutional rights—the freedom of religion.

I am not going to try and make any generalized statements about how Christians or people of faith should respond to terrorism, US citizen’s rights, or immigration. I would, thought, like share with you how I try to understand the hard work of peacemaking, creating safe space, and listening.

Let’s take a look at Micah 4:1-5 as an example of how to be peacemakers. Micah was a prophet in the 8th century BCE. He was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. Micah said that religious worship without social justice is meaningless. He was concerned with ethical issues and the exploitation of the unemployed, those who had jobs, and landowners. In chapter four, Micah offered a formula for peacemaking, which I believe still applies today.

Inclusivity—Being in the presence of God is inclusive and welcoming experience. (4:1) God invited all people to the sacred mountain. What does that mean for me? I want to use language that is inclusive and welcoming. I don’t use language like “my God.” God is not my personal God, nor is God exclusive to Christianity.

Accessibility—Everyone has access to the divine teachings. (4:2b) I try to use language about God that doesn’t create a barrier between someone and the divine. In other words, when I speak, preach, or write, I work hard at not using theological lingo, words like sin, salvation, incarnation, or Trinity. Most clergy can’t agree on what these words mean and many people that come to our churches don’t agree on the definitions or these words or don’t know what they mean. Frankly it doesn’t matter. My language should not be a barrier to someone hearing the divine message.

Non-violence—God’s people will lay down their tools of war and become peacemakers. (4:3b) Howard Thurman (1899-1981) scholar, teacher, preacher, prophet, and mystic wrote that, “Non-violence is not merely a mood or climate, or even an attitude. It is a technique…a discipline…it is a rejection of physical force, a renunciation of the tools of physical violence. (Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, 125) He goes to say that, “Not to fight at all is to choose a weapon by which one fights…Of all the weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating.” (122) I personally can’t find any other way to follow the ways of YHVH than to be a pacifist.

Safety—God’s people will accept other people’s differences by creating safe space for all people. (4:4) My own experience has taught me that the only way I can create safe space for another person is to listen to their story. When I went to the VTS workshop we listened to one another’s stories. I listened to Ahmad and he has listened to me. I know about his faith as a Sunni Muslim from his perspective, which is also different from being Shia or Sufi. And he knows about my religious ideas. We have prayed together. We have shared meals. We know about each other’s families because we have met them. And we have been honest with one another about our differences in religious beliefs and practices. In the words of Micah, Ahmad and I sit under our own fig tree and neither of us has made the other one afraid.

For some of us September 11, 2001 is raw in our memory. It’s an event that is seared in our mind. For others, though, 9/11 is something that happened in history, like Pearl Harbor Day—while you understand the significance of the event, it happened before you could remember of before you were born. Or maybe you’re from another country and September 11, 2001 is something you can relate to because attacks like that have happened in your country. Whatever your relationship to September 11, 2001 might be, the threat of terrorism and war is present in our daily lives like a societal cancer. The question is how do we now, fifteen years later, bring about healing and peace?

Yes, we must respect the dignity every person that has suffered; with reverence for those who lost their lives, with grief for families who lost loved ones and friends, with honor for those who willingly gave their lives to save others. But, then, what do we do next? For me, my only response is to live a life of inclusivity, accessibility, non-violence, and creating safe space by listening. By working at peacemaking I feel that this is the best way I can honor those who have suffered—it is also the only way I can imagine that we have any hope for a peaceful future.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Upside Down Thinking

Recently I was invited to attend a writing workshop at Collegeville Institute, which resides on the campus of Saint John’s University, northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The workshop was a transformative experience for me, much of which I am still processing. I’m trying to write about what happened through the workshop experience, but putting those thoughts out in the open air will take some time.

Besides being at the writing workshop, the campus of Saint John’s had many benefits; one being that our workshop group of twelve members was given a private viewing of the Saint John’s Illuminated Bible.

The bible is kept in an environmentally controlled vault. Tim Ternes, the Director of the Saint John’s Bible, met us outside the building where the bible is kept below ground level. He laughingly told us he was going to treat us like first graders and asked us to wash our hands; we were going to be able to touch the Saint John’s Bible. After we washed our hands thoroughly, we entered the vault through a security door that had a 60-second timer before it automatically closed. Once inside, we had to remove our jackets, sweaters, and handbags and back packs. All these precautions were required because we were going to be within inches of this priceless bible.

The Saint John’s Illuminated Bible is the first handwritten and illuminated bible that has been created in last 500 years. The project began in 1998, taking fifteen years it was finished in 2011, at an estimated cost of $8 million dollars. Artist Donald Jackson created a new script for use on the bible (using the New Revised Standard Version in English) and oversaw the work of seven calligraphers and artists. The bible is not illustrated, as in pictures designed to re-create a scene, but instead the bible is illuminated, meaning the artwork enhances the symbolic expressions of the written word.

The book is two feet high and three feet wide. That’s the standard size of an easel pad of paper. The bible was written on over three hundred pieces of vellum. Vellum was used for its historic and artistic value. Each side of vellum contains two pages, four pages per piece of vellum for a total of 1150 bible pages. Each piece of vellum weighs approximately two-three pounds. The artists used a unique 19th century Chinese ink for the calligraphy and the artwork pieces are combinations of vibrant colored ink and 24-karat gold.

The bible is currently unbound. If it were bound, the bible would easily weigh over 500 pounds. The book was made so large to emphasize that the bible was never intended for one individual but instead for the entire community.

The theologian’s and the artist’s intent of using calligraphy and illumination is to bring the word of God alive on the page. I’ve seen the Book of Kells in Ireland. I’ve seen famous art and artifacts in some of the best museums in the world, but there was always glass or space between the artwork and me. But, when we had this rare opportunity to view Saint John’s Bible, nothing stood between the art and us. The colors were brilliant, the art gave depth and new meaning to the scriptural stories—the illuminated bible is a living thing that gives the ancient words a twenty-first century understanding. The illuminations offer us new words to describe our experience of the divine.

For me, there are two illuminations in the Saint John’s bible that provide a symbolic representation of the central images of Christianity—the crucifixion and the resurrection. The illumination is found in the Gospel of Luke and the resurrection in the Gospel of John (The Saint John’s Bible: Gospels and Acts). https://www.saintjohnsbible.org/Explore.aspx?VID=1&ID=9

Set against one another, these pieces of art disrupt our commonly held views of the events of crucifixion and resurrection. Typically, we think of the crucifixion being the darkest moment in the Christian story. We often think of this scene in the dark hues of a terrible storm at its apex. The crucifixion is when Jesus died on the cross and the writers of the gospels put the psalmist’s words into his mouth. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The scene is filled with storms, abandonment, and death.

In contrast, we have imagined the resurrection to be the moment when the shining light of Christ bursts forth in a moment of victory over death. In the Episcopal Church our vestments on Easter are filled with gold in order to give us that feeling.

The illuminations of the Saint John’s Bible, however, do their best to disturb these commonly held views of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

In the Saint John’s Bible, the crucifixion, instead of being dark and foreboding, is depicted in the brilliant light of pure gold. The gold is thick, raised off the page, bringing the crucified Christ into three dimensions. This scene is the most brilliant of any page in the Saint John’s Bible.

In contrast to the brilliant light of the crucifixion scene, the resurrection is depicted in dark blues. Here, we only see the hooded Christ figure from the back. We do see the face of Mary Magdalene, who is clad in a deep red robe. The only gold we see in this scene is on the hands of Mary Magdalene.

Why are these scenes depicted in such paradoxical contrast? I think what we are seeing is what Jesus has taught us. At the moment of the cross, God became human in order to experience pain and death. God is present in the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the sick, those who are imprisoned, the alien among us—God is present in the suffering of the cross. God is present in the humiliation of the cross. God is present in the death of the cross. Through God’s experience of human suffering and death—God can then fully experience our pain and suffering. God is not absent in our pain and suffering—actually that is when God is most present.

And what about the resurrection, where is God in that scene? God is present now in the hands Mary—the one who will carry the good news that God is among us in our suffering and pain—and God is present in us as we live out this good news in the twenty-first century. We are now the twenty-first century Mary Magdalene. Now our hands are covered with the gold of the presence of God, the God who has been present to us in our own crucifixion is the God that we carry as a healing agent into the world’s suffering.

Sisters and brothers do not shy aware from the suffering of the cross. Instead, lean into the soul gold we find from God’s presence at the margins of life, because at those times we experience loss, suffering, pain, abandonment, death—there we will discover a true golden resurrection moment.


Monday, August 01, 2016

Fear: A Weapon

Tuesday I was on my way to Tucson very early in the morning. I stopped at the rest area just north of Casa Grande. There weren’t any cars there when I pulled in. When I came out of the restroom, I noticed there was another vehicle in the parking lot. There was a man about my age walking down the sidewalk towards me. He was wearing a gun on his hip. I didn’t think too much about it—I’ve seen people wearing guns before. But, as I got within about ten feet of the guy, he turned and looked right me—he put his hand on his gun. I’m not sure what look I gave him, but I just kept on walking towards my car. I really don’t like wearing my clerical collar, but that’s one time I thought it might have been a good idea—or not? When I got in my car, I wondered why he put his hand on his gun? If he knew me he’d know I the last person to be afraid of. What was he afraid of? Seems like everywhere I turn I feel like fear is surrounding me.

The last two weeks I’ve watched bits and pieces of the Republican and Democratic Conventions. I’ve listened to speeches by the candidates and key players. And I’ve subjected myself to the subsequent rhetoric from the pundits as well as Facebook friends. The only common theme I can gather from this presidential election is that it is like none other. Even the oldest of commentators, and those who study the history of presidential elections have declared that this election season stands alone in its uniqueness.

I’ve spent probably too much time wondering why? What is the one thing that has created this kind of political atmosphere in our country? I think the common factor among all the political voices that keep turning up the volume is, “fear.” Fear is in the driver’s seat of our country. Fear has control over America. Fear has become the doomsday weapon of mass destruction that looms over our heads like never before.

I hear people tell me that they’re afraid of Donald Trump being elected president. Then I hear other people say that they’re afraid of Hillary Clinton being elected president. So, what’s underneath all this fear? What are people really afraid of? I think it’s the fear of death.

Death comes in many forms, but all forms are manifested in the fear of “change.” From the moment we’re born, we are destined to experience a lifetime of daily change that eventually leads to death. We experience change from the moment we get up in the morning until we lay our weary heads down at night. We experience so much change on a daily basis that you’d think we would get used to change—that we would be able to embrace change and death with ease. But that’s not what happens. Actually, the thing we resist the most in life is change and the thing we fear the most is death. Does it have to be that way? I don’t think so.

George Morrell was one of the founders of Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Tempe, Arizona. He was one of the first person’s I met when I started as vicar there in 2006. He was an alum of ASU when it was Arizona State Teacher’s College. George was a fighter pilot during World War II and served active duty during the Korean War. Before and after his stints in the military, he worked in the administration at ASU for forty years.

Near the end of George’s life, I had the privilege of listening to his stories and pondering with him about the big questions of life. He told me that he had had four specific moments in his life when he experienced the divine. It was at those instances, he said, that he knew for sure that God was fully present.

George had been very active in politics and during the last few weeks of his life he talked a lot about the primary elections. He had definite opinions and expectations. He we invested in the outcome of the election, but he didn’t live in fear of the outcome. Nor did he live his life in fear of the outcome. As he came to the last days of his life, I marveled at how he was dying with dignity and grace. George Morrell died well. At his funeral in February of 2008, Saint Augustine’s was packed with many well-known ASU administrators, coaches, and academic figures. He was loved and respected.

These last two weeks I can’t stop thinking about George, how he lived his life and how he died with dignity. He definitely had ideas and opinions and he wasn’t afraid to tell me, in a gracious way, what he believed. He had the presence and the confidence that allowed him to speak truth to power without ever raising his voice or using anger to express his views. Indeed, George had politic opinions, but he wasn’t afraid of the outcome no more than he was afraid of death. George Morrell trusted his family, his church, his country, and God. He relied on the faith he placed in each of them. During these very bizarre days we are living in, I’ve been relying on the voice of George Morrell to guide me.

Listen to words of Psalm 49 as interpreted by Eugene Peterson in The Message. These are words of wisdom about how to approach life and death without fear.

Listen, everyone, listen - earth-dwellers, don't miss this.
All you haves and have-nots,
All together now: listen.

I set plainspoken wisdom before you, my heart-seasoned understandings of life.
I fine-tuned my ear to the sayings of the wise,
I solve life's riddle with the help of a harp.

So why should I fear in bad times, hemmed in by enemy malice,
Shoved around by bullies, demeaned by the arrogant rich?

Really! There's no such thing as self-rescue, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
The cost of rescue is beyond our means, and even then it doesn't guarantee Life forever, or insurance against the Black Hole.

Anyone can see that the brightest and best die, wiped out right along with fools and dunces. They leave all their prowess behind, move into their new home, The Coffin,
The cemetery their permanent address.
And to think they named counties after themselves!

We aren't immortal. We don't last long. Like our (beloved pets), we age and weaken. And die.

This is what happens to those who live for the moment, who only look out for themselves:
Death herds them like sheep straight to (the pit); they disappear down the gullet of the grave; They waste away to nothing - nothing left but a marker in a cemetery.

But me? God snatches me from the clutch of death, he reaches down and grabs me.

So don't be impressed with those who get rich and pile up fame and fortune. They can't take it with them; fame and fortune all get left behind.

Just when they think they've arrived and folks praise them because they've made good,
They enter the family burial plot where they'll never see sunshine again.

We aren't immortal. We don't last long. Like our (beloved pets), we age and weaken. And die.

The Psalmist is trying to teach us that to live in fear is to deny the existence of God’s power in our lives. George Morrell didn’t base his opinions on fear. And I don’t want to base my opinions on fear. I don’t want to live in fear—I want to live in the confidence that God will be always be with me, walking with me, talking to me, guiding me away from the Black Hole of fear.

If I live to be as old as my mom did, I have twenty years left and that’s optimistic. But if I’m fortunate to live that long—after this presidential election I’ll watch four more. And, if I’m able, I’ll vote in every one of them. I’ll express my opinions openly. But the one thing I will not do is live in fear of the outcome, nor the fear of life, nor the fear of death. For me, to live in fear is to deny the existence of God’s power in my life and indeed, to squander life itself.

Please hear me, I’m not trying to tell you how to vote. Actually, I’m telling you something much more important—I’m telling you how to live in the presence of a loving God who will snatch each and every one of us out of the Black Hole of fear so that we can breathe deep and live freely.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hope birthed from love.

For those that read my blog, the following is a talk (sermon) I gave recently, which includes the story I told about my sister in my last post.) I felt I needed to say that so you don't think I've totally gone blank in the head.

Last weekend Cathy and I were at Family Camp. This was a diocese-wide event led by the Canon for Children’s Ministries, Jana Sundin. The weekend was a beautiful experience in the Prescott pines at Chapel Rock, the diocese camp and retreat center.

The theme was “Unplug and Connect.” The idea was to unplug from the distractions of the world and connect with our family, our friends, and with God. Jana planned a wonderful weekend where all who attended had plenty of opportunities to unplug and connect.

Those who attended represented the lovely diversity of the Episcopal church; multi-generational families, kids of all ages, grandparents with their grandchildren, single moms, single dads, bi-racial families, just about everyone was represented.

I had so many fantastic experiences, but there isn’t time to share all of them. But there was one particular moment that especially captured my imagination. Saturday night, Jana planned what she called a “silly talent” show, meaning anyone, any age, could be silly or serious; tell silly jokes, put on a silly skit, or sing a serious song—and all of those things happened that night.

The final “act” was a single dad and his two-year-old daughter. The duo sang some heavenly spiritual songs from the Jewish tradition. As a finale, the young dad and his daughter danced. As he lifted her above his head, she laughed and giggled as he twirled her around.

In that moment, I saw myself twirling my own children above my head. And I saw my son twirling his sons above his head. And then I saw my dad twirling my sister above his head. And then I saw my granddad twirling my mother through the air. And then I could see my grandsons dancing with their children and twirling them above their heads. Then I began to see the relatives of the other people at the retreat dancing with their ancient/future ones. And then there were people of all the nations dancing with their children. In that moment I was caught up in the synchronicity of timelessness. In that moment I felt at one with the divine and all of God’s creation. In that moment, I felt love and hope.

Living in our world today, it can be difficult, at times, to feel like there is any love and hope to be found. Indiscriminate violence and hateful murders use to be something that happened in far away countries—now it happens in the streets of America on a daily basis. Hope seems hard to come by.

I think hope is the promise of Abraham’s vision. (Genesis 18:1-10) He was meditating under the oak where he had built an altar to God. In his meditation three men appeared to him. He insisted that they sit with him while he washed their feet and prepared a meal for them. Abraham sat with the three strangers and listened to them. In the synchronicity of the moment he heard that something new, something unimaginable was going to be born into this world—that something was hope.

We can experience hope when we entertain the visions of the impossible; when we think outside the boxes of accepted reality—it is then that hope becomes a possibility.
Hope becomes possible when we entertain the stranger, welcome them into our home, wash their feet, feed them, and listen to their story. At those moments the impossible becomes possible—in that moment, despair is transmuted into hope.

After the recent release of violence on our world, I was depressed and that drove me into the Black Sun of silence. I felt that all hope was gone. I knew then I had to go see my sister. I was sure she would know how to bring healing in to our broken world.

Dinah, at 61, is the oldest known living person in the Arizona who has Prader-Willi Syndrome. She is mentally and physically handicapped—she also suffered brain damage that resulted from a high fever when she was two weeks old. The temperature affected her ability to speak—over the years her vocabulary has increased to about 50 words.

When we sit at dinner, she is mostly silent. When I ask her questions I have to watch for answers that are found in a raised eyebrow, the tilt of her head, a smile or a frown, a gesture, and if I’m lucky, a word or two, some of which are impossible to understand.

That night the conversation turned to her friend, Brent. Jo, Dinah’s beloved care-giver, filled in the gaps of my sister’s story about this man who lives in another house for handicapped men. Brent has multiple-scoliosis—he’s paraplegic and can’t speak.

When they go to his house, Dinah sits with Brent, holds his hand, strokes his arm and says, “I luv ou.” She knows what Brent needs—human touch, a kind face, and the words of love that heal.

Dinah doesn’t see the color of your skin. She doesn’t care about your ethnicity. It doesn’t matter to her if your religious or not. She’s not concerned with how you identify your sexuality. I’ve watched Dinah interact with the diversity of humanity and she treats everyone the same way—a smile, a big hug, and pure love.

I’ve wondered a thousand times what it would be like to get inside Dinah’s head, to walk around in the world in her skin, to be Dinah. I’ve witnessed her frustration at not being able to tell her story. I imagine that’s why she connects so well with people who have been marginalized—people of color, people of various religions, people who are lesbians, people who are gay, people who are bi-sexual, people who are transgendered, people who are queer. They know what it’s like to not be able to freely, openly, safely tell their story. Dinah knows that feeling because she lives in the borderlands of unique difference. That night, listening to Dinah’s story, I was reminded once again that all for but a twist and turn of a tiny piece of Chromosome-15, Dinah and I would trade places. But, then again, I could say that about everybody I meet—we’re all just a breath of fate away from being in some other circumstance, living in someone else’s skin. That night I felt that Dinah was asking me if I could live my life like she lives hers.

That night Dinah taught me that if I really want to love someone, I have to touch them, dance with them, imagine myself being them, walk around in this world as if I am them. I have to let go of the idea that I am different than anyone else in the world, for by the very twist of a sliver of DNA, I could be that person. Maybe that’s what “love your neighbor as your self,” and “respect the dignity of every human being,” really means.

Dinah has changed Brent’s life with her love. Dinah has changed my life with her love. Indeed, Dinah’s kind of love could change our world. Dinah has taught me that by holding hands and loving indiscriminately, I can find hope. And I saw that hope last weekend in the vision of a single dad twirling his two-year-old daughter over his head. That vision brought me to the moment of parents of all colors, races, religions, and sexuality, loving and dancing with their kids. Love doesn’t see difference; love sees the presence of the divine in every human being. Love listen. And if we don’t listen to other people’s story; well that be the end of all our stories. It’s all so weird isn’t it? But it changes everything when we listen.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Want to Change the World? Love Like Dinah for a Day.

The evil violence that was unleashed on our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in Orlando drove me into the Black Sun of silence. I had to go see my sister. She would know how to bring healing in our broken world.

Dinah, at 61, is the oldest known living person in the Arizona who has Prader-Willi Syndrome. She is mentally and physically handicapped—she also suffered brain damage that resulted from a high fever when she was two weeks old. The temperature affected her ability to speak—over the years her vocabulary has increased to about 50 words.

When we sit at dinner, she is mostly silent. When I ask her questions I have to watch for answers that are found in a raised eyebrow, the tilt of her head, a smile or a frown, a gesture, and if I’m lucky, a word or two, some of which are impossible to understand.

Last night the conversation turned to her friend, Brent. Jo, Dinah’s beloved care-giver, filled in the gaps of my sister’s story about this man who lives in another house for handicapped men. Brent has multiple-scoliosis—he’s paraplegic and can’t speak. When they go to his house, Dinah sits with Brent, holds his hand, strokes his arm and says, “I luv ou.” She knows what Brent needs—human touch, a kind face, and the words of love that heal.

Dinah doesn’t see the color of your skin. She doesn’t care about your ethnicity. It doesn’t matter to her if your religious or not. She’s not concerned with how you identify your sexuality. I’ve watched Dinah interact with the diversity of humanity and she treats everyone the same way—a smile, a big hug, and pure love.

I’ve wondered a thousand times what it would be like to get inside Dinah’s head, to walk around in the world in her skin, to be Dinah. I’ve witnessed her frustration at not being able to tell her story. I imagine that’s why she connects so well with people who have been marginalized—people of color, people of various religions, people who are lesbians, people who are gay, people who are bi-sexual, people who are transgendered, people who are queer. They know what it’s like to not be able to freely, openly, safely tell their story. Dinah knows that feeling because she lives in the borderlands of unique difference. Last night I once again was reminded that all for but a twist and turn of a tiny piece of Chromosome-15, Dinah and I would trade places. But, then again, I could say that about everybody I meet—we’re all just a breath of fate away from being in some other circumstance, living in some else’s skin. Dinah was asking me if I could live my life like she lives hers.

Last night Dinah taught me that if I really want to love someone, I have to touched them, imagine myself being them, walk around in this world as if I am them. I have to let go of the idea that I am different than anyone else in the world, for by the very twist of sliver of DNA, I could be that person. Maybe that’s what “love your neighbor as your self,” and “respect the dignity of every human being,” really means.

Dinah has changed Brent’s life with her love. Dinah has changed my life with her love. Indeed, Dinah’s kind of love could change our world. You want to hold hands?

Monday, June 13, 2016

Guns or Rosaries

“Taste and see that God is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

I have two rosaries that I carry with me everywhere. One I’ve had over twenty years. The other I’ve had almost ten years.

The rosary I’ve had for ten years, Cathy gave to me as I prepared to walk across Ireland. The rosary has been bathed in holy wells all across Ireland. I held the rosary in my mom’s hand as she died. I dipped the rosary in the water as I baptized my two grandsons. I’ve prayed with dozens of people as they wept; they held one end of the rosary and I held the other. A month ago I prayed with Justino, a young friend of mine who at the time, was undocumented. He was preparing to walk across the border, back into Mexico for the first time in eleven years. He was given an immigration hearing and his hope was that he would be granted a Visa to become a permanent resident of the US. We held the rosary as we prayed. When we finished I told him to take the rosary with him as he walked across the border. I told him I wanted it back, but not until he could cross back into the US. Thankfully, he was granted a Visa and last week he gave me back the rosary.

The older rosary my daughter made for me with beads she had brought from Spain. I carried that rosary on every pilgrimage I’ve walked in Ireland. I’ve dipped it in the holy wells in Ireland and in the healing dirt of Chimayo, New Mexico. I’ve held the rosary in the hands of the dying and in the hands of women giving birth. Last week, I prayed with the young people of Saint Peter’s as they prepared to go to camp. We formed a circle around the altar, two of the young people completed the circle by holding the rosary between them. I asked them that would, over the course of the week, pass the rosary between them. I prayed that the rosary would be the very presence of God for them.

These two rosaries have taken on profound meaning for me—they, among other things, have become more than symbols—they have become the presence of God in my life. There have been times in my life when I wished I could have seen, heard, touched, smelled, or even tasted God. At those times I felt like I needed more than my imagination to connect with the Divine. And I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to have a physical experience with God. I think that’s been the desire of most spiritual people.

Historically, Christians have had a propensity for collecting relics that had been in the possession of a saint, an apostle, or even Jesus. (See Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality) For centuries Christians have made pilgrimages to places like the Santiago de Compostela in order see the relics of Saint James of Zebedee. In other churches around the world there are relics from the wood of Jesus’s cross, Jesus’ sandals, the bones of saints, and the chains that bound Saint Peter. The point of having such relics is the belief that the relic has an inherent healing agency by the virtue of having been touched by the saint.

The theology behind the belief in the power of the relics comes from two scriptural references. 2 Kings 13:20-22 tells the story of a dead man who had been thrown into the tomb of Elisha. And when the dead man touched the bones of Elisha he came to life. And then in Acts 19:11-12 there is a story of people taking a cloth that had touched the skin of Saint Paul to the sick in order to heal the afflicted.

The basis of this kind of spiritual practice resides in the belief that God is present in all matter. We just have to be willing to open our eyes and see it at those thin places in life; like at birth, at healing, at baptism, at the Eucharist, or at the moment of death. What makes the spiritual practice of seeing God in all of creation so powerful is that you don’t need massive amounts faith to believe in the power of the material—you simply have to experience it. When the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, he told them that they already had enough faith; they simply needed to activate the faith they already had within them. (Luke 17:5) It’s what Richard Rohr means when he says we were born with the DNA of God within us.

In the letter to the Galatians (2:15-21) Saint Paul tells us that we already have the “faith of Jesus Christ,” emblazoned in our soul. For centuries we have been taught that we were responsible for having enough “faith in Jesus Christ” in order to have a complete and lasting experience with God. But now, scholars of Saint Paul are telling us that this text has been miss-translated. The text should not read that we need “faith in Jesus Christ.” But instead, “the faith of Jesus Christ” has already been implanted within us. In others words, our being made whole was done by the work of Jesus’s faith in God and not reliant on our faith or our belief in Jesus. (See Paul Among the Postliberals by Douglas Harink)

The faith of Jesus Christ was made evident by the life he lived—a human life that he lived to the fullest; he was born of women, he walked the dusty roads of life, he was hungry and thirsty, he suffered, and he died. He knew the full range of the human experience. And the experience of his life taught him that God is love and that love is everywhere, in everything, and in everybody. He lived that truth and he taught us that truth—God is love; a love found in birth, a love found in living life, a love found in dying. God’s love is the kind of love we can see, touch, feel, smell, and taste. God’s love is found in the bread we eat and the wine we drink. When we begin to allow ourselves to see God in everything around us, it will change the way we live, move, and have our being in this world.

We are all stunned by the mass murder committed in Orlando, Florida Sunday morning. We are appalled by the violence that is escalating in our country everyday. I wonder, do we trust more in God’s presence in our lives, or we do we trust more in our need to feel protected by guns?

I have to wonder why giving everyone in the US the right to own a military style automatic weapon is necessary? What if the sale of military style weapons were banned to the general public? If the killers in Orlando, San Bernardino, Newtown and countless number of almost daily incidents didn’t have automatic weapons, would the number of deaths be less? Or would the killers even have had the courage to carry out such tragic, senseless acts? I wonder what keeps us, as a people of faith, from crying out to our governmental leaders to stand up to the NRA and pass legislation banning the mass killer’s weapon of choice?

Personally, I don’t own a gun. I don’t want guns around me. True, it would be unthinkably tragic if a gunmen killed my family. But, in the end, no one can kill the presence of God within me. Truthfully, I’d rather carry a rosary than a gun.

“Taste and see that God is good.” (Psalm 34:8)