Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Only Light We've Got in All This Darkness—Thoughts After Reading REFUSE TO DROWN: A FATHER'S UNTHINKABLE CHOICE

"The grief of death ... can only be transformed by giving it its due in a story. Good deaths are passed to us as stories ready to be told. With bad deaths, we have to work harder, but it is even more essential that we tell their stories—and tell them with compassion—in order to redeem and transform them. We must tell such stories in order to honor the dead and heal the living.... Sometimes we must tell the story of death in order to save our lives. It is the story of our love and the grief for the loss of our love that both redeems that grief and makes our love transformative. Telling such stories is the only way that the emotional ghosts of bad deaths can be released—and the power of the good death inherited." (Madronna Holden)

"While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell; it's the only light we've got in all this darkness." (James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues")
I’d been living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for almost a year when I heard about the nighttime murder of a mother and father and their teenage son in their home not far from mine. Before moving here, I’d lived in a succession of major cities (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington DC) for most of forty years. It was already, and still is, deeply ingrained in me to lock the doors of my car, always, even if running back into my apartment for a minute to get something I’d forgotten, or when leaving the apartment to take out the trash. I was used to hearing about such crimes, maybe even jaded, or even expected them.

Weeks later, when I heard that the boy and his parents had been killed by one of his friends, I still wasn’t shocked. I knew, and know, that friendship and family relationships are no guard against violence, whether verbal or physical. As weeks and months passed, I didn’t follow the details of the story or the speculations made about it in the various media. It filed itself away in some corner of my mind.

A couple of years later, a man I had known and loved for thirty years (ten of them as his wife) died a tragic and accidental but self-induced death. Part of my grief manifested as physical pain, and I eventually sought help through massage therapy. The talented woman who became my ongoing therapist told me one day that while the disturbing local events were unfolding, the boy’s father had been her boss. She told me this as prelude to referring me to a website he had started to help others deal with and even prevent such tragedies. I checked it out briefly, and then mentally filed it away too.

Then, a couple more years later, she told me the man had co-written and was about to publish a book, not just about what had happened, but also about how he’d come through it. I linked to a Facebook page about the book and followed the authors’ posts leading up to its release. When I read that they were offering advance copies to bloggers, I sent a request. The book arrived a week ago. I read it, riveted, in two nights. It has taken me longer to digest it. Here, finally, is my offering.

Reading Refuse to Drown: A Father’s Unthinkable Choice, is like reading the book after seeing the Hollywood movie version—or in my case, after seeing the trailer. It doesn’t answer all possible questions about what happened, and certainly not about why it happened. What it does provide is far more valuable. It tells the story of a man who loves his son, unconditionally, but not blindly, and with all the human limitations to which we are all subject. It tells how that love was tested but not crushed, and holds out hope to readers confronting such testing in their own lives.

I can't say specifically why this story will be important to you, but I can tell you that it is important to me less because of what it reveals about the crime, the son, and the father, and more because that father wrote the book and published it, and because he wrote it with help from Shawn Smucker (not an insignificant detail in light of the book’s message that “you’re not alone”), and because of the reason he wrote it: because, as he writes in the Epilogue, “I had to.”

I’ve been helping other people publish books for more than twenty-five years, sometimes as production editor, sometimes as copy editor, sometimes as both and more (including encourager). The closest I’ve come to publishing my own story is this blog and another that I’ve kept sporadically for the past few years. I also brought to languishing life a book of poems a couple of years ago as a guinea pig for learning the CreateSpace self-publishing process. Reading Refuse to Drown has encouraged me to continue believing and hoping that I’m not finished yet, to not give up on taking steps forward, and to not be afraid of asking for the specific help I need, which is a tall order for someone whose default mode is trying to do it alone.

As I was rereading parts of the book in preparation for writing this review, I came across a sentence that struck me, at first, as contradictory. After emphasizing how important it is to ask for and accept help, after characterizing his son’s life as, in a sense, destroyed by the son's belief “that he had to handle his internal struggles on his own” (“he didn’t think anyone would understand what he was going through; he thought that if he did share his pain, people might ridicule him or think he was a freak”), and after illustrating that his own life was saved by seeking and finding help on every level, Tim Kreider states in the Epilogue, “it’s my responsibility not to drown, not to give up.” Isn’t this the very message his son, Alec, misunderstood, as Tim wrote in the Introduction?

After thinking about this for a while, the answer became clear: By telling the police about Alec’s confession, Tim was demonstrating to him that there were indeed consequences to the irreversible deed for which the boy was responsible. At the same time, Tim remained, and remains to this day in his son’s life as the father who loves him, has loved him, and always will love him. The final paragraph of the last chapter before the book’s Epilogue ends with these sentences: “There is a power and love available to all of us. That is the love and grace of Jesus. He wants to be there for you. He wants you to talk to him. All you have to do is trust him.” That, as I see it, is the very love and grace that Tim shows to his son. In that way, he reveals to his son, and to us, the love of the Father that His Son reveals to us.

What Alec, like us, does, in the end, with the love and grace offered to him—whether he drowns or not—is still his responsibility. But we are responsible for giving one another all the help we are capable of offering. Thank you, Tim and Shawn, for what you offer us in your book.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

No Other Day Will Ever Be as Young for You as This Today

"When I said to myself, 'I can, 'I will,' a hundred experiences had taught me that it was not so. The clay does not suffice for the statue you intended to form with me....
"And love?... perhaps it is now no more than sorrow, the empty pain of disconsolate futility, the weariness that can no longer mourn.... I cast myself down at the feet of Life."
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World
About ten days ago I drove my almost-thirteen-year-old niece nearly one hundred miles to return her to her mother's house before turning around right away and driving the same one hundred miles back in the other direction. At some point during that trip she said to me, "This year went so fast!" It seemed somehow wrong for these words to come from the mouth of one so young.

And here we are: more than a half-hour into another one. And already I have not done what I intended to do with those first thirty minutes.

So I will head to bed and begin again after the light returns.
"Today is your ... youngest day ... the newest, most childlike of days. No other day will ever be as young for you as this today, when eternal life has called you by name." (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Heart of the World)
Amen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I Will Send My Beloved Son: Advent 2013, Day 10

"What stands out as singular, surprising, and quite simply inconceivable is the attitude of the owner of the vineyard: 'What shall I do?' he asks himself; and, for some mysterious reason, knowing the fate his servants received at the hands of the wicked tenants, he nevertheless decides: 'I will send my beloved son.' " (Antoine Birot, "The Divine Drama from the Father's Perspective")

“It is not enough then for the word to come down from heaven; it must also be born from the flesh. Hence it cannot be uttered all at once; it cannot dispense with the lapse of time required by the entire life of Jesus." (José Granados, "The Word Springs From the Flesh)
Knowing what we'd do to Him, God's Son still said yes to His Father and consented to come among us, as one of us.

God could have sent Christ in the way the Jews imagined the Messiah would come -- in the way we imagine he will come again: as a fully grown man riding a cloud to the sound of trumpets and heavenly choruses. But he didn't. No; the coming of Jesus the first time took time, beginning with nine months in Mary's womb, and then thirty years of childhood and young adulthood, most of which we know nothing about (just like most of us can't remember much of the detailed minutia of our own lives).

It seems that the promised Second Coming also "cannot dispense with the lapse of time." It has been nearly two thousand years, and though predictions have been and still are common, here we are, still waiting.

The Scriptures are filled with waiting, and mostly they don't tell us why, but they do tell us how -- whether how we actually wait,
"Then they believed his promises and sang his praise. But they soon forgot what he had done and did not wait for his plan to unfold. In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wilderness they put God to the test." (Psalm 106:12-14)
or how we should wait,
"You must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always." (Hosea 12:6)

"If we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently." (Romans 8:25)

"Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes." (1 Corinthians 4:5)

"By building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life." (Jude 1:20-21)
But all our individual and communal waiting is as nothing compared to how (and how long) God waits for us.

Amen.

Vulnerability and Weakness Are His Weapons: Advent 2013, Day Nine

"He looks at the babe in the manger and sees a knight ... not because he sees the Christ-child as inhumanly powerful, but because the baby's vulnerability and weakness are his weapons.... God at war is a baby.... 'his battering shots are babish cries.' " (Diane Vincent, Associate Professor at Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University)
"In love he destined us for adoption to himself through Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 1:4-5)
Today a friend introduced me to a South African ministry called 1hope4Africa, which operates an orphanage called the Muphamuzi Baby Home. According to Unicef, there are approximately 3.7 million orphans in South Africa, about half of whom lost their parents to AIDS-related disease.

Around the world, orphans (some of whom are children who have escaped this world's growing embrace of abortion) wait to be adopted. During Advent, we wait (at least symbolically) for the birth of a child who will change that world.

How will He change the world? By changing us, if we allow Him to.

How will He change us? By transforming us into adopted children of His own Father, "so that we might exist for the praise of His glory, we who first hoped in Christ" (Ephesians 1:12).

And how do we "praise ... His glory"? According to St. James in his letter "to the twelve tribes," we sincerely praise him when we "care for orphans and widows in their affliction," or anyone else who is vulnerable and needs our help.

"The baby's vulnerability and weakness
are his weapons" -- whether the "baby" is an orphan or, with his parents, poor or homeless -- weapons against our empty praise.

Monday, December 9, 2013

We Are the Evidence: Advent 2013, Day Eight

"A thing can only be received according to the actual disposition of the one who is to receive it." (From introduction to Second Sunday of Advent Mass, Magnificat, p. 112)

"Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide." (Isaiah 11:3)

"Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones." (Matthew 3:8-9)
"Show me the evidence!" This is the shout of the skeptic and unbeliever -- as many of us once were who now believe that the One for whom we wait, in both memory and longing, is the Son of God.

It is also sometimes, still, the shout of the believer who is waiting, hoping, crying for evidence that the Father hears her prayers.

But the evidence is not "out there." It isn't in a theory, or in a sign or a miracle.

We are the evidence -- to others, and to ourselves.

A couple of days ago I arrived at my favorite coffee shop when the only seat available was next to a man I'd never seen before who was perched in front of a rather large, fat laptop computer. I set up my own computer and began to work. Fifteen or so minutes later he stood up and began to put on his jacket. "It's chilly in here," he said.

I agreed. He explained that his strategy was to go outside, where it was seriously cold, for a bit, then to come back inside, where it would then, by contrast, feel relatively cozy.


"Plus, I'm gonna have a cigarette," he almost whispered, grinning sheepishly.

When he returned, he told me that two years ago he'd been a two-pack-a-day smoker, but now, as for the past two months, he is a two-cigarettes-per-day smoker. His intention is to reduce that to one per day come January, and to quit entirely sometime in 2014.

Before coming up with this plan, he'd tried hypnosis and a variety of other tricks, with no success. What finally motivated him to follow the path he is now on was a plea from his two-year-old son (who is now four).

As I listened to him share his story, I found myself thinking how all the gimmicks -- all the attempts to trick himself into quitting -- had failed, and what was actually working was a decision of the will -- or rather, many decisions of his will, one day at a time.

He is more evidence to me that when a person loves someone, he can repent and choose to change his life. He will be that same evidence to himself when he wants to make other changes that will improve his life and the life of his family, and perhaps the world. He will know he can do it.

God has nothing to prove to us, because he has already given us all the evidence we need -- our lives and talents, the planet and its riches, one another, and His Son. The rest of the evidence is up to us.

Amen.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Goodness Is Something Else: Advent 2013, Day Seven

In the December issue of Magnificat magazine, between Friday, December 6th evening prayer and Saturday, December 7th morning prayer, Heather King writes about Madeleine Delbêl (1904-1964), who has been called by some "a French Dorothy Day." In seeking to learn more about Delbêl, I found one of her books (We, the Ordinary People of the Streets) available electronically. The book begins with three prefaces and an introduction. In the first preface (to the English edition, by David L. Schindler, Dean Emeritus of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC), I found these two paragraphs:
"We have come to realize what dry bread justice is when it is not preceded by or completed with goodness. When public funds are distributed on the occasion of an accident, when they come to provide assistance with the burdens of having children, when they accompany old age, these subsidies, pensions, grants, and benefits correspond to a kind justice ... but they do not in any way substitute for goodness. In such cases, it is not James or John himself who, in his misfortune or well being, finds help; instead, it is a condition or situation that is helped. General measures regulate collective categories. I resist criticizing the justice that society is able to achieve; criticism serves better to provoke progress in what remains to be achieved. What I am trying to say is that goodness is something else, it achieves something else. For a person to encounter the goodness of Christ in another person is in particular to encounter that person for what he really is." (Madeleine Delbêl)
"This 'who we are,' which has been so manhandled by the world, possesses a value that is absolutely independent of wealth, power, smarts, influence, strength, and success. The goodness of Christ works with us; even more, it hopes for something from us, from each one of us. The goodness of Christ is above all something else: an encounter which affirms for us that we exist, which makes us present to ourselves, which walks alongside us in a common life." (David L. Schindler)
These lines brought to my mind a much more recent article by American journalist Chris Hedges that I read earlier today at the suggestion of a friend. Hedges too decries the depersonalization of the individual human being, even in a society that claims to value the individual but instead mistakes "personal style and personal advancement ... for individualism." A society like this creates, on the one hand, in Hedges' words, an abundance of "superfluous human beings" ("Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food") and on the other hand, categories of human beings who require society to provide them with justice rather than individual persons who need other individuals to be good to them.

Christ came to us as an individual human being, and during His life on Earth He approached us as individual human beings. He didn't wave his hand over the crowds and heal all the sick among them. Instead, He healed individual persons as they came to him, and still does. So, when He commands us (in John 15:12) to love one another as He has loved us, isn't this what He means?

Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Brief Prayer for the Sixth Day of Advent 2013

"On that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The lowly shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor shall rejoice and exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the tyrant will be no more, and the arrogant will have gone. All who are alert to do evil will be cut off -- those whose mere word condemns a man, who ensnare his defender at the gate, and leave the innocent and truly righteous with an empty plea. Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham: Jacob shall not then be ashamed ... when his children see the work of my hands in his midst. They shall ... be in awe of the God of Israel. Those who err in spirit will acquire understanding, and those who find fault will accept instruction." (From Isaiah 29:18-24)
This passage from the first Scripture reading at this morning's Mass intrigues me. Could it be that it implies not the absolute destruction of those who perpetrate all sorts of injustice -- poverty, tyranny, arrogance -- but rather their redemption -- by "the Lord, who redeemed Abraham"? Is it possible that (even in our own future) "the tyrant will be no more" and "the arrogant will have gone" not because they will have been destroyed but because they will have been transformed -- like "those who err in spirit," who will "acquire wisdom," and those who "find fault," who will now, instead, "accept instruction"? 

This is my prayer.

Amen.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

O Gracious Light: Advent 2013, Day Five


It was the second weekend of Advent 2008. I had said yes to spending several hours in adoration and prayer on the Saturday evening of a Rachel's Vineyard retreat being held at a monastery about twenty miles west of my home.

Dusk arrived and as I was preparing to leave my apartment, a wet, icy snow began to fall. Major accumulation had not been forecast, but driving conditions were predicted to be not good.

I set out anyway. For the second half of the trip, it was all I could do to keep my windshield clear. Nevertheless, I arrived safely at the monastery in time to begin my solo shift.

For two hours I prayed in front of the Mary-shaped monstrance holding the Body of my Lord in her heart. I worshipped with my whole body, flowing my limbs into every yoga posture I could remember, breathing deeply in and out as I held each position like the beads of a rosary, repeating the words not just with my mind but with my tongue and heart too, oblivious to what was happening outside the walls and windows of the cozy makeshift chapel.

When my shift was finished, a layer of snow and ice lay on the ground. A nun led me to a simple room in which I was to spend the night.

After preparing for bed and turning out the desk lamp, I parted the heavy curtains on the west-facing wall and looked out the room's only window. All I saw were three twinkling lights floating in the frigid, shimmering darkness. It wasn't until the morning that I could see they were perched atop tall lampposts in the monastery's parking lot.

I crawled into bed at about eleven o'clock. An hour later I awakened with these words in my mind: "Be not ashamed." They repeated over and over again like gently insistent bells. "Be not ashamed. Be not ashamed. Be not ashamed." Underneath or between or inside them was another voice: "Get up. Write this down."

So I did. Then I turned off the desk lamp again and slid back between the sheets. I was soon again asleep. In the morning, by the time I'd had a shower and eaten breakfast, the evidence of the previous night's storm had melted and I was able to return home--with a message I have never forgotten.

Oh Gracious Light, so pure and bright,
Dispel the darkness of our hearts
That by your brightness we may know the light

Incarnate Word, grant that the light
Deep enkindled in our hearts
May shine forth and give us divine life

Dayspring of life, true light from Light,
Pour into every broken heart
Peace and virtue, bind it by the light

O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed,
We sing thy praises in our hearts
God of heaven, giver of all life

Bring your peace, hope, and love
Bring your peace, Gracious One*

Amen.


*Lyrics from "O Gracious Light," The Brilliance, Advent, Vol. 2

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How to Make Ready to Receive the New-Born Jesus: Advent 2013, Day Four

"Earnestly indeed may you long for Christ's Advent, and prepare your heart to be his dwelling-place.... Jesus gives himself to none but those who anxiously look for him. Choice food is thrown away on such as cannot taste it, and so those who long not after God's presence cannot value him as they ought. Our Lord hears 'the desire of the poor' (Ps 10:17) and bends his ear to listen to the sighing of their hearts after him, for that is all he cares for in the children of men. When their sighs reach him, he comes into their souls ... [and] that which is conquered by love is kept by recollection and contemplation." (Saint John of Avila, from Letter to a Young Lady Telling Her How to Make Ready to Receive the New-Born Jesus)

"The believer is essentially 'one who remembers.'" (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 13)

"That which is conquered by love is kept by recollection and contemplation." Though it may seem that more often than not God does not answer my "sighs" in the manner in which I imagine He ought to, He always answers me with some sense of His presence, even if just in a memory of how I felt it on some other occasion. Such recollection never fails to be enough when I truly need it. In this way He allows me to conquer Him over and over again with my love and longing. And because He allows me to "bind" Him "by a single hair" (Song of Solomon 4:9 Douay-Rheims), I cannot help but continue to pursue and "keep" Him through contemplation.

In Advent and always.

Amen.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent 2013, Day Three

"If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor. 12:9)." (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 81)
I come to this current attempt at daily blogging not from a place of strength but with a tentative heart still broken in several places, fearful of exposing it to further misunderstanding and misuse. For the third day in a row, but more so today, it has been difficult to compose something that feels safe yet meaningful. All day I have been wondering why I have thought continuing this blog is necessary or desireable.

Partly from personal interest and partly in preparation for a work project, I have been reading Pope Francis's recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, "The Joy of the Gospel," and it is the paragraph quoted above that gave me courage to consider posting here today.

Then I looked back at the Lectionary for today's Mass, and found encouragement there as well, in the Communion Antiphon: "What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light, says the Lord. What you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops" (Matthew 10:27).

Yet even with these two trustworthy nudges, I was tempted to forgo posting here today. Then I happened to open up a blog post about a statue of Jesus' mother that the blog's author has fondly nicknamed Our Lady of Brokenness. She writes:
Most of us try and cover up our brokenness in life, even after healing, but I know in my own situation some of the scars are still visible and if I start to scratch at them then they begin to bleed again.

So I am happy to have this statue of Our Lady close to me in the morning and at night as a reminder of my fragility and weakness which I become more aware of as I age.

I sometimes see it in others as well, not because I look for it, but because I recognise traits of myself. However, I am consoled by the truth that if I also witness love in others it can only be because love dwells in me also.
So, I entrust all of the words in this blog (not just today's post) to you who, for whatever reason, are reading this, believing that if you perceive the love intended here, it is because you too have love in your heart, and praying that this mutual love, if it exists, will one day lead to wholeness, in our broken selves and in our broken relationships.

Amen.