Month: September 2020

The debate we need

I write this on the cool evening of September 29, prior to the first presidential debate of the general election. There was a time when I would have watched the debate with anticipation and enthusiasm. These days, however, debates are less about reason and rational argument and more about talking loud, interrupting and attacking an opponent.

Even though they didn’t debate in their 1860 presidential race, seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their 1858 Illinois senate race became part of American lore. The first presidential debates occurred in 1960 between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, followed sixteen years later in 1976 between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

The words conservative and liberal are sometimes distorted by a candidate that embraces one or the other to justify his or her position vis-a-vis another candidate. The words are sometimes weaponized by a candidate that uses one or the other as a label to disparage an opponent. Each of these words is worth redeeming. I’ll explore this theme in several October posts.

In what ways are you conservative? In what ways are you liberal?

“My Grandfather was a Republican Nominee Who Put Country First,” by Wendell L. Willkie II, The Atlantic, October 6, 2018 (photo by Murray Becker/AP)

A new monasticism

This post (#366) concludes a (leap) year of reflections. Today, two old fellows meet for the first presidential debate of the general election and a third old chap publishes a book that takes on both “latte liberals” and “inflexible right-wingers.” As we old codgers talk and write, I end this year of posts by yielding the floor to someone from the next generation: Adam Bucko, a 45-year-old faith leader who immigrated to the U.S. from Poland at age 17.

A monastic movement begun by Benedict of Nursia almost 1500 years ago helped save Christianity from extinction and helped save western civilization. Our planet could use a fresh dose of healing energy from a new, loose-knit group of monastics, who are both Christian and part of a larger interspiritual movement.

Adam Bucko is among this group. Richard Rohr describes him as “a devoted Christian contemplative, Episcopal priest, activist, and friend of the poor.” He serves Long Island’s Cathedral of the Incarnation and is co-founder of the Center for Spiritual Imagination and the Reciprocity Foundation.

I hear echos of earlier monastics such as Francis and Clare of Assisi in Bucko’s “Follow Your Heartbreak” contribution to Generation Y, Spirituality and Social Change, edited by Justine Afra Huxley (Jessica Kingsley Publishers: 2019), pp. 67-68, by way of Rohr:

… a lot of young people don’t actually identify with a tradition …. But … young people are not necessarily rejecting God, they simply feel that many religious organizations … are no longer able to speak to and address some of the big questions of our time. And it takes deep insight and spiritual courage to see that. … I don’t think of the rise of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ among our youth as a sign of spiritual decline but rather a new kind of spiritual awakening ….

Give me away

My friend Martha posted a Jewish meditation on Facebook that reflects our deep, transcendent unity. It came from Mishkan T’filah (“a dwelling place for prayer”), a Jewish prayer book. The meditation is a suggested reading in preparation for the kiddush, a series of prayers that includes sharing a cup of wine or grape juice–an ancestor of the Christian communion liturgy:

When I die give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother walking the street beside you.
And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give me.

I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds.
Look for me in the people I’ve known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not your mind.

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,
and by letting go of children that need to be free.
Love doesn’t die, people do.
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.

From “What is the Kiddush,” My Jewish Learning

Stretching our vision

A Jewish thanksgiving begins, “Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth….” This perspective–stretching prayer expresses gratitude to the Creator of all things. The prayer calls us to a global, universal, inclusive worldview, a revolutionary departure from local, parochial, tribal perspectives. This cosmic view challenges our too easy divisions into us versus them or good versus bad.

A global perspective facilitates the healing of brokenness and division. It builds bridges. A friend once said, “Psychosis is when there is no us, only them. Agape love is when there is no them, only us.” Abraham was called to bless all the families of the earth. Moses was called to challenge Pharaoh in the name of the Creator of the Universe.

Great advancements come when we move beyond our fragmented, dualistic ways, to think and act in holistic, unitive ways. The Israelites opened new possibilities for humanity by stretching our vision of the Universe.

From whence cometh our help?

Psalm 121.1-2 was sung by pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem. The 1611 King James Version translates it this way: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” Actually, it was a question sung by the leader to call attention to indigenous shrines on the hillsides that were considered pagan. The pilgrims responded with an implied, emphatic “No! My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.”

“From whence…” is archaic though useful. It can identify from what, from which, or from where. It can point to a source or place of origin, as in: “Where y’all from?”

From whence does our help come? Psalm 146 suggests we look beyond “princes” or leaders (such as legislative, executive and judicial offices) because they will disappoint us. Ultimately, we must look elsewhere. Notice the verbs below. Our unity is in the One Who Acts for us and for all creation and Who Calls Us to this kind of global (not tribal), universal love in action:

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help…. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. … The Lord sets the prisoners free … opens the eyes of the blind ,,,. lifts up those who are bowed down … loves the righteous….watches over the strangers …  upholds the orphan and the widow….

A really deep well

On Friday the 18th, as I wrote about the sabbath sunset, my wife sent a text message: “RGB died. Sad.” After finishing the post that evening, I listened to no news on Saturday. I needed some sabbath silence.

A letter written that Saturday by Richard Rohr was emailed Monday to his daily meditation subscribers. He quoted Etty Hillesum (1914-1943), a young Jewish woman who wrote from the Westerbork transit camp: “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. … And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.”

Rohr also cited Psalm 62 and “Second Coming,” by W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), written during World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. A sample:

The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

Rohr recommended as a spiritual practice for the next four months that subscribers “impose a moratorium on exactly how much news you are subject to–hopefully not more than an hour a day…. It will only tear you apart and pull you into the dualistic world of opinion and counter-opinion, not Divine Truth, which is always found in a bigger place.” Rohr concluded:

You have much to gain now and nothing to lose. Nothing at all. 
And the world--with you as a stable center--has nothing to lose. 
And everything to gain.

In a broken, chaotic world with lots of us-versus-them dualism, a unitive worldview requires the centered silence of a really deep well.

Toward discernment

A friend once said at age 101, “It goes better with me if I don’t eat so much. I’ve been a voracious reader, but I’m learning that it goes better with me if I don’t read so much. I believe the arc of aging bends toward discernment. As I get older, I’m discerning that less is more. Quality>Quantity.

You know some of the people who engage my mind and soul. Among the living, the old timers are Richard Rohr, George Will and Peggy Noonan. Some recent engagers include Cynthia Bourgeault and Mirabai Starr.

I worked in various faith communities from 1970 to 2019. It’s tempting to think of religion as a commodity with a competitive assortment of vendors. I’ve tried to view leaders of other faith communities as colleagues, not competitors. I realized one day that I was prideful by thinking or saying, “We’re not as competitive as they are.” I laughed at myself. Recently, Miraibai Starr caused me to ponder long with this challenging sentence:

“We are conditioned to treat the spiritual life as another commodity, rather than as a discipline of inner transformation with a corresponding commitment to alleviating suffering in the world.” (From God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, quoted by Rohr.)

From “Transformation vs Change,” by Scott Breslin


Some good friends and close relatives will vote (or have voted already) for Donald Trump for one reason–judicial appointments that are perceived to be “conservative.” I have a dissenting opinion, but I respect their decisions.

I favor nuclear disarmament in the Senate. A 60-vote threshold encourages more bi-partisanship and less rancorous see-sawing. Today’s politics is a way to grab and hold power rather than a way to achieve national unity.

A sensible and centered Supreme Court is one of our best assets. Moves far to the left or far right weaken our national fabric. My great civic hope and confidence is that the judiciary will survive this era of polarized politics.

The Constitution designed the U.S. Supreme Court to be independent of the president that appoints the justices. Earl Warren and Frank Johnson were republicans appointed by Eisenhower. Harry Blackmun was a republican appointed by Nixon. Franklin Roosevelt’s first appointee, Hugo Black, a democrat, had a long, mixed record (to say the least).

Sadly, the death of Justice Ginsburg has ramped partisan campaigning and fundraising. She is the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.

From “R.I.P., R.B.G. What’s Next?” by Lisa Lerer, New York Times, September 21, 2020 (photo of her seat at the Supreme Court, draped in black, by Getty Images)

A deeper unity

About 30 years ago, son Rob was on a T-Ball team. Parents divvied up duties and that day I was the scorekeeper, which is the least important duty at a T-Ball game, paling in comparison to bringing the after-game refreshments.

We sometimes put great energy into keeping score, even when it doesn’t really matter. For me, in golf, “par” means I found as many balls in the rough as I lost. What matters is the time spent with friends.

Former Florida member of Congress Joe Scarborough likes to quote Illinois Senator Paul Simon (1928-2003), who said, “In Washington, sometimes, when you win, you lose, and sometimes, when you lose, you win.”

The reference linked above was in 2005, after Senator John McCain (1936-2018) convened a bi-partisan group of 14 senators who agreed on a compromise about judicial appointments which avoided the “nuclear option” mentioned in yesterday’s post. McCain said, “The Senate won. The country won.”

Some things are more important than winning or losing a partisan debate–such as keeping the nation together.

Captain John McCain, U.S.N., released after 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp

The next dance

Sometimes in a relationship, things stay together or fall apart little by little–be it a couple, a family, a business, an institution or a nation. A decision may not seem huge at the time, but in retrospect, it may turn out to be a big step toward unity or a big step toward brokenness.

Apparently it was President James Buchanan (1791-1868) who first called the U.S Senate “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” The Senate traditionally required a 60% majority to confirm presidential appointees, necessitating some bi-partisanship in its advise and consent role.

Since 1957, there have been proposals to change it to a 51% majority, a move called the “nuclear option” by Senator Trent Lott. It finally happened in 2013, when Senator Harry Reid and the democrats changed the rule except for appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a dance step away from bi-partisan governance, a move away from national unity.

In 2017, facing strong opposition to the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the high court, Senator Mitch McConnell and the republicans changed the rule to include U.S. Supreme Court appointees. The “nuclear option” and the abandonment of the Senate’s regular order have made dancing impossible for what was once known as the world’s greatest deliberative body.

The Senate–and the country–needs some dancing lessons.

From “The Nuclear Option: What It Is and Why It Matters,” by Alex Seitz-Wald, NBC News, April 3, 2017.