Monday, September 11, 2023

Meet me at Mary's Place

I spent this weekend on retreat with other members of my church, talking about how to strengthen communities under the guidance of the extraordinary Sister Simone Campbell.

The second requirement for prophetic communities, Sister Simone told us, might be the hardest of all: the need to “touch the pain of the world as real.” That is, experience it without trying to fix it; letting it break your heart. “Having a broken heart makes room for everyone.”

This morning I’m sitting two blocks from the Pentagon, remembering that day 22 years ago, letting it break my heart again. Nothing we have done in the last two decades has made an attack like that any less likely. It might be minimally more difficult to execute a plan like the 9/11 attack than it was in 2001, but no one who was truly determined could be deterred. All deterrence measures assume that the attackers want to survive. That wasn’t true in 2001, and it’s not true now.

So how do we live broken-hearted? What are we supposed to do, if not try to fix things? We are supposed to build community. We are supposed to broaden that community. We are supposed to love our enemies, even when they lie and persecute us. The instructions are right there in the New Testament. Jesus gave them to us, and he was not equivocal. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

How do we form that community? We come together with radical acceptance. We listen. We celebrate. Coming together makes hope possible, because — as Sister Simone reminded us — hope is a communal virtue.

Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising, which I always listen to on this day, gets it. It starts with a lonesome day; it moves on to Mary’s Place.

            Tell me, how do you live brokenhearted?

            Meet me at Mary’s place. We’re gonna have a party.


Turn it up. 



Monday, March 28, 2022

A Homily on the Prodigal Son

I missed going to church during the pandemic lockdown in 2020. I'm a haphazard and occasionally defiant Catholic, but that's kind of the point. In college, a Jesuit suggested that sin and redemption might be a dialectic process that brings us toward God. I wouldn't want to go too far down that road, but it comforted me at the time. 

Anyway I found a faith community that suited me, a non-diocesan parish in Northern Virginia that was holding Mass online. They've been a lovely, welcoming, safe group, one of my pandemic treasures. Liturgy planning is a cooperative effort with a regular rota of order priests, the "padre cadre." A few Sundays a year, we don't have a priest, and instead of Mass we have a community-led liturgy. We had one yesterday, for the fourth Sunday of Lent, and I got to be part of the planning team. Not only that, but I got to give the sermon. 

Yesterday's Gospel was Luke's telling of the story of the Prodigal Son — but instead of beginning with the words of Jesus, as we usually hear that story (Luke 15:11), the reading included Luke's own reporting about Jesus's audience and purpose. That piece of the story feels meaningful to me, so that's what I talked about. And since I'm unlikely to do this again, I share the homily here for anyone who might need it. 

* * * * *

I am a writer and an editor, working in a broad range of environments—I work on everything from legislative hearings to social media posts about sports. It’s all storytelling, and my first question on every project is, “Who is this for?” Who’s the audience, and what is the audience supposed to do with this communication? 


I was so glad that we got this version of the Prodigal Son story today, because the chapter opens with Luke telling us who the audience for this story was: not the tax collectors and sinners, who were already hanging out with Jesus and listening to what he had to say, but the Pharisees and scribes, who were complaining about Jesus spending his time and wisdom on people they found unworthy.


When we hear a parable or a fable, we identify with a character based on the lesson we think we’re supposed to learn. The most obvious message of the story of the Prodigal Son is that God will always forgive us and welcome us home. That is a powerful message, and that is a message we all need to hear, that God offers this absolute and radical forgiveness. But the way that Luke frames this story makes it clear that this was not the only message Jesus was trying to deliver, and was maybe not even the most important message for the audience he was addressing.


The people Jesus was speaking to were the people in the position of the faithful son. And what does the father say to the faithful son? He says, “You are with me always, and all I have is yours.”   


You are with me always, and all I have is yours. Not half. Not “your share.” All I have is yours. 


This is what Jesus was telling the Pharisees and scribes: all God has is yours. The forgiveness of the prodigal takes nothing away from you.


I grew up in a family of six children. We fought constantly over “fair shares.” My father threatened to get a food scale to make sure that nobody got even a little bit more ice cream than anybody else. God does not need to do that, because God is infinite. God’s love is infinite. God’s forgiveness is absolute. God’s forgiveness of and love for other people takes nothing away from us. And God invites us, like the Prodigal Son’s father, to join in celebrating that love, celebrating that forgiveness, welcoming everyone home again. 


In this story, we see ourselves as the prodigal son, being forgiven, because we know we need that forgiveness so badly. But we must also recognize that we are the brother, who needs to get a grip, and realize that forgiveness and love are not ice cream. Nothing God gives anyone else subtracts from the infinite love and forgiveness we get every moment of every day. We are invited to celebrate that radical forgiveness, and if we aspire to be more like Jesus, we must find that radical forgiveness in ourselves as well. And so we are called to be the prodigal son—and the prodigal’s brother—and the prodigal’s father. We are all three people in that story.   


So let us all celebrate and rejoice—because we, and our brothers, and our sisters, have all been dead and restored to life. We have all been lost, and now are found. 




Sunday, June 14, 2020

Regaining Momentum

Thursday broke me. 

It was a small thing on top of a lot of big things. My laptop stopped charging, and when the battery died, I could not revive it.  

My day job is full-time when Congress is in session, and I have a year-round, full-time editing/consulting business of my own. I work all day, and sometimes I work all night. My sense of self is way too wrapped up in my work, and my work is no longer really possible without a computer.

I've tripped over the charging cord more than once, so I figured — I hoped — replacing the cord would fix the problem. But I work on a MacBook, and all the Apple stores are closed, and Apple couldn't deliver a new cord before Wednesday. 

I ordered one from Amazon that advertised same-day delivery, but once the order was placed, the delivery date changed to Friday — and later, to between Saturday and Monday. Best Buy couldn't deliver the cord until Wednesday, but I had an adapter I thought I might be able to rig up as a workaround with the right USB cable, so I went to my neighborhood Best Buy to buy one of those. As it turns out, Best Buy is not really open yet — you can order online and pick up your purchase at the store if they have it in stock — but the lady behind the acrylic shield at the entrance was very nice, and I got my cable. Which did not work.

Since this is 2020 and I am a creature of privilege, I do also have a smart phone and an iPad, so I could answer email and could call in to a Webex meeting. But I haven't learned how to write anything longer than an email on my phone or my tablet, and I don't know how to mark changes on a document in anything but Microsoft Word. 

"You need a vacation," said one of my colleagues on the Webex call, and my eye started to leak. What does that even mean, in this environment? How is anybody taking a vacation? The country's falling apart, I'm alone in this apartment, I have no means of transportation other than the half-open Metro, and I have all this work that isn't getting done . . . 

And then, at 7:30 Thursday night, I tuned into the tribute to John Prine streaming on YouTube and Facebook, and Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires opened the show with "Hello in There." And I lost it, for the first time since this lockdown began.

It was an ugly cry, and I can't even list all the things I was crying about. The loss of John Prine, absolutely. The tens of thousands of people who have died from this virus, and my friends who still aren't completely well. The loss of our old life. The loneliness of lockdown. The hatefulness, selfishness and willful obliviousness of my fellow Americans who put that mindless, malicious man in the White House. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and every other black person killed by figures in authority over the past 400 years. The fact that my daughter's going back to Asia next week and I never even got to hug her while she was home. I could go on. I did go on. I went on to the point of thinking, "Okay, I need to stop crying now," but I could not. Eventually it ran down. 

My day-job boss brought me a PC laptop from the office, so I managed to write Friday's weekly newsletter. I got the MacBook power cord yesterday evening, and it did fix the laptop, and today I need to catch up with two and a half days' worth of missed work.  

But three days later, I still feel shaky. I'm afraid that having stopped I won't be able to get started again, because momentum is the first law of motion. I remind myself that this — all of this, life, work, the fight for justice, everything — is a marathon, not a sprint, and it's not all supposed to get done today. In the words of the Mishnah sage Rabbi Tarfon, "It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.

So my laptop is recharged. I'm about to open my email folder, with a sense of dread. Dread about what? Nothing I work on is a matter of life or death, but I do feel entrusted with my clients' hopes and aspirations, and I take that seriously. Plus, the work makes it possible for me to make contributions to organizations like NAMI, one of the beneficiaries of the John Prine tribute, and more essential now than it's ever been. 

Back to it. 


Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

I have five brothers and sisters, and five of us were born within four years (two sets of twins, one singleton born on the second twins' first birthday). Until I was almost 21, I lived surrounded by people, with a roommate of some kind or in a dormitory. So I learned early about points of view.  

My five siblings and I grew up in the same house and share memories of certain major events. If you ask about them, though, each one of us will tell you a different story — and they will all be true

Stories are all about whose story you're telling, and where you place the camera. Recent years have seen something of a craze for first person, present tense narratives, which some authors find easier to write but I often find excruciating to read — because seriously, who's that interesting? When I read fiction for pleasure, more often than not I want that panoramic view. Third person omniscient, that's my jam. 

This is the conversation we're having right now about statues, and about renaming things. George Orwell said that "History is written by the winners," but if that's true, why are my nephews going to Lee-Davis High School? Why does my niece go to Stonewall Jackson Middle School? Why does Richmond still have a giant statue of Robert E. Lee in the fanciest part of town?

These are not new questions, but people seem to be realizing it's stupid to still be asking them in 2020. The statues are getting dumped into rivers. The rec center in Henrico County that used to be called Confederate Hills became The Springs today, with no fanfare. And of course, the intersection of 16th & H Streets NW is now Black Lives Matter Plaza.

To the people wringing their hands about these changes and wailing that we're destroying history, I ask: whose history? We're not changing any history. We're making more, and we're moving the camera.

Everybody stars in their own life story. Too many people have lived and died unseen and unremembered. If we restore the balance, that's improving history, not wrecking it. Be honest: how much did you know about Alexander Hamilton before the musical?

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Why We Can't Think Straight

At the Arlington NAACP rally the other day I ran into someone I know, but I did not recognize her. She was wearing sunglasses and a mask, so I don't feel too bad about that, but even after she teased me about not recognizing her, I could not remember her name. I still can't remember her name. I know how I know her. I know her Twitter handle. But I cannot remember her actual name. 

I wish this was a rare occurrence, but it's happening more and more often. Another friend told me that it's happening to her too, and in exactly the same way: she can't keep a series of numbers in her head, she can't remember who's spoken in a meeting she's running. 

On this sample size of two, I infer that this is a widespread problem. It helps me a little, though, to think that I've figured out why. It's physics, it's metaphysics, and it's quantum physics. 

We start with Newton's basic laws of motion:
  1. An object in motion tends to remain in motion, and an object at rest tends to remain at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.
  2. Force = an object's mass multiplied by its acceleration.
  3. Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction.
From the work of Swiss polymath Leonhard Euler on how to measure force, we get the metaphysical idea of "impenetrability," which says that two objects cannot occupy the same place at the same time. Quantum physics pioneer Wolfgang Pauli confirmed this by determining that two identical fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. 

So here's my brain, with far too many thoughts trying to occupy the same space, constantly bombarded with new information to shock and horrify and grieve me. My thoughts cannot come to rest. I have too many of them, moving too fast, and it's impossible to retrieve old information stored in happier times. 

It's not my fault, dammit. It's science. SCIENCE!

The worst of it is that I cope with stress by filling all my idle time, and taking on more and more projects. That is inevitably self-defeating: the more I work, the less I sleep, the less productive I become, the more stressed I am, the more work I take on, until I finally wind up roaring at someone who has absolutely no idea where that dragon came from. 

The corona dreams don't help. 


Monday, June 08, 2020

How Diversity Saves Us

I don't know everything. 

This doesn't surprise you, I'm sure, but it surprises me. It surprises me daily. I didn't win "Jeopardy!", but I did win "Ben Stein's Money," so I have a certificate that confirms my identity as an Officially Smart Person. So imagine my frustration when I discover that in fact, I do not know everything . . . 

. . . and that some of what I think I know is wrong. 

Scary, right? Embarrassing. Downright infuriating, sometimes. 

The easiest way to defend myself from those uncomfortable feelings is simply not to listen to anyone else, and to decline any new information that reveals or confirms my ignorance. 

See how crazy that sounds? But I do it every day, even when I know I'm doing it. We all do it. Nobody wants to be afraid or embarrassed or thwarted. But here's something I didn't figure out until much too late in life: People like to be asked. 

No, people love to be asked. There really aren't any stupid questions, because when you ask a question, people get to show you what they know that you don't. As it turns out, that's a lot. 

When someone makes a nasty comment about "diversity hiring," what they're saying is that they already know everything they need to know, and people with experiences and backgrounds different from theirs have no knowledge they could benefit from. Do you want to work with people like that? I don't. I don't want to be a person like that. 

Too many people in professional settings see colleagues as rivals, and the more differences they have from their colleagues, the worse the rivalry is — because if those differences are recognized and rewarded, they feel their own knowledge and skills are undervalued. 

As a Facebook meme I saw this weekend pointed out, it doesn't work that way. It's not pie. (Mmm, pie.) Value added is value added for everyone. Everybody benefits from broadening the range of skills, knowledge, experience, and points of view. Young people know things that middle-aged people don't. (I still haven't figured out how to make my smart TV play Amazon Prime.) People of different races, genders, sexual identities, educational backgrounds, etc. all approach challenges from different angles, and that helps everyone. 

If you're reading this, these are all things you probably already know, but I do have a point, and it's to thank Mitt Romney for showing up on Black Lives Matter Plaza yesterday. Mitt Romney is a white, 73-year-old multimillionaire who's been married to the same woman almost as long as I've been alive, and whose political views diverge from mine on almost everything. But he too recognizes the reality of systemic racism and the urgent need to reform our policing structures. He'll have ideas for solutions that might not occur to a lot of his traditional political opponents, and he loves this country just as much as we do. We can have healthy disagreements that generate better answers for everyone, as long as we listen. 

Mitt Romney showed up to listen yesterday, and I applaud that. He seems to understand that there are things he doesn't know, and he has resources most of us don't. Progress happens when we can recognize each other as allies. 

Sunday, June 07, 2020

The Trauma of Change

Change is always loss.

A therapist told me that back in the 1990s, and I argued with her. These were changes I wanted to make, changes I was trying to make, changes that would improve my own life and the lives of those around me. If I could make those changes, I said, everyone would be better off, including myself. 

Yes, she said. She wasn't talking about net benefits. She wasn't denying the real anticipated gains. What makes change hard, she said, is that in the moment, change is always loss

It has become one of the most valuable insights anyone's ever given me. 

It's so hard to say, "I was wrong." It's hard to form a new habit, and it's even harder to break an old one. Every Sunday I open my beloved Panda Planner to the pages for the week ahead, where I set my goals and priorities, and I say I will walk at least half an hour a day and I will practice my guitar every day. Every Sunday, those pages ask me to evaluate the week that's just ended, and I have to admit that I didn't walk every day — sometimes I didn't walk any day — and I didn't do my guitar lesson every day, either. Because setting aside the half hour for walking or the half hour of guitar would mean that much less time fooling around on social media, or playing the New York Times Spelling Bee, or solving one of my four daily crossword puzzles (NYT, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and now The Daily Beast has one too). I'd have to give some of those things up. 

And those are small things, those are dumb things. So how much harder is it to change big things? 

Years ago, a friend lost a significant amount of weight without surgery. He told me that one of the hardest things about it was the effect it had on his social life. He said he thought his bad eating and drinking habits had made his friends feel better about their own choices, to the extent of feeling that his presence gave them permission to indulge. Once he changed his eating habits, he felt less welcome, and it made him wonder why he'd ever been welcome at all. 

This is not an excuse for not making the changes we need to make. It's a plea for kindness as we make those changes, and as the people around us make changes. Don't be skeptical about people's sincere desire to change, please. Don't mock us, please. You can ask how we plan to make amends, because the amends are what make these changes meaningful — but please, don't assume that past transgressions mean those changes aren't valuable and real. Like the prodigal son's father, let's celebrate the changes, the return to what should be our common home. 

It's only tangentially relevant, but this is the song that's in my head this morning. I never even was that much of a Wilson Phillips fan.