Month: November 2020

It depends on us

Often, I’m pecking at my laptop. my wife is knitting and listening via earphones to an audio book, while Friar naps or initiates a ball game.

If I finish a post during normal hours, I share it with the book listener. Sometimes she pauses her book to tell me about a passage she finds interesting.

Cathey has been listening to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Hell and Other Destinations. In response to yesterday’s post, she shared Albright’s criticism of President Trump’s impact on morale among career civil servants in the State and Defense departments, intelligence agencies and the military. Then, Albright turned to our responsibility as citizens, saying it depends on us more than on him:

“… I have devoted this much space to Trump only because he is so hard to escape. … When I’m asked to discuss him …. I tell myself to remain calm, because who wants to spend their final years in a bad mood? What I honestly don’t know as I write this (early in 2020) is whether the harm he is causing to America’s reputation, interests, and ability to rally others will prove temporary or lasting. The good news–at least, I pray it is good–is that the answer to that question depends far less on him than it does on us.”

“I was raised a Catholic, married an Episcopalian, and (in 1996) found out I was Jewish. So I can have my religious discussions sitting in a corner.” (This quote from her book is part of an article/podcast, “Derek Mitchell & Secretary Madeleine Albright on her past and democracy’s future,” by Max Sycamore, DemocracyWorks, June 9, 2020.)

A different tone

On Friday evening, I turned on the television to catch some news. MSNBC’s Ali Velshi was conversing with Jennifer Rubin, an opinion writer for The Washington Post. Velshi asked, “Where does reconciliation come in? Or does it? … We are a divided country. … Where does it begin where people say, ‘We have lived a weird few years. How do we get back onto something that feels like pluralism and is a democracy that is shared by all Americans?'”

Rubin replied, “Well, for one thing, it does start at the top. I think everything Joe Biden has done since he was declared the winner really reflects that sentiment, that we’re one country, we’re one people. We have great challenges. We have to work together. So, I think one way of bridging these gaps is a different tone from Washington, D.C. … At least from the President and his appointees you’re going to get that message.” Then, a look inward:

“Part of this personal. We have to do it in our own communities, in our own organizations, our own churches, our own synagogues, our own state and local governments, which can operate with a lot less acrimony than we do at the federal government. So, I think the task of reconciliation … is a huge issue. It’s not simply a matter of government …. It’s really up to all of us in our personal and our communal lives.”

I’m up for this. I’ll try to be part of setting a different tone. If these posts fail to embrace this larger theme of reconciliation, I welcome your feedback. We’re in this together.

Here’s a surprisingly relevant opinion piece from Ghana in June 29, 2004, hoping the U.S. example of former presidents being gracious to one another would be practiced there: “Who Sets The Tone For Reconciliation?

Memory as sanctuary

Everyone needs a safe, quiet place. I have several. Some are spacial or geographical. Others are “back there” in my memory or in our collective memory that we call history. During 2020, sometimes I have retreated to a sanctuary for sanity or renewal when our president has done something particularly outrageous or offensive, or when the pandemic’s disruption or dislocation became painful.

If you find solace and healing by connecting with persons from our common memory vault, I offer three stories by historian Christopher Flannery, adapted from a November 6 online lecture at Hillsdale College and printed as “Mystic Chords of Memory: Learning From the American Story” in the November 2020 issue of Hillsdale’s publication Imprimis.

Flannery gives three snapshots into the lives of Helen Keller, John Wayne and Ely Parker. If you find yourself in need of a pick-me-up this winter, I invite you to read, or re-read, one or more of these snapshots, particularly Flannery’s telling of Keller’s friendship with Mark Twain. A flavor:

“…he spoke so deliberately that I could get almost every word with my fingers on his lips. Ah, how sweet and poignant the memory of his soft slow speech playing over my listening fingers. His words seemed to take strange lovely shapes on my hands. His own hands were wonderfully mobile and changeable under the influence of emotion. It has been said that life has treated me harshly; and sometimes I have complained in my heart because many pleasures of human experience have been withheld from me, but when I recollect the treasure of friendship that has been bestowed upon me I withdraw all charges against life. If much has been denied me, much, very much has been given me. So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart I shall say that life is good.”

1955 photo of Helen Keller (1880-1968) by Fred Stein (1909-1967), Getty Images/Fred Stein Archive

Honor Roll

On this day, in this year, let’s give thanks for the people who are helping us through a global pandemic, such as the custodians, orderlies, EMTs, volunteers, and other medical staff who work behind the scenes, as well as nurses, aides, technicians, therapists, physicians, and their families.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in and around a senior facility where my aunt resides. Additional paperwork and safety protocols have added to the staff’s workload as they operate with increased regulations and scrutiny. I’m grateful for hospice and home health care professionals.

In normal times, teaching is another difficult job that’s not always appreciated. COVID-19 has added another level of hazard to this duty and to the roles of other education staff, such as bus drivers and custodial, kitchen, and office personnel.

It’s been a tough year for all kinds of front line employees and business owners who’ve struggled to adapt to new distance and sanitation regimens.

We’re indebted to civil servants, non-profit staffs and volunteers, law enforcement personnel, firefighters and those who serve in the military for working under increased stress and with greater personal risk.

Families, neighbors and sometimes strangers have stepped into the breach to help children and their parents, as well as elderly family members and those with special needs.

There’s much about 2020 that we would gladly erase from our memories, but let’s always remember these and countless others on our Honor Roll.

Coronavirus cartoons: Honoring healthcare workers, the heroes amid the pandemic,” by Dylan Bouscher, The Mercury News, April 1, 2020 (cartoon by Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Gratitude Day

It may be just a figure of speech, but when I hear someone refer to “Turkey Day,” it feels like the holiday has been demoted. I understand some people are uncomfortable with the religious basis for this day. It’s not my style to foist my faith on a resident of the Secular City, but some themes transcend religion–such as simple, basic gratitude. For me, today is Gratitude Day.

Long ago I heard John Claypool (1930-2005) at a community Thanksgiving Service. He said it makes all the difference whether one sees a glass as half full or half empty. He re-framed this common (some would say trite) saying. I believe that to see a glass as half full is an important, universal principle that knows no boundary of time, geography, race, gender, or religion.

I believe loneliness, the feeling of separateness, can cause us to see a glass as half empty. The pandemic has brought us lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing and (most tragically) dying alone. We feel separated.

I’m helped by Richard Rohr’s insistence that separateness is an illusion. We are never alone, though this has been tough to remember in 2020: “We must all overcome the illusion of separateness. It is the primary task of religion to communicate … union, to reconnect people to their original identity…. God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship.”

Tomorrow: Gratitude for those who are helping us through the pandemic.

Recently, I ran across an 11-minute video by John Claypool, “Ambiguity and Gratitude” in which he describes the power of gratitude as a choice in the midst of difficult situations.

My new senator

This Thanksgiving Eve, in addition to faith, family, friends, food, and freedom, my gratitude list includes Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts. Also: masks, which protect us and hide my nose from the sun, shielding the spot once occupied by a squamous cell carcinoma. With a mask, I don’t need to shave as often, which is a blessing to be counted.

I’m thankful for my new senator-elect, Tommy Tuberville. I didn’t vote for him. I expect we’ll disagree often, but he will be my senator. This is America. I’m sure those who voted for Donald Trump feel the same way about President-elect Joe Biden and will respect him as their president. I’m grateful for every thread of national unity. As with peace on earth, “Let it begin with me.” Let it begin with us.

My Senator-elect’s first national exposure revealed that he has a new set of “X’s” and “O’s” to learn. He mis-identified the three branches of government. In a brief CNN video that included several of his gaffes, CNN’s Dana Bash graciously concluded, “He’s a coach, a sports guy. He has some learning to do.” I’m grateful for life, and for the opportunity to be a life-long learner. God bless us everyone.

From, “In the Weeds w/ Tommy Tuberville, Alabama’s Next Senator,” by Todd Stacy, Alabama Daily News, November 13, 2020 (photo: WFSA 12 News)

A lot of real estate

2020: Never will so much be said about a year that so many would like to forget. For me, 2020 is The Year of the False Dichotomy. A false dichotomy is a situation in which two alternative points of view are presented as the only options, when others are available.

A synonym for false dichotomy is “fallacy of the excluded middle,” which is my image of this strange year. Some 160 million+ voters were divided. We live in the same country but there’s much real estate between us, much about each other that we don’t understand.

We live in the “information age,” but 2020 has seen more than its share of dis-information. Fact-checking has become a global growth industry. A Spanish sports publication “fact-checked” the infamous Rudy Guiliani/Sidney Powell press conference. A Spanish sports publication!

One tragic false dichotomy of 2020 has been the false choice between health or prosperity. Some politicians have avoided masking, distancing, sanitizing, testing and tracing for fear of shutting down the economy. But, health is the way to prosperity

Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist, told New York Times reporter David Leonhardt, “Unfortunately, the debate has sometimes devolved into these two camps–you’re either pro-lockdown or ‘let ‘er rip.’ There’s a lot of real estate between those two positions.”

From “Virus Words vs. Actions,” by David Leonhardt, New York Times, November 19, 2020


Advent, from the Latin word that means “coming,” is the four weeks before Christmas. It’s a season of preparation, anticipation, waiting. The words of Old Testament prophets figure prominently in these four weeks as communities of faith wait with hope. Advent begins on November 29, but I’m getting a head start. I’m going to go ahead now and practice waiting.

Each year, faith communities re-live biblical stories of yearning, or waiting. It’s an observance by choice. We remember times when the ancients were in exile or suffering from other oppressions, pining for better days. Most years, when I’ve gone through this exercise, life has been relatively easy, prosperous and peaceful. Waiting has been voluntary. But, 2020 is different.

With COVID-19, Advent waiting is not a choice. It’s not something we take on voluntarily as a spiritual exercise. In 2020, Advent is where we are, ready or not, want it or not. I told a friend and colleague last week that this is a great opportunity for people of faith to lead the way, to show the way, to demonstrate the art of waiting for our planet that is now forced for wait.

One example: Anxiously, we wait for Coronavirus vaccines to be produced. But, this need not be a passive act as we wait for vaccines to rescue us. The vaccines are expected to be 90 to 95% effective. While we wait, we can wear face masks that are believed to be 50 to 75% effective (95% for N95). This is active waiting, pro-active waiting. We wait, but as people with agency, with power.

From “Take Control of Your Life: The Concept of Agency and Its Four Helpers,” Pattison Professional Counseling and Meditation Center, January 31, 2015

A little Richard

Readers of this blog know that Richard Rohr, now 77, has been a formative figure for me, especially during the past decade, in this chapter of my life that I loosely call “retirement.” He has been for me, and for many people, a prophetic voice for our times. I was part of a group that spent three days with him at his Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque just before the publication of his book Falling Upward. It was like finding a roadmap when you were looking for direction in an unfamiliar place.

My first read of the day is the daily meditation emailed from the Center for Action and Contemplation. Increasingly, Richard draws in other writers, particularly other CAC faculty members. Wednesday’s meditation by Cynthia Bourgeault, “The Kingdom as Consciousness,” was especially helpful to me. Here’s a little Cynthia:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). It’s not later, but lighter–some more subtle quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t have to die into it; you awaken into it….

The Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place….

Rohr’s Living School: rescuing and teaching the Christian mystical traditions,” by Jamie Manson, National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2013

Cleaning up a train wreck

Peggy Noonan is a beacon of conservative wisdom in the midst of the train wreck of Donald Trump’s derailment of an erstwhile honorable party. Her Thursday Wall Street Journal columns are available free a day or so later at her website, including this week’s “A Bogus Dispute Is Doing Real Damage.” Here are some salient points:

I found myself thinking this week of the 1960s and the John Birch Society, which had some power in its day as an anticommunist movement … In time they accused Dwight D. Eisenhower … of being a secret communist agent.

Rising conservative leaders, embarrassed by the Birchers, didn’t wish to see their movement tainted. They also didn’t want to alienate voters who sympathized with the Birchers: Every movement has its nuts.

The John Birch Society faded because all these conservative leaders, and more, sort of congealed and took the larger weight of their movement in other directions. …

… What would have happened if the John Birch Society had been online … in the internet age when accusations, dark warnings and violent talk can rip through a country in a millisecond …?

It wouldn’t have faded. It would have prospered.