Passing the Torch

Reflections on the Journey


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Of Sonograms, Ahab, and the Right to Choose

The young woman, daughter of a struggling single mother in our church, came to my 41259138_10215320604042836_1044465149362044928_noffice with a cloud of confusion surrounding her. She had just discovered she was pregnant, and her young lover—backed by his family and their money—was demanding that she have an abortion.

“I don’t know what to do, Pastor,” she said. “I feel like I’m too young to care for a baby, and I know I won’t get any help from his family if I decide to give birth. I’ve got so many feelings. Mostly I’m angry…pissed off at him and myself for not being more careful. But I’m also afraid and sad…”

Her voice trailed off as she hung her head and quietly cried. After a few moments, she looked up at me.

“What do you think I should do, Pastor?” she asked.

“First of all,” I said, “please know that whatever you decide, I will always support you.”

“I appreciate that,” she said, “but still, what do YOU think I should do?”

“I am deeply opposed to abortion,” I said. “My personal belief is that life begins at conception, and that the genetic material setting the stage for your child’s life is already present. I feel it is wrong to violently end what God has begun in the womb. But I also believe that as a man I can’t make decisions about what women decide to do with their bodies and their futures. That is why I am pro-choice, even though abortion seems tragic to me. If you can’t care for this baby, you might consider adoption as an alternative. But I truly mean this…whatever you decide is between you and God. I will always support you.

“What does your mother think?”

“She kind of surprised me. I expected her to freak out and lecture me, but she said that even though she would help with a baby, the decision was ultimately up to me.”

She sat up straighter in her chair, and it struck me how the magnitude of this choice was weighing on the shoulders of a 16-year-old teenager. She would never be the same.

“Thank you for sharing with me,” she said. “I still don’t know what I am going to do, but I appreciate everyone’s concern.”

“Of course,” I said. “You can talk to me any time you wish.”

I listened some more as she spoke about her relationship with her boyfriend. Then we had a prayer together and she left.

That memory returned recently when I saw a sonogram of the twins inside my daughter-in-law’s womb. My grandchildren are taking shape so quickly–small human beings, their features emerging. I’ve heard the arguments regarding unwanted infants born into poverty. I fully realize that the world is plagued by overpopulation, and that millions of children go hungry or suffer from violence. Still, a child in the womb is one-of-a-kind, an emerging creation like no other. What a miracle!

The confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh have emboldened anti-abortion campaigners, most of them angry, self-righteous men. I read a comment in a recent editorial. It said that overturning Roe. v. Wade has become like Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick. Some will pursue it any way they can, supporting politicians whose morals are contrary to everything else they believe. In this one area—limiting a woman’s choice—they have the narrow-minded zeal of jihadists.

For myself, I hold fast to a key component of my faith tradition—that God has given each of us the sanctity of our own conscience, free from the dictates of other human beings.

That young woman made her decision, then returned to church two weeks later. I welcomed her with a hug.

 

 

 

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That Damn List on the Altar

She calls it her altar—a small, squat table at one end of her bedroom. Every morning, she sits on a pillow in front of it, lights a candle or two, and practices mindfulness, bringing OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAherself into the Presence. The altar is lovingly decorated with icons from her spiritual adventures around the globe: a spray of white sage gifted by a member of the Taos Pueblo, a Mayan-style amulet from a shaman in Cusco, a Celtic cross from the Iona Community in Scotland, a picture of her and her “sisters” dancing under a full moon near the ruins of Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

And then there’s the list. “That damn list,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. It was sent to her recently by close members of her family, a step-by-step outline of how to find the salvation that comes “only” through Jesus Christ.

When she received it in the mail, it stabbed her heart with multiple levels of grief. She knew once again that her path and the path of her loved ones were continuing to diverge. She knew that despite her efforts to foster mutual acceptance, there was no room for her brand of spirituality in their eyes. She grieved because love in all its fullness would not be mutually experienced in their relationship.

But she also felt the bile of anger, an acid taste that surprised her. It told her that she had not fully healed from her time among conservative Christians. She felt twinges of animosity towards their “our way is the only way” theology. She resented their efforts to reduce her rich complexity to either/or categories, a sickness she sees in our world at large, especially America. She even felt some recrimination towards herself for all the energy she has expended seeking the approval of others.

So, what did she do? She placed the list in a prominent place on her altar, unavoidable whenever she sits down to meditate.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because that list represents an area in my life that still needs healing, a buried resentment that is keeping me from freedom. My goal is that someday very soon, I will look at that list with only unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion towards my family, praying that God will surround them with the grace that leads to acceptance.”

Then she chuckled. “Meanwhile, I call it that damn list.”

After our conversation, I sat in my study and mulled her words. I recalled the countless times I have counseled people about the need for forgiveness during my decades of ministry. I thought of the metaphors I have used, including my favorite from Lewis Smedes, the “forgiveness guru.”

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

I ask you, dear reader: do you have a “list” in your life? A memory of a person or incident that stakes a dark claim to territory in your mind and spirit? If so, I ask you to seize the truth so clearly demonstrated in my friend’s life. Growing spiritually requires discipline and focus. We can heal, but it takes mindfulness. Moreover, the tools we need can be found in many world traditions and faiths.

Though my friend will not be called “Christian” according to any orthodox definition, her reason for pondering that “damn” list is one of the most Christ-like behaviors I have encountered in years.

As Jesus reportedly said, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”


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The Angel Who Climbed into My Truck

Still damp from my workout, I pulled out of the gym’s parking lot. There she was on the opposite sidewalk: a woman in her seventies, rail thin, wraith-like, wearing a loose house dress and simple white sandals. She clutched a spray of pink flowers and a large purple wallet against her chest. Her hair—dirty blonde and streaked with gray—fell in wet strands to her shoulders.
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I have no AC in my beat-up truck, so my windows were wide open for every breath of air. As I came to the stop sign, she looked across the street at me with imploring eyes.

“Do you know where 909 Cloverdale is?” she called out.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said.

“Oh dear,” she exclaimed, “I seem to be lost.”

I checked my rearview mirror. No cars.

“Tell you what,” I said, “Let me turn back around through the parking lot, check the address on my phone, then give you a ride.”

Her eyes brightened.

“If you don’t mind. That would be wonderful!”

I googled the coordinates and made a U-turn. She walked—no, glided—across the pavement to my passenger side door. She struggled to get into my truck’s high seat, so I reached across and firmly gave her a hand. A smell like lavender and vanilla filled my musty cab.

As I began the drive, she made whispery comments.

“This looks a bit familiar…wait, no…was that where we were supposed to turn…no, here…maybe…I just don’t know…Lord…”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve got the address. When we get there, you can tell me if it’s the right home. If not, we will find it. I promise.”

The house was a couple twisting miles away, and as we got closer, questions came to mind. Had she wandered away from a care home? Should I call someone? 

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Evelyn,” she said. “And what’s yours?

“Krin.”

“That’s unusual. I’ve never heard that one before.”

“Neither have I,” I said with a grin. “It’s taken awhile to grow into that uniqueness.”

She laughed, and her wrinkles seemed to dissolve, the face of a younger woman peering out as if from underwater.

“Where did you get the flowers?” I asked.

As if she’d forgotten them, she stared down, lifting them to her nose.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but aren’t they beautiful?”

“They surely are. You have excellent taste.”

She tilted her head like a small curtsy, and then we reached the address.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “That’s it!”

Immediately, she was all business, straightening her dress over her knees, clutching her bouquet and pocketbook to her chest, sliding to the sidewalk. Was this really the house?

“Do you want me to walk to the door with you?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “that’s not necessary.”

“Well, goodbye Evelyn. It was a pleasure to meet you.”

“Thank you for your kindness, sir,” she said, her eyes going inward for a moment as if probing. “Krin, right?”

“Yes.”

She smiled, walked to the door, fumbled in her purse, extracted a key, then opened it with ease. I idled at the curb, waiting. She turned, smiled, waved the bouquet like a bridesmaid at a wedding, then was gone.

As I drove away, I recalled a verse from Hebrews. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

It was such a simple favor to offer, yet all the way home I felt wings on my shoulders.


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Building, Not Burning

Is this penchant born of my former profession, or a natural part of my personality? I suspect the latter, but here it is: I constantly see metaphors in the world around us.

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My wife and I have been watching a documentary called Kingdoms of the Sky. It overviews landscapes, animals, and people that inhabit the Andes, Rocky Mountains, and Himalaya.

The Andes episode startled us with facts and images: birds that nest in glaciers; Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat that becomes an immense natural mirror when glazed with rain, reflecting clouds by day and the Milky Way by night.

Then came the portion that screamed METAPHOR! It chronicles four family groups (tribes) that trace their lineage to the Incas. Separated by peaks and chasms, they come together annually to build Q’eswachaka, the last surviving example of a woven Inca suspension bridge. Recognized by UNESCO for its “intangible cultural heritage,” Q’eswachaka spans a section of Collasuyo, an ancient Inca road that connects Cusco to Titicaca.

Building the bridge is a three-day, communal project, performed annually because harsh seasons erode last year’s work. Villagers of all ages harvest grass that forms the rope’s fiber, then weave it into strong cords using pre-Columbian techniques. Priests bless the process with offerings and prayers in Quechua, dedicating the effort to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

The metaphor is that the bridge leads to community, and it raises a vexing question. In our culture separated by peaks and chasms of race, class, and ideology, will we ever find ways to build new connections?

This insidious division affects all of us. Like many Americans, I am tempted to “write off” whole groups of people. Be honest. How about you?

Mitt Romney did it when he said, “There are 47 percent of the people who…are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.…These are people who pay no income tax. …and so my job is not to worry about those people.”

Hillary Clinton did it when she said, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables…some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully, they are not America.”

I’m not immune to these broadsides. I feel like saying, “If you shrug at the separation of women from their children on the border, or want to strip reproductive rights from women, or support the proliferation of AR-15 blueprints for 3-D printers, then ‘unfriend me’ now. We don’t live in the same universe!”

At those exact moments, I succumb to the cancer; I have become part of the problem, not the solution.

Let’s not burn be bridge burners. Let’s challenge ourselves (once again) to build new ones, no matter how difficult. Let’s establish space, both literally and in our souls, where we can listen to others no matter how disparate their views. For me, this means returning to the core of my beliefs: Ahimsa, Matthew 5:43-38, and M.L.K., Jr., saying “The chain reaction of hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars, must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

Back to the Andes. For the tribes building Q’eswachaka, it is a sacred expression of their bond with nature, tradition, and history. Their shared work reestablishes communication and strengthens bonds that are centuries old.

The final image in the Inca segment shows an aged woman carefully making her way across the bridge, the abyss below her, secure in her knowledge that she is supported by the communion of four different communities.

 Now THAT’s a metaphor!


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The Dust

Clouds of Saharan red dust,
sediment of Cretaceous seas,
now swarming over the Atlantic
and settling on Mexico…

Where a young man at a fútbol match in Monterrey,
rubs his irritated eyes
and lifts his cellphone assembled in China
to post a picture on Instagram…

Which is seen by a girl standing on a beach in Iceland,
its current warmed by the Gulf Stream
from half a planet away.
She turns to wave at her father,
who smiles and lifts his thermos
filled with ancient glacial water.

Clouds of Saharan red dust…
and the air we breathe could be remnants from Caesar’s last gasp
or the final exhalation of Jesus.
And the constellations that grace deep space
are the same seen by Cleopatra,
and slaves in Confederate fields,
and our ancestors from Olduvai Gorge
when they lifted their faces to the heavens.

Clouds of Saharan red dust…
relentless, sifting, covering everything
like silt in the Marianas Trench
or snow atop Mt. Everest
or vines on a Mayan stela
still undiscovered in a primeval forest.

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That Woman I Met on Facebook…

A friend of mine deleted his Facebook account. “This time it’s final,” he says. “The data 36228603_1876199662459886_1427109008442916864_nscandal with Cambridge Analytica was only part of it. I’m tired of the political bickering, the melodrama about every world event, the self-righteousness, the shameless self-promotion, the idiotic memes. Social media has become an addictive obsession with little lasting value. Jeez, get a life and stop scrolling on your phone!”

O.K. I see all of that. Yet, for me, the benefits far outweigh the annoyances. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have broadened my horizons immensely. I have reconnected with old friends, stayed in touch with far flung relatives, gained practical advice by crowd-sourcing with colleagues, received inspiration from others in recovery.

Perhaps most delightfully, I have made new friends in unexpected ways. Desi Mo is a perfect example. We first met through a Facebook page called Casa: An Experiment in Doing Church Online, a progressive spiritual site for which I did some writing.

Immediately, Desi’s joy for living leaped off the screen! Her photographs of sunrises, sunsets, and sweeping beaches stir my spirit. Her yoga poses, a discipline she teaches to others, give me a sense of tranquility. Her dispatches while vacationing on Paradise Island carry me far from hot and humid Texas to an idyllic stretch of sand in the Bahamas. Her soulful devotion to her family makes me want to connect more deeply with my own loved ones.

In the midst of Facebook firestorms, Desi’s social media presence exudes an inner peace and harmony. When I read her words like “Accept life’s impermanence and grab all the blissful moments as they meander by,” or “frame your day with love,” I know these aren’t superficial memes. They are direct expressions of her joie de vivre. My wife and I are planning a trip to Toronto next year, and Desi and her husband have invited us to visit their home just north of that great city. We will!

For this post, I asked Desi to also share some comments about our online friendship.

“Krin has brought Texas to my front door, along with intimate moments shared with his family. His photos depict warmth and empathy. I admire his ministry, and the stories about his family have so much care and compassion. We share an interest for traveling and photography; his blogs and postings come alive and are intertwined with textures and raw emotions. Of course, he possesses a talent with words and I admire that he shares it. This was made possible through social media, which feels like magic to me. With a little click, I am transported into a different place and time that I can enjoy for a brief moment. And sometimes I carry the emotions with me for the rest of the day…especially when it is a smile shared from Kristoffer, Krin’s special needs son. The beauty of technology! A treasure in our time.”

So, does Facebook work? It does for Desi, for me, and for countless other people. I speak for both of us when I say that we want to use our Facebook pages to spread more love, peace, and unifying friendship. Carpe diem, friends!


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Authority with a small a

We’ve all seen big A authority in action. Physicians who treat their staff and patients like authorityplebeians. Clergy who wear their robes as emblems of power. Politicians who operate like they’re above the people who elected them. Professors who respond to classroom questions with smugness. Supervisors who pull rank to mask their insecurities.  Those who insist on reminding us of the letters before or after their names (Rev., Dr., Honorable, Ph.D.)

Big A authority shouts EGO (edging God out). It is the province of small minds, small hearts, small spirits. Ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, it is a delusion from which its practitioners have not yet awakened. Many of them never do.

When I encounter big A authority, I flee in the opposite direction. If I see it in a physician, I find a new clinic. If I hear it from a pulpit, I find a new church. If I sense it in a professor, I drop the class.

Thankfully, there is also authority with a small a. It is a quality we willingly bestow on others, not a surrender to forcible demands. You can see it many ways.

  • Physicians whose bedside manner is like a warm hearth, their genuine compassion working in tandem with staff and patients.
  • Clergy who, like Jesus, metaphorically take off their robes and lift up the basin and towel to wash the feet of others.
  • Politicians who regularly spend time with the neediest of their constituents, not just for photo ops at campaign time.
  • Professors who believe there are no dumb questions, and that learning of any type is an advancement in life’s miracles.
  • Supervisors whose doors are always open and who make it their mission to see others succeed.
  • Anyone who shows us—without pretension—that what they have to share with us was learned in the school of life, sometimes painfully, and not just in the ivory towers of academia.

Obviously, I’m talking about humility, a quality we obtain when we are least aware of it. As Martin Luther once said, “True humility does not know that it is humble. If it did, it would be proud from the contemplation of so fine a virtue.” It happens when we lose ourselves in Spirit and service rather than self-promotion. Call it self-forgetting, self-denial, or even bliss and joy. By any name, it is the hallmark of a highly developed character.

I adhere to many faiths; no “religion” has a corner on truth. That said, I have always loved the closing verses of what Christians call The Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’s teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. It crystallizes the core principles of the Nazarene’s life and ministry, including his call to love our enemies.

At the end of those verses, we hear, “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

I get that. I really get that. The challenge will always be to live it.