Old Words, new understanding

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In my last post I talked a little bit about prayer, and what many historically call the “Lord’s prayer” (in Christian tradition).  My thoughts were generated by the “group recitation” of those words at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth 2; the crowd quietly repeating them raised a question in my mind as to how much they really had thought about their meaning – and then, considering what they mean to me. I decided it was time to share about that here, and it leaves me feeling – vulnerable, inadequate and nonqualified! As I approach 65, with a lot of life changes in my last few years and more than one reminder recently that life is unpredictable, I am more aware than ever that we can never know the answers to many questions that individuals and societies have asked throughout history.  But being raised in what, back in the 60’s, in a “conservative” church, the lessons of Sunday school, and later Bible studies, continue to resonate in my memory and to color much of how I see our world, and my life, and our place in it.  They are a part of my tapestry of life, and those colors still are vibrant, and the harmonies still echo. 

I don’t know how to write about spiritual matters; I don’t have a theological background.  I would never pretend to be certain about anything, or to try to defend my own precariously balanced beliefs through debate; there are people I love in my life who think and feel very differently on many issues, and I treasure them and our relationships much more than “being right”. Perhaps that guiding principle is one we need to seek more in this time of divide, and yet … I feel like somehow, sharing my reflections on what is, for many “people of faith” who follow Christian tenets, is foundational scripture … is worth expressing.  So … this is very much just “me”, ahead.  Just what comes into my heart when there is quiet, or when I try to find some sense of order and hope in all the jumble of a life that seems to be constantly shifting.  Lately, that is happening more than I would like.

A point of reference – I use the word “God”, and the “He/His” pronouns, primarily because that is what I was raised with – but I realize there are many words, many names and that gender is just another frame of reference with many cultural implications.  I would hope that the reader would be kind and overlook differences they may have with this approach, because ultimately, it’s not those words are not what we should be focused on but, individually or together, seeking truths our hearts can acknowledge. Truths that lead to a better life for us, and for those we love. My reflections will be segmented in the way that makes sense to me; I see four major components to the prayer – Identity; relationship; entreaty; and praise. 

“Our father, who art in heaven; hallowed be thy name.  Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. 

The prayer begins not with focusing on what we want, but a recognition, a statement of overriding truth – that there is a Creator, and that our relationship with Him is likened to a parent and child – one based in love. These few words comprise a foundational acknowledgement that there is something greater than my understanding, known by many names, that brought me and all of us into being.  Admitting this includes turning to that source of life with reverence, and in worship. Following this statement of faith, is another acknowledgement – that seeking His kingdom is meant to be a focus in our life – but what is the Kingdom of God? So many have claimed that their vision of the “kingdom of God” justifies war, hatred, exclusion – but if we just look at this as a whole, I see a different perspective. The “kingdom” of God on this earth is not one made of buildings, or systems, or churches or corporations or cults; it is our spirits, which we choose to surrender, ongoing, as we seek our way through life. To let that kingdom “come”, to have His “will be done”, is each of us making a choice – to give that loving source of life our acceptance, our broken, tender and lost little hearts, as best we can, and sharing it with others while we are able. To give God, as we understand God, that authority in our life daily, is the closest to heaven on earth that we can, for now, experience and offer one another.  For His kingdom on earth to be realized, His will to be accomplished, requires our choice to be His agents; to give Him our hearts, and to let them be used as channels of that greater Life.  A firm declaration of God’s nature, and our place in His kingdom.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors

After this statement, an acknowledgment of God’s identity, comes an admission, an acceptance of our relationship to Him.   First – we will always be dependent on our Creator for our needs.  We are not and never were in control; we can only work towards what we are able but there will always be a gap between our hopes and our realities, and it is to God we must turn, in faith, to bridge that gap. It is a daily hunger, it is a daily need, it is a daily journey, one step at a time. It is a willingness to say, yes, this is my way of life; in a culture that elevates knowledge and certainty and self-sufficiency, this is a daring refutation, a defiant reshaping of our thinking and expectations – that our relationship with our Creator is fundamentally walking in trust without answers and dependence instead of strength.  As to how we relate to those who enter our lives in many ways – we must recognize and live out the truth that our relationship with others requires forgiveness, from us, and to us.  We need one another, and only with forgiveness can we create the world we long for; only by acknowledging our imperfect, often failing, humanity, can we turn to one another and together build anew.  Receiving forgiveness, in wholeness, requires our sharing it freely as well; our standing in love and trust with that source of life, cannot be complete without offering it to one another. Can there be a greater challenge to our ego than to admit I have failed, and to accept that others have failed me?  It is the deepest forgiveness that comes at the highest price, but that we yearn for. In two simple phrases, filled with powerful truths, we are challenged to live in dependence and trust towards a Creator beyond our fully knowing – and to give others forgiveness without demanding more, in order to know that grace ourselves fully.

And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.

Finally, after acknowledging, confessing truths that may not fit what we were taught, or represent the dreams and wishes we desire – it is time to ask. I like the word “entreaty”; it is defined as an earnest and humble request. It’s more than a hope, or a wish; it is a plea, one that acknowledges we need help. How odd that we should have to ask God to NOT lead us into temptations; after all the shaming and lecturing and moralizing about our evil natures, for centuries this phrases has challenged our understanding.  Funny, in a way, because when you sit down and go honestly through most of the narrative stories in what is called our Bible, there are so many instances of God defying expectation, seemingly even delighting is disappointing hopes, in refusing to be predictable and yet, demanding faith.  Why on earth would we need to ask God to not lead us into temptation?  I cannot say with certainty, and apparently neither can the recent announcement by the Pope that this should be rephrased (you can find more about this here).  But experts in those ancient texts are adamant that this is exactly what it says – please, God, don’t tempt me.  Perhaps the best I can take from this is some comfort in knowing, as it says elsewhere in scripture, that temptation is (gasp) normal; failure to be perfect is pretty much standard (No!); that my weakness is a fact of life that God’s love is big enough to overlook. Perhaps it somehow makes a difference as we struggle with our weaknesses to acknowledge that daily, to admit I need help. As far as deliverance from evil – historically, evil has done pretty well on this planet, and again sometimes I have to admit I am a part of that – with anger, with selfishness, with bitterness. I find myself asking – could it be that this plea for “deliverance” is not one of “save me from someone else’s evil towards me”, but … “free me from that within me that seeks to commit evil, and help me to be a greater agent of Your love despite my imperfect heart”?  In short – these few, mysterious words acknowledge that I need help to find my way – I need light in the darkness.  Right now, that seems truer than ever, for us all.  We seek that light in many different ways, but there is one ultimate source….

For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Glory, and the Power, Forever – Amen. 

And so we close with a final, full statement of the ultimate authority and power of our Creator, as best we can know Him and His will. Apparently, this is considered by some to be “added on” doxology.  Perhaps so!  Perhaps someone who thought they were doing good felt it added an exclamation point of sorts for dramatic effect.  It sure makes for a crescendo in that closing hymn arrangement!  I’ll never know – but it speaks to me.  It is a towering, overriding exclamation of faith – one that says let go of trying to have it all, because He already does.  He holds the keys to the kingdom, He has the answers.  Sure, for some, that can be seen as an easy “cop out” – just give up.  But I see it as an act of worship and faith – acknowledging that whatever greater Power is out there, by whatever name we might best understand it, endures, and that a purpose which we may never know is working in us, through us, loving us and one another beyond.   All the things that I often am drawn to strive for, to worry about, to bicker over, fade away when bathed in the brilliant light I just need to stop and look up to realize surrounds it, and us, all.  This final statement is one of undiluted, unlimited, and honest praise.   

One final observation, for now …. As I pointed out, there is really only one “ask” in this prayer. It’s not about wish fulfillment or the kindly old grandpa in the stars granting requests of the pious. Of course, there are many times in Christian scripture where people of faith asked for more specific needs, but … perhaps prayer isn’t really about asking for something as much as it is trying to connect with that source which is itself, the only answer we really long for? And … did you notice that, outside of the references to God, the Divine, the Creator – everything else isn’t “me”, it isn’t “I” – but us. OUR father; give US this day OUR daily bread; forgive US; WE forgive OTHERS. Prayer is as much of an acknowledgement that we exist together in community, we seek answers together, we struggle together – not alone. Again, we need one another.

Friends, remember this – faith only really matters when you have doubts without “proof”, questions without certainly. There are, as with any matter of faith, countless perspectives on whether the individual we call Jesus said these words, or which words, or to whom and when. All valid questions, that cannot be answered with factual documentation, really; out of the four “gospels” which have different histories and inconsistencies of many events of Christ, only two have the prayer, one at the crowds attending the “Sermon on the Mount” and another at a gathering of Christ with only his disciples. The two have differing phrases, the “original Greek” texts are inconsistent (and were themselves hardly contemporary), the Catholics and Protestants of course have their own versions, and of course there are numerous translations of the Bible. Talk about a multiverse, Marvel does not have the only claim to different representations of reality!  Here is a link to a 1988 article about doubts as to veracity of just about everything I just commented on – https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-10-18-mn-4561-story.html

For your reference and perhaps edification, or to raise even more questions that evade simple answers, I am providing links to two resources – first, a “comparative” presentation of different Bible “translations” of these passages – you can download the pdf here …. https://wartburgproject.org/mdocs-posts/the-lords-prayer-in-five-versions/

And, a fascinating history of the “evolution” of translations over the centuries … food for thought, or perhaps evidence that there is ultimately no final “right” answers … https://www.csdirectory.com/biblestudy/lords-prayer.pdf

For now – as I write, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Just as we sometimes rush through a day that, at least in someone’s original intent, was to take time to remember our blessings – setting that aside to check the upcoming sales, and plan for social events – it is far too easy to avoid thinking about issues that raise hard questions; disappointments and bitterness with teachings that didn’t seem to fit reality; pain from the loss of love that we had held dear, and regrets for choices that we thought would make dreams come true.  It is hard to be thankful when our challenges engulf us.  Perhaps, it is now, we need to pray the most.  I hope my simple reflections perhaps raise questions, even tough ones, that ultimately you can choose to face and work through – or, to ignore. Choices are what create our own, ultimately personal, truths – our lives are our prayers, lived out, shared, or hoarded and kept shut away. Ultimately prayer has the power to change our hearts, and through us, to give hope and love to others seeking the same.

I will write more soon about my own battles with prayer, with faith; my own unanswered cries and beyond that, my choices to continue to shape and define me. Until then …. thank you for sitting a while with me, wherever, whenever you are; I hope you never give up seeking answers, and finding those that help you share just a little bit more of whatever light you find. I’ll be looking alongside you.

Words at a funeral – or something more?

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Recently, the world watched as a long-lived monarch was mourned and laid to rest, with the kind of ceremony that we rarely see; it was in a way a spectacle more than a memorial. There is something about the rituals of mourning, in all their expressions and customs, that comforts the hearts of many;  perhaps because it takes the thought out of the process, makes it easy in a way, requires less thought;  or perhaps because the familiarity of the words lets us bring them back when we need some sense of peace, or normalcy.  I supposed some faiths, and some congregations within those faiths, all have their differing degrees of formality; being raised in a Methodist church, the habits and customs of Catholicism and the Episcopalians or even Presbyterians are not familiar to me.  But my life has always orbited around seeing a larger reality through eyes filtered through beliefs – some taught, some retained, some still emerging within my own soul. 

Like many of my generation – and apparently, a smaller percentage of the generations since – I went to Sunday school.  For whatever reason, I could never really leave behind those childhood lessons, that way of looking at life, that seeking of understanding that was ultimately unquenchable.  My desire to grasp at something more spiritual than intellectual is far from unique; seeking “answers” is common throughout all cultures, all peoples, all history – in different forms, with different stories – stronger for some than others. Fool, perhaps, but I still reach out from somewhere inside me, calling out to what others have given many names to, in many languages.  This seeking voice, this hungry heart, whispers in all the corners of my life. 

I often wonder about word origins, and history – in this case, I think on the word Christian, which originates from Greek translations of a Hebrew word for what the members of that faith might call the Messiah, or promised one; deliverer.  So many words; it strikes me as ironic that the narratives that form the basis of the Christian faith were never uttered in the form we know them by those whose lives we read of in the New Testament.  There are far too many out there, in every faith, claiming they alone know the whole truth, and all the answers. It’s been a cause for struggle, internally – all the different perspectives about what is “right” and “wrong” – conflicting with my undeniable, and what I was taught was unnatural, attraction to men, instead of women.  For many like me, they abandon any effort to embrace the faiths of their earlier years, having endured the rejection and judgement, the condemnation and hatred as outsiders, some find greater freedom by simply walking away, and never looking back.  For many, faith is no longer even a factor in their daily life. 

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Perhaps that is why what struck me, among all the coverage of the “royal funeral” in Britain last week, was a moment where the luxuriously bedecked coffin lay surrounded by the elegantly dressed elite, and the family – the moment when, as part of the no doubt well-orchestrated ritual, those present joined in “The Lord’s Prayer”.  In my decades of life I have sat in many, many services of different congregations of faiths, large and small, diverse in various ways of practice and belief and conduct, where these words were spoken.  The reading of the “Lord’s prayer” in a congregation has always appeared to me to be somewhat of a mechanical response – perhaps less committed to memory than it used to be in common practice, perhaps read – but just sort of “run through”, chanted, like a magical incantation that somehow, by being spoken, satisfied the need to provide a blessing, an appeasement to a great spirit, or a freeing of whatever burden was carried. Having grown up in my church chorus, or even school chorus, I had learned the “traditional” musical setting of the words, which committed them to my memory well –  “Our Fahhhhhtherrrrr … which are in Heaaaaaaaaavennnnnnnnn…… hallowed beeeeeee … thy name……..” 

In times of crisis, I too would mouth the words of the “Lord’s Prayer” like something Harry Potter would say to cast out evil spirits.  In the years since my youth, my own quest to understand, to find peace, has taken many forms, and many times I have prayed – desperate prayers, seeking help to be made “right”; to overcome fears; to not be exposed.  How sad that religious practice for many leads us to find ways to hide, instead of ways to accept ourselves and one another as flawed but loveable! And I have studied the books of the Bible, sat through many sermons, listened to broadcasts, read the thoughts of long dead theologians and some still living – only to find that answers were not easy to come by, but questions would spring up like weeds. That was the simplistic, desperate, childish belief that was my indoctrination – not all that different from aspects of many other faiths – just say the words; just go through the motions.  I suspect for many, that is the substance of what hope they have – not wanting to question further, just perhaps to get by, enough. 

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Today, when I consider what traditionally Christians call the “New Testament” – knowing enough of the history of its development, translation, and contradictions to see that it too is incomplete, and but a shadow of whatever inspired its writers to try to capture their own understanding of “Truth” – I tend to think through things a little more deeply than just mouthing the words.  Even though I probably never will fully know, or understand – the reaching out for something beyond my comprehension seems to be hard wired into the deepest part of my being. Many people see those who call themselves Christians as liars and sinners, petty and shallow – and we often are, probably like those of other faiths, including those now long forgotten of ancient civilizations.  Many people do not like the word “God”.  And I am among them – because something so generic, so casually discarded or held up with pride, could hardly begin to capture the vastness and power of whatever forces created the beauty of our universe, the intricacy of our bodies and every living thing and creature on this globe, the delicate balance of so many elements that keeps our world turning.  

I have written about many things on this blog – my family, my challenges with growing up gay, tours of San Francisco, and sprinkled into many of those posts were glimpses of the spiritual lessons that bubbled up through all those fragments of my life.  My days of attending services, seeking “healing”, are distant; but the words I read there, and the songs that echo from those days, still bring comfort along with mystery. I have never fully confessed my own questions, or perspectives on faith and prayer with anyone – any pastor I turned to for deliverance or understanding; any caring friend who knew I was hurting and seeking answers; I kept them “hidden in my heart” for the most part.  There were times I held myself forth as a Christian, of various stripes, but the suit never fully seemed to fit, and I would never claim to be a source of inspiration.  But – seeing life through a lens of not religion, but an emerging faith – struggling to be born, to be acknowledged, to be heard and lived out daily – has been simmering in my soul for so long, I cannot remember when it was not present, in the foreground or background of my life – always there, sometimes buried among all the other chaos that comprises our existence.  And I am certain that in that lonely quest, I am far from alone; others silently wondering, reaching for answers, reaching for light but not quite finding enough. 

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My sense today is that I need to take a leap of faith, here, among the strangers who see these words, most of whom never will meet me.  A kind of anonymous opening of my soul – with its quiet voice asking questions, when I awake at 2 and 3 am and the stars are silent, the cats at our feet, my husband sound asleep. It is often then that I try to pray, but struggle with knowing exactly how to go about it – despite the years of sermons and bible studies.  But I always return, eventually, to … “The Lord’s Prayer”.  If you were to pull out a bible, or lacking one go online, you could find the scriptural reference, in many translations, where Jesus, as we call him, was asked – Lord, how should we pray?  His followers, his disciples and others, were mostly non educated commoners who followed him, one of many itinerant teachers common to that era; they, like us in a way, would go to their sabbath meetings and hear one who had been trained read from their holy writings, designated segments, ritual, words.  But for some reason, they sensed that this man, performing acts of wonder and speaking of “Yahweh” in ways they had never heard before, could tell them something about communicating with their Creator in a way that no one ever had before.  

When the rush of the daily is muffled, my heart speaks loudly enough to guide me to that inner place where I want to speak with the eternal – I think about those words.  I don’t pretend to be wise, or mature, or have answers – the older I get, the less I am certain.  Even my profession, accounting, was centered around trying to find something measurable, something final – but faith is far from knowledge, and belief is a very distant cousin to science.  The majority of peoples around the earth over time might never hear these words, but others – other beliefs, other traditions.  Let me be first to acknowledge that perhaps no one has anything to gain from reading what I think, or my questions or weird little perspectives.   But my heart, or something speaking through it, is telling me that this is the time, and place, for me to open up – share my questions, my perspectives, my anger and my joy.  So, my commitment, for my next post – the words of the “Lord’s prayer” – treasured by many, changed over time, meaningless to others – filtered through my curious, questioning, seeking heart.  I hope you might join me then.          

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An addendum, before I say “until next time” – I actually wrote this several weeks ago. I have held off posting because … it feels unfinished. But isn’t that the point? We all have questions, we are all looking for answers, hungering for “certainty” or something close to it. The pursuit of perfection sometimes only leads to delay; I admit I also have a kind of apprehension that by continuing to open up my heart here, to those who know me, or part of me – and to strangers – I will stumble, somehow. But the path ahead isn’t always clear in life; and sometimes, when we fall, we discover a better way. That will be my hope, when I write next. Until then … love, always.

A tisket, a tasket- what’s in your easter basket?

I will preface this post with an acknowledgement – there are posts that I spend time editing and structuring until they are not perfect, but good enough. And then there are those like today’s, that reflect far more thought than what ends up being written; that I wish I had the eloquence and skill to resonate more deeply, but ultimately, have to just release and let them be what they will be. Please know, as you read this – I respect, value even, the differences that mark my many relationships.  I have family and friends who have diverging perspectives from me on just about any matter you can name – politics, music, COVID, sexuality, and of course, the “big questions”.   Lately with all the changes that continue to be a part of my life, I’ve had to think a lot about what I truly believe – and I feel it is important for me to write about it.  Maybe some of you will get something out of it, but whatever your own place may be as you make your own way through life, I definitely make no claim to having any particular insight or answers as I work towards finding my own.  

Growing up in non-metropolitan southern California in the 60’s, I think most of the people around me were pretty similar.  White, middle class mostly (although my household was less so than most) – families getting started out bought homes in our little community.  Most probably considered themselves Christian, although there was a Jewish family down the street, and I was grateful they welcomed me into their lives.  And of course, many people were not church folks – but my parents were of a generation where that was routine, and we were regular attendants at the small local Methodist church where the beautiful stained-glass window of Jesus with the lambs shone brightly.   Some of the traditions of that time survive, but I think are practiced less now – having palm fronds at Palm Sunday a week before Easter;  musical pageants; acolytes with candles beginning the service; I remember the warbly voices of the primarily old, primarily female adult choir singing “Christ the Lord is risen today” every year, as we followed in our hymnal dutifully.  My husband remembers that Easter often meant new clothes for the Sunday service – and for both of us, family gatherings, meals, easter egg hunts in the yard, and a belief that there was, for a while, a large bunny who brought wonderful treats for good boys and girls.  Among my treasures is an old “Ideals” publications with photos of baby rabbits and kittens decorating eggs and delivering flowers. 

Over the years, through much of my youth and adult life, I attended many church services – because I am just the kind of person that keeps looking for answers that satisfy some calling within me, even though they don’t really seem to be enough to resolve my own uncertainties.  I have attended evangelical churches that were started by beach hippies in the 60’s “Jesus people” movement; denominational mixed race services that were primarily Hispanic, or Black;  I visited a small church once where the pastor proclaimed, quite emphatically, that they were the only congregation going to heaven (not just their denomination, their location!!)  I have been to the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City to hear the music of praise, to Israel to see the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, and to deserted pagan temples in the Mideast where other gods were worshipped, in ways very different from my small town.   I have prayed for the Holy Spirit to descend upon me in congregations where speaking in tongues was routine; I have attended teenage rallies to be pure for Christ, and visited group homes where young men were gathered to find a way to be healed from their attraction to others like themselves;  I have had hands laid on me to deliver me from demons, and I have celebrated a different kind of closeness to God in my own times of intimacy with men in a way that no church ever would have considered sacred, or holy – and yet, to me, they are a connection with that which is eternal and divine in a way more real than any church service.  

I have read books, and sung songs, and prayed in the darkness and danced with joy at the fervor of the promise of deliverance.  Last night, watching the recent, and outstanding dramatic film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” after it’s well deserved Oscar recognition, I remembered many such broadcasts that my mother would watch at home – crippled with debilitating arthritis, her limbs and bones distorted, her heart wounded by griefs I could not understand then, she was looking for hope, for healing, for encouragement.  She surrounded herself with a small group of friends who prayed for one another- and for me.  They brought me, a lonely boy with few friends, delicious birthday cakes for years – they were loving and accepting, to the degree they could be.  I have long since forgiven them for their view of a God whose love could not extend beyond that which they knew, and hope I can grow in doing better on that front as well. And when I attended bible studies at local homes, and was baptized, I believed – not entirely understanding, but still, wanting to take that step, to belong.  I longed for acceptance and love – from my family, my church, my society – but I never felt that I had found it, really. 

I have read and studied, and continue to reflect, but I have no real answers to the big questions. I know many have been hurt by what others consider faith and truth – I know that pain, in my own way, but everyone’s is theirs alone, somehow.   I realized that even the words “God” and “Jesus” and most of the traditions practiced for the past few centuries are adopted from other cultures, bandaged into what some group of men, somewhere, once decided was truth;  that other groups selected from writings what they concluded was holy scripture, and left out other pieces; that translations are incomplete, even wrong, and that the familiar sayings that are easy to spout for simplistic answers to tough questions really do more harm than good.  Ignorance is not bliss, but neither is half witted rebaked magical thinking.  Like Elvis, the genie left the bottle a long time ago. 

I also see in those who practice a different faith – and there are too many for any of us to even know or comprehend, in our own little circles of belief – can be just as sincere and devoted, even more desirous of finding those elusive, yearned for answers.  I recognize that much damage, cruelty, and destruction has been accomplished under the guise of a loving god.  The news is filled with the ugliness of what we can do to one another – and, sadly, I am a part of it, knowing full well that the values I claim to hold dear – love, forgiveness, hope, caring – are not fulfilled in all my walks of life, that I have just as many flaws and chasms within me that show clearly the duality of what I say I believe, and how I behave.  In short-  I know the mess inside me is there, and as much as I wish for some magical force to transform me into someone else – it ain’t gonna happen.  But every day still offers choices for growth, and new direction. 

So when Easter comes around, like Christmas, and I think of the people in my life that I love (and some I don’t, but I try to) – I know they all pretty much have their own beliefs, traditions, questions, and uncertainties.  We may not talk about them much – thinking, perhaps, silence equals respect, or at least keeps the waters calm between us.  Perhaps that is best.  In my own circle of family and friends, there are so many ways of thinking about eternity, truth and what it is to be human, I am both amazed – and awed.  I love these people – I don’t really care if they are agnostic, theists, Mormon/SDA/charismatic Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist (etc etc)  – I have seen enough of their lives and their hearts to know they are not all that different from me, seeking.  Some see truth in the cycles of the planets and ancient practices that others condemn; others cling fervently to remembered scriptures and emphatic exclusion of anything that lies outside the rites and rituals that were passed down to them from origins that many of them have never sought to understand.   It’s so much easier to stay in our little boxes, safely and comfortably assuming we have the answers, and conclude it’s the others who are blind. 

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Whn someone asked recently if Easter had meaning for me, the answer is, yes.  Yes, very much so – but a meaning that isn’t really easy so to define, or defend.  I think our culture, at least in the “West” as it used to be called, is to have certainty – to know.  To be “right”.  Yet, I think it is a kind of growth, for me at least, to acknowledge I do not have certainty, and cannot claim to be right – only to be open and seeking.  I realize, even from my very limited knowledge of history, that faith can be both healing, and destructive; that communities of belief can bring strength and hope, but also lead to conflict, exclusion and suffering.  I am getting to a point where I can actually, despite the years of wanting to be someone other than who I am, I can be grateful that I am both inclined to seek a spiritual facet to my daily existence, and reconcile that part of me with my own nature as a gay man that many people who have claimed to love me could never accept as coming from a loving God.  Now, finally, I can accept the many tiny little glimpses of a greater loving force moving through the threads of my life; I am working towards seeing each one of us as being a little reflection of that which is eternal, that creative force that exists apart from time and everything we can know and measure, anything we can ever prove or fully comprehend.  

Perhaps some of you reading this may have reached a point long ago where you found answers that were sufficient – I am glad for you.  Who knows? You may be right! Human history shows an amazing variety of systems of belief – rising and falling, evolving or disappearing completely, lost to time – only crumbling remains and museum antiquities we briefly look at in passing. But in me there is still a yearning to know the answers – and a determination to not stop looking.  I am just more comfortable now accepting that I will never fully “know”, at least not until that time that, like all of us, my time on earth comes to an end – beyond that, perhaps there is even greater mystery, rather than “answers”.   If you are a student of the “Bible” as we know it, when you stop and look at the many examples of God interacting with His children – whether it be the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, or the Roman occupied peoples of the Christian era – or even the “Old Testament” prophets – there are countless incidents where the expectations of the protagonists were, if met at all, not fulfilled in the way they expected.  The very presence and life of Christ as depicted as the promised Savior from oppression was the opposite of what generations expected;  the promise of deliverance was in a form far from what the hopes had promised; instead of paradise, people of faith were faced with oppression, rejection, and despair.  Not exactly a salesman’s dream – and the prophecies of end times are hardly a trip to Disneyland.   I think sometimes God, in whatever form we ultimately understand that which is eternal exists, gets a kind of delight in confounding expectations, just to keep us guessing. 

Just as COVID changed our world forever, that which occurred which is commemorated still by many as Easter – watered down with bunnies, historically questionable and completely unproveable by science – has altered the course of human history, for both good and bad. Even for those who never hear any “New Testament” stories of the lone, itinerant teacher crucified without basis while a guilty man was set free, have been affected over the centuries by those who embraced that faith.   There is one aspect of all this that occupies my thinking as I move through this season, and continue to search for meaning and purpose, understanding and acceptance in my own journey – the realization that the ultimate choice is uniquely ours to make.  Because, finally, there isn’t “science” to follow, there isn’t “proof” of any of the essential elements of most faiths – only tradition.  The “evidence”, many say, is in our lives and how we live it – but we each have a choice to make in what we believe, because regardless of what you ultimately conclude, it finally depends upon a leap of faith.   Even a decision that there is no God, no eternity, no life beyond that which ends when our last breath is drawn – is a choice, a kind of faith.  It is yours alone, mine alone – we can be in congregations, we can repeat chants and practice rituals, we can join together in song but when the time comes – we are all faced with choices that are ours alone.  We may be in a choir, but our songs are all solos, in time. 

Max Von Sydow as Christ in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” – Later, he became “The Exorcist”

My own understanding has much room to grow, as does my heart.  I take comfort from what I believe, even though I have no proof – and I respect that others see it very differently.  I don’t have the same need I did, when young, for everyone to agree with me, to prove that I am right – that I have the truth, and you don’t.  I can share in your joy that you have found some degree of peace, hopefully, in finding your way through whatever you believe – knowing none of us is completely right, and no one in history ever has been.  This morning, as I woke up somewhat before my husband, I came upstairs to find him watching the 60’s “Greatest Story Ever Told” version of the life of Christ on TCM.  Having seen it as a teen in our little local theater, I remembered being moved by the reverence and craft that went into it as a traditional narrative of the life of Jesus, and the events of Easter – complete with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and Max Von Sydow appearing in the clouds.  Like any story, it is not complete – just one version.  But another movie comes to mind – less well known, but also powerful.   “Resurrection” with Ellen Burstyn from 1980 isn’t shown much, wasn’t a hit – but it deals with the same questions we all face, or ignore. Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is the truth?  If you get a chance to see it, I recommend it –  the protagonist, having lived a life that defied the traditions and expectations of her community, ends the film by, in her own unique way, showing love, grace and mercy to a child in need.  But – there is a final scene you will never see.  Years ago, in an obscure defunct film magazine called Cinefantastique, in a profile on the film and its creation, there were pictures shared of a deleted ending; I wish I could find it online but have not.  Alone, the camera follows her into a room filled with the symbols and signs of so many ways of expressing faith; of seeking truth; of knowing that which is eternal, but indefinable.  She has reached a place of peace.  

“Resurrection” (1980) with Ellen Burstyn – the conclusion of her character’s journey of discovering faith

None of us will ever be able to know all the different paths that generations have taken to find their way to some kind of peace.  For me, my Christian upbringing will always echo in everyday life – I am grateful to have it, but also learning that other wisdom remains awaiting discovery. So I am reminded of the story of the apostle, Paul – a traditionally religiously trained “enforcer” of his faith, who moved from being an oppressor of those who followed the radical teachings of the “messiah” Jesus, contradicting tradition – to questioning his understanding, and becoming open to a new way of thinking, a new pathway of faith and understanding.  In writing to one of the emerging bodies of believers, he talks about their conflicts and disagreements – one of which was about what is ultimately the purpose of spiritual maturity.  In one letter, he says the following about our inability to ever completely have the answers we seek to all these questions, at least while we walk this earth.  In part, he shares about how what little we know today will one day be replaced by a greater understanding – (1 Corinthians 13) –   

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

My wish for all of us is that we can find a place of peace, however incomplete – if not together, in acceptance; if not in unity, in tolerance – with faith; with hope, and ultimately, with love.  We may not know the way, or even recognize we have lost our way now and then, but … keep on going, and as always … thanks for stopping by!   

Until next time, friends ….

Not just another valentine

I would never claim to have anything original to say about love.  No memorable new quotes, no revolutionary observations, no insights for those reading this who are asking themselves that question right now.   I only have, as with all things, my story … one still being written; just like yours.  So, for this Valentine’s day, this is just a little piece of my heart in hopes it touches some of you, out there.  By now, if you have read any of my posts, this won’t be much different – Like life, I sometimes know where I start and have an idea of where I want to end, but the road is something I discover along the way.  Shall we? 

I still have Valentine’s day cards from my childhood, and some from later years – from my Mom, of course.  She kept not everything, but bits of most things, and I am glad for that.  Back in the 60’s, kids valentines were pretty routine, you’d buy a box for $2 and give one to your friends in class – maybe themed to pets, or rocket ships, or cartoon characters.  As a shy child, with a single disabled parent, my path to not fitting in was only beginning then; in junior and senior high, my sense of not belonging only grew deeper, there was no dates, there were virtually no encounters with my peers outside of school; and there certainly was no LGBT youth outreach at church, or even adults who I could tell what I was feeling, to seek help through all the confusion and conflict.  The road to “being an adult” was filled with mile markers that didn’t apply to my trip. 

This is what was upheld as ideal in my childhood – what happiness would look like.

I was alone.  Or at least, I felt very alone – like many boys and girls in that era, we had no place to “belong” as ourselves.  So, when I reached the age where dating was expected, I made some awkward attempts, including one at the encouragement of a well-meaning counselor that resulted in deeply wounded feelings for a woman in my church who, like me, didn’t belong; wasn’t part of the crowd.  I think perhaps church groups were a refuge for those who felt rejected – and yet there was still an effort to achieve the standards of, if not perfection, conformity.  I knew well enough that as much as I wanted to be “normal” – heterosexual, straight, whatever words fit – that I wasn’t, and that pretending to be so was something I could not fulfill.  My withdrawal grew deeper. 

Every February, when Valentine’s day would come around, I would give candy to my Mom, and sometimes take goodies to work; I admit there were years I bought boxes of Sees in a tuxedo box, their Valentine’s gifts for men, for myself.  Recently, I reconnected with a friend who knew me from kindergarten through high school – we had not seen one another in over 40 years and had a lot of catching up to do.  She had the most insightful observation – that during our high school years, I had simply kind of disappeared. I was there, but not there like everyone else – not at the dances or the games, certainly not at the prom.  She shared that sometimes, over the years, my name would come up – but no one knew what had become of me.  I had left all those connections behind, because I could not be honest about myself and feel safe or accepted – that was impossible to conceive.  So, too, was the idea that I could be loved for me. 

We all know loneliness during our lives – sometimes we feel like we live in a private wilderness.
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The only source of love that somehow kept creeping through the walls I had built around myself was my spirituality.  Somehow, despite the heartfelt assurances of the sermons in the churches I still occasionally tried to belong within, I found a way to believe that God’s love was bigger than what I had been told. I am eternally grateful to Alan, my straight, Christian counselor who held onto the belief that the creator he knew had a love greater than the one I had come to believe in. Unlike many who are wounded, deeply, by the hypocrisy and ignorance that so many people of faith still embrace, I found a way to see that God’s love could not be confined by the traditions and models and standards that were paraded as the only way to live;  that there was a greater love, and a source, that pushed beyond those artificial walls and shined brighter even though my eyes might be so blind that I could only occasionally see a glimmer through the cracks in my lonely fortress. 

Today, I am gifted, graced and blessed with real, honest to goodness love from my husband.  His life path has been very different from mine – and yet, in some ways, alike, just alternate roads until ours crossed and we realized that our hearts belonged together.  I had never been in a real relationship; he had been with his late husband for over 35 years; he had come out in the 70’s, I had come out only shortly before we met; he had lived in San Francisco through all the changes that eventually brought the right for all to marry and have their love recognized; I had lived in towns where gay was a four letter word, and there were no rainbow flags fluttering from windows.  

Our Valentine’s cards to one another today.

And yet, love found us.  Love indeed brought us together, like so many from around the world, in ways we didn’t plan or predict.  So on Valentine’s day, today, we exchange cards – mine a Hallmark, his an American greetings – that are from a husband, to a husband.  How remarkable that is to me, and yet, seemingly unremarkable as our culture has shifted, at least here and now; for others, they still hide in the shadows, many alone, fearful of the consequences of sharing their hearts openly, and the risks of being known for who they are at the most basic level of existence and identity. 

I have many friends that are single, still; straight, gay, whatever. Some have found happiness alone, others wonder why they are not finding someone who is their life partner, and still more are perhaps in relationships that have evolved, where the fires of love have cooled but the comfort of being together is better than parting.  Some will have no calls, candy or cards today, others might be looking for a short-term escape from solitary to numb the sense of uncertainty whether they are the problem.  Whether they will ever find someone to say “I love you” to, and hear it in return, and know it is true. 

Perhaps, as Paul writes, Faith, Hope and Love are all gifts – or a single gift with many forms?
Photo by Yelena Odintsova on Pexels.com

I am not an eloquent man, and I have no editor to help me better share something rising from deep within my spirit.  I have only the longings of my heart to find a way to express something meaningful in my entries here.  But those feelings run deep, deeper than my faith or whatever it is that calls me to reach out beyond what I understand factually and yet is just as real to my spirit.  And in my heart, I write to anyone out there reading this on Valentine’s day, or any other day, who is looking for love – trying to figure out what it is, where it comes from, and how to get more of it.  I don’t have those answers, and never will – but if a repressed gay Christian man in his 50’s can find a way to work through the mounds of muck that engulfed my life for too many years, and encounter someone from such a different walk of life and together, discover love and joy, hope and intimacy – not just for ourselves, but giving that through our love to others in our life – then I offer this a just a little bit of light, perhaps a minor miracle.  Not proof of God, or right and wrong; not a formula for success; no Hallmark channel movie.  Just me telling you – it happened; we love one another; we are blessed.  I truly believe – yes, I even dare to say I know – that love exists for all of us, sometimes in ways we don’t realize or perceive, but it is there for us to reach out and know – and to share. There is no perfect love on this planet, just our awareness that something better exists, built into our codes somehow from childhood; if we dare to let it speak to us, it challenges us to step out without answers, and just find a way to give.  Better to give, than receive, someone said; perhaps by focusing on giving, the promise of receiving begins to form.   

I often include links to music here – music has been a way for the better angels of that great unknown to reach my heart.  The music of my childhood in school chorus, and church choir; the music of the men’s gay choruses around the world; old hymns, new anthems, longings and wishes expressed by talents I will never be able to thank.  As I thought of which song I might want to include today, “Where is Love” from the musical “Oliver” came to mind; sung by the title character, an orphan in a seemingly hopeless world of loneliness and rejection, it is timeless in capturing that sense of asking not only where, but why, and when, and how.  I found this version – it may not be obvious from the video itself, but from what I could find online, the young boy performing here is blind.  Filmed in 2009, he would now be a young man – with challenges I, and many of us, will never know.  Perhaps he still sings, perhaps he has forgotten this moment – it has less than 300 views, and there are many others, by well known names, and with more technical polish. It is, in a way, unremarkable.

And yet, it is just that commonality that captures perhaps what my heart and my mind is doing a poor job of communicating; that we all just want love.  We just want to be loved for who we are, and get past all the mountains and all the chaos, we can’t answer the whys, we will never be able to predict the future and much of the time we can’t understand the past – we certainly don’t control the present (and often wonder if anyone does).  We muddle through and when love happens, whether for a brief glimmer in time like a candle that burns brightly and fades, or whether for decades surviving whatever life throws at us – love is worth celebrating and sharing.  It is worth being laughed at for; it is worth fighting for; it is even worth forgiving for.  It is worth giving away without question.  It is worth believing in when we seemingly stand alone. 

Wherever you are, my wish for you is that somehow, today, you can look at your life and see that love has been there, and is there now – mysterious, immeasurable, but real.  It may ebb and flow, but it is alive, and real – and timeless. Whether you read this today, or on a hot summer afternoon, or Halloween or whatever – for the few who read this – you have the power to reach out to someone else and give them some love that they may be longing for, missing, in ways you could not imagine.  This is my little effort to offer you that hope, just as the love I share with my husband was a gift to my life – and ours.  Undeserved, perhaps; unplanned, certainly; amazing to me, always.  I will be reading this to him tonight, as we share a quiet few moments reflecting.   And I will continue to learn how to love, and to be loved – albeit imperfectly – from the heart. 

San Francisco, January, 2022.

The Island of Misfit Holiday Newsletters

Do kids watch old TV shows still?  “When I was a kid” (yes, I will go there – it’s the privilege of having survived so far), Christmas shows were few and therefore a major event on one of the 3 networks – and if you had a color tv, even more exciting.  The biggest of all was “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” – created by the unique artistry and vision of Rankin Bass stop motion animation.  Although it was not my favorite – (more on that later) – it was something to look forward to.   The song, of course, is fairly short – so the story was expanded with additional characters, and adventures – including the island of misfit toys, where the playthings no one wanted were abandoned and forgotten.  Very, very sad …. Like Disney, the storytellers behind those specials knew that tales that touched our heart were not filled solely with happy thoughts. 

What was wrong with the dolly? One theory – she had no nose? The debate rages on.

And, of course, not all 60’s homes – maybe none, in fact – were like the tv sitcoms filled with laughs year-round or shimmering with Christmas lights and goodies as the kiddos awaited Santa.  I am grateful for the efforts both my parents made to give us a holiday, in the midst of great challenges; I remember the delight of opening gifts to find unexpected (and hoped for from the Sears wishbook) treasures.  The only picture I think I have with my father’s parents is with a toddler aged NormL holding a styrofoam Santa figure, with my brother alongside.  And I think the earliest color picture of me is at the foot of a Christmas tree, in our then Vacaville California home, alongside my older brother and our new treasures.  I do not remember those moments – but I remember the feeling, the yearning, the hope that “Christmas is coming” brought to my heart, and the carols we sang in the church youth choir, until the big day. 

A very faded photo of my older brother, me in diapers, and our treasures – Christmas 1958

Christmas cards were a mainstay of life then – so many would come, and my Mom would keep seemingly all of them.  Some from friends and family I never knew – some with letters describing what was happening with their own families, kids in school – before technology of mass production enabled the use of the sometimes detested, mass produced holiday newsletter.  I am glad my Mom kept so many of those handwritten notes – I have been able to share them with the children of the authors, bringing memories alive again, like quiet lights from the fireplace of a long-forgotten winter.  I am also grateful to have some of the cards from my Mom to me – remnants not only of her beautiful handwriting, but her heartfelt love.  For a few years, our church youth group tried to raise funds by sending us door to door with gigantic volumes of elegant Christmas cards, that you could order with your name imprinted – I found it difficult to walk up to my neighbors doors, often strangers, knock and show the books, asking for an order – probably the earliest realization that I was not destined for a life in sales or public relations! 

With the broad availability of pcs, home printing and more, Hallmark and other card manufacturers started to lose business to new ways of sharing sentiments. Recently my husband and I enjoyed a classic holiday episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” – from December 2001! “Season’s greetings” finds exquisite, bitter humor in the family receiving a relative’s holiday newsletter and responding with a boastful one of their own.  We laughed a lot – and I thought about it as I feel the clock ticking on our own communications for Christmas and the holidays.  I am happy to say that we still send cards – receiving fewer each year, but that’s ok – and that we have friends who walk all kinds of paths, so some are about Christmas, some about the holidays, and some are just year-end wishes.  Time constraints seem to get tighter every year – even in retirement – so I suggested that this year we get the cards out right after Thanksgiving, without a newsletter, then follow up with an email which awaits my attention this week, with a little over 3 weeks until Christmas day.  I reached out to my friends who observe, to varying degrees, Chanukah (which came early this year) directly; now my thoughts turn to what to include in a communication to our broad circle of family and friends, that many may only glance at briefly.   And time is running out ….. 

There have been years where I tried to be more creative, taking the rhythm and structure of a familiar holiday carol or song and changing the lyrics to reflect the events of the year behind; one year, I wrote a story that was essentially a follow up to “It’s a Wonderful Life” (my favorite movie), where the older angel and his protégé watched the shoppers in a snowy small town scurrying about their tasks on Christmas eve.  I cannot say what year I initially started the habit of writing – maybe 20 years ago, maybe more – and some years, like now, I resorted to email rather than print.  I imagine both are mostly passé now – we no longer receive many, and even the “family photo card” seems to be less common – many probably depend on Instagram, Facebook and other media for ease of use, immediacy or other reasons.   Yet – there have been years, whether printed or electronic, some who got my newsletter wrote back, saying they were touched, encourage, or somehow warmed by my sentiments – that feedback led me in a way to this blog, and writing to a world of strangers who might enjoy my words – including you. 

I try to avoid this kind of result – I really do!!!

The past few years, since our wedding in 2018, the newsletter became more of a cooperative effort – so I tend to not be as freeform in my approach.  My husband and I have talked about the events of the year that we want to include – nothing surprising there – and I will touch on the fact that he has a major birthday in a month that we look forward to celebrating.  There is much to be grateful for; but my heart wants to put something into that email that I find difficult to define.  Add to that the need to be respectful – rightly so – that not everyone in our lives thinks the same way about the holidays, or may even be in a place where they feel like celebrating – we have several friends that are facing immediate and severe health crises, others who have experienced loss and depression.  And it is somewhat egocentric to think that people we don’t see regularly, who were once a part of our circle of life but who are now less present in every sense, want to know about our lives and the events we enjoyed – or endured – the past year. 

Perhaps, in a way, 2021 has been for many of us like being stranded on the island of misfit toys – feeling alone, forgotten, unwanted.  Perhaps the news, the never-ending voices of panic and dissension, the latest shocking school attack or string of store break-ins, and the seemingly deepening sense that better days are too far off to see has just worn us down.  Thinking back to my church days, even into my adulthood, and the sermons and promises, the certainty and assurances that now seem even more phantom like than Dicken’s 3 Spirits of “A Christmas Carol” or Clarence of “It’s a Wonderful life” – I am not qualified, or even assured within myself, of what to turn to for answers.  Yet – it is a kind of faith to still look up, out, and believe that there is a greater hope – a more real, eternal and powerful source of love – that remains in spite of all the turmoil of this era, and this moment in my little spirit.  

I have set my goal, for this year’s email to family and friends, to not be one that belongs on the island of misfit newsletters – but to say something that reaches from my own heart, and outside of it, to our readers, in all their different paths of life.  But what do I have to offer? Sometimes I get a glimpse of what seems to be a truth, around the corner, just moving out of sight but still calling to me – keep looking, I am here.  Was that truth present in a manger?  Was it more, or less present, in any of the millions of lives and thousands of gatherings of dissimilar faiths, yearning, reaching, crying out for hope – for peace and reassurance?  Do we ignore our desire to somehow, if not grasp with finality, to approach to that sense of a sacred place that some long unused chamber of our being senses but cannot inhabit?  Those childhood wishes for Santa came from a deeper place that I think we all share. Whether the readers of whatever I end up writing have some faith, in something, or not – there is something we have in common, and that together we can celebrate as winter begins to deepen. 

Aaron, the “Little Drummer Boy” from the 1968 TV special, and his dancing animals

As I mentioned at the start, my own favorite childhood Christmas show was not Rudolph. I remember the first Charlie Brown Christmas clearly; I detested Frosty, although I cannot say why; and I loved the Andy Williams holiday shows with “Dancing bear” and the ultra large Williams family (along with the Lennon sisters!) in harmony, sweaters, and all smiles by the fireplace.  But the one that touched my heart was one that wasn’t entirely jolly, built on a foundation of less than happy family – also from Rankin Bass, the “Little Drummer Boy” as narrated by Greer Garson.  Even now, it makes my cry –a lonely orphan, his parents murdered and home burned, bitter at how the world treated him, abused by those who took advantage of him – seeking help, and finding a gathering of wanderers, shepherds, and animals in the night.  In 20 minutes or so, he finds a group of very dissimilar people kneeling in awe before a newborn, not understanding why – and he feels his own gift is not fit for a king, not good enough.  But he gives from his heart – and like all good childhood stories, reaches a happy ending.  The Vienna Boys Choir had a hit recording of the title song, still a standard – but the one I loved is less well remembered.  “One Star in the Night”.  It is quiet, reverent – and hopeful.  If there is nothing else that we can take from whatever holiday observance matters to each of us, surely hope is more precious than ever.  

But I feel a kinship to the little drummer boy, uncertain that I have a gift worth offering.  It took me a lot longer than that half hour show, but after a lifetime of beating myself (and others) up for not being perfect, good enough – I begin to see how much sometimes I am afraid to give my own offering of mere words, lacking in poetry or unique charm,  just to say that I love someone.  Because I have not been the model of love that I was taught I should be, I could be – no angel, no wise man, no holy being – and far from what was modeled as ideal within my little world in a time that now seems so long ago – I fear my heart’s attempt to just share my imperfect love, even though I don’t always call, or haven’t seen them in years, will seem like a lie. I have not lived out the love I feel; perhaps few among of has. I am a poor ambassador indeed. Yet I feel that greater love, outside of me, waiting for me to drink it in, and then let it flow on to others somehow still – and I am aware of it as being bigger than myself, or all of us.  The love that I feel is like a glow that exists outside the range of our vision but surrounds us, unseen but alive, and enduring beyond the moment, beyond the fears and frustrations, and well beyond the limits of seasons and holidays, rituals and the ancient rooted traditions that seem to take up so much energy and attention without our stopping to strip away the veneer to find the life underneath awaiting our discovery, perhaps, even where we are not looking.

Perhaps, giving what we have, simple as it may be, is the greatest gift to offer, in love

I will have to do some digging of my own to put into words something of what I feel to those who receive, and take the time to read, our short email with holiday wishes.  There are many ways of celebrating – and many who just need to know they are not alone, and to be there for them as best we can.  Sometimes, I think that for me, writing – this blog, the newsletter, a short note to a friend – is a form of prayer, of connecting with a larger hope.  Perhaps in our words, and actions,  we get beyond thinking we have “no gift to bring” the act of reaching out and saying we care, we miss you, we love you and we hope all good things for you matters in ways we cannot predict.  I will of course listen to my own favorite carols, and reflect on the teachings of my childhood, and the questions of my current years, and the mysteries in the gaps between that seem immeasurable, but there will be moments when what is now, is enough.  Whatever your own heart speaks, I hope you can listen and hear the sounds of hope, the quiet of peace, and the comfort of joy along your walk.  Thanks for sitting a while with me – I wish you, and those you love, a season of promises realized and dreams reborn – until next time. 

One Star in the night … singing silently …

You can hear the music if you listen with your heart.

One Star In The Night, Shown o’er Bethlehem,

Magic in the moment when that lonely star began its lovely song.

Angel’s lullabyOn that holy night, Sung unto a Savior who was born beneath its glow.

One Star In The Night, Rainbow in the dark,

One night to remember; that peaceful night the King of Kings was born.

“One Star in the Night”, music by Maury Laws, Lyrics by Jules Bass – from the 1968 Rankin Bass stop motion animated TV Special, “The little drummer boy”

My gift to you …. freely offered, and worth at least every penny! And – wishing you, and yours, blessings and joy in whatever celebrations you share, now and tomorrow.

Small mercies, great grace, and choices to be made

It was only slightly more than a year ago, March 2020 when our city, our state, and our nation entered a period of what many of us grew quickly tired of hearing was “an abundance of caution”.  Certainly, the steps taken since helped curb the spread of disease and death – sadly, some naysayers came to regret their misplaced beliefs. And almost as certainly, some of the steps we took as individuals, communities and nations were if not unnecessary, ineffective – based on tentative, evolving knowledge that still is far from final.  What worked, what didn’t – time will sort this out, perhaps.  But we all were frustrated and afraid for a very long time – particularly those who lost family and friends forever or came close to an abrupt end of their own lives.  And today, although some indicators here where I live are very encouraging, there are still vast populations of our planet that are struggling under waves of death, loss, and destruction that will not soon disappear.  We have collectively gone through trauma. 

When the vaccines started to be made available early in 2021, first to select populations then slowly widening circles of eligibility, my husband – who fell into a more at-risk category – was able to get his shots, and I was very grateful, and content to wait my “turn”.  Stories began to reach us both – rumors in some cases, personal experiences in others.  Friends with the same insurance coverage but less “eligible” than me had been contacted to receive their first shots; I received multiple, well intended but questionable recommendations to basically go somewhere and simply lie about my employment or status, as others had successfully done.  And, there were individuals in our circle of loved ones who were more at risk than me, still waiting.  You, as well, probably were faced with ethical choices – assuming you wanted to get the shots – and were in an area where there was even any supply. 

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During the year or so since we first entered varying stages of “shutdown isolation”, I had taken refuge by focusing somewhat on fitness, working out on a limited basis initially at home on the back patio with a few hand weights, then enrolling in a “trainer” session program at a  gym where the equipment was brought out on the sidewalk for individual use.  This blossomed over time into a tent workout area in the gym parking lot, then eventually limited access inside the gym itself.  There were friends who spoke to me, and others who did not speak aloud but their perspective was clear – I was taking unnecessary, foolish risks.  I was being selfish and egotistical.  Like so many issues in what seems like an eternity, our differences become exaggerated; chasms, not cracks, start to divide us. For me, going to the gym – albeit not as effectively as I had hoped (yet) – was a way to direct my energy toward something positive, safely. 

One of countless lines in our world, this is the one I stood in, with tentative Hope.

The San Francisco powers that be had set up a mass vaccination program at a local convention center, and someone at the gym mentioned that they knew of two members who had gone to the “stand by line”, who, like me, were not in an eligible category but “walked right in” with little wait and got their shots.  My frustrations at hearing from friends who were less eligible but vaccinated, other “I know the facts more than you” contacts who proclaimed I could go anywhere for a shot, and the encouragement to simply go lie was overwhelming.  It was a horrible circumstance, made worse by all the voices around me claiming conflicting facts and, in a sense, cheering their own status at the expense of the many eligible but frustrated people trying to book appointments, or simply even find a location with supply. The chorus seemed to be saying – hey, dummy, why don’t you have your shots yet? It was incessant; I could not complain for being healthy; but I decided to take a chance. 

On a drizzly cold March Sunday morning, when the “time change” took effect, I left early for downtown, discovered some nearby street parking (a rarity here), and walked to Moscone center, finding a long line growing longer by the minute even before the doors opened.  After an extensive wait through the line snaking around the building and ultimately through the doors – I was rejected.  I was ineligible; they no longer were allowing folks like me to wait for unclaimed doses.  The next day, the window of eligibility was widening to an even greater population statewide – but, still excluding me.  I felt defeated – I did not blame the outdated information, there was no one at fault – it was simply not my time.  That did not stop me from indulging in comfort food which had no effect on protecting me from COVID but sure was tasty, and also completely contradictory to my fitness efforts.  As I walked to my car, I was greeted by more texts, more advice, more insisting that I could go anywhere now to get a shot, everyone was doing it, etc. etc. etc.   I decided to drop my efforts and just hunker down, waiting (as the app proclaims) “my turn”, and finding some solace in the hope that my more at risk friends and essential workers were getting treated. 

I was very stressed out – it affected my husband and others around me.  It was not healthy to try to find a way to stay healthy, in this case.  I gave it a lot of thought.  It was a few days later before I was at the gym the same day as my contact who had encouraged me to attempt my failed efforts – I sat in the car, awaiting my “entry window” by appointment, and just said a prayer, honestly.  Prayer has different meanings for most everyone – I don’t know what I would like, but there are times that I believe it is something that brings me to a kind of peace, and acceptance.  Sitting outside the gym, I just acknowledged that there was nothing I could do; that I would go on, and wait, and let go of my expectations and efforts, as well as the frustrations I felt towards all the conflicting advisors telling me what I was doing wrong; just set it all aside, live my life daily, and trust. 

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As I have written before, I know my upbringing, with elements of religion and some seed of faith – I differentiate between the two – is uniquely personal, and not everyone looks at the events of life and sees anything other than chance in the outcomes.  Nevertheless, if I had not taken the time that morning to silently pray, accept and let go of the vaccine monkey on my back – or, if I had remained in the car, sulking, for another minute – I would not have walked up to the counter and met a stranger.  My friend who had encouraged me to “line up” was chatting with another member as I signed in – I could hear him asking how work was going, and how they had not seen one another in months.  But it was the strangers comment that he was working 12- and 14-hour days, and that they were treating thousands daily, that let me realize this stranger was one of hundreds who worked at the vaccination center I had been turned away from days before.  Then, unexpectedly, my friend turned to me and said, “Hey Norm – how did your visit to Moscone go this weekend”?  Truly without regret, or intent, I just shared that I had been turned away, and that they were no longer offering “unclaimed” vaccines, especially now that a broader eligible population was competing for appointments and shots – and that I was, of course, not yet among them, but it was ok.  

There are moments of grace in our world.  It’s not a word you hear on the news; rarely are there stories about mercy, and miracles. We don’t always recognize these “gifts” – we don’t always see when someone acts out of kindness, we are blinded by the mountains of things demanding our attention – too busy to “see the invisible” surrounding us everywhere.  But for me, this moment was undeniably a miracle, one not sought or expected.  The stranger turned to me and said – how old are you?  I shared that my 63rd birthday was just a few days away, and that I was ok waiting – I could not complain that I am healthy, or that my needs took priority over others. To me, this was just a kind inquiry from one of the many hundreds of staff and volunteers here, and millions worldwide.  But he was not just one of the many – I honestly don’t know what his role was, or his background – but he asked me if I would like an appointment that day; he could add my name to the list, he had a few daily and I could just come around later and give my name at the door, and get my first shot. 

I am not ashamed to admit I nearly broke down crying.  This was a gift, and only moments after I had let go of my demands, my needs, and decided to just walk on in faith as best I could. 

This “heart of San Francisco” stands in the lobby of the vaccination center

That afternoon, my husband dropped me off – there was no line at the doors this time, and as he drove away, I read the handwritten sign – no more “non appointment” shots today.  For a moment I feared my trip was again in vain – but the stranger had said just give my name.  I explained to the attendant at the door who pulled out the list of additions – my name was not to be found.  I asked for follow up and showed the text I had received confirming my appointment – which led to a period of waiting, in silence, alone.  I once again had to just let go. A few moments later, a friendly administrator came by – trying to call my “gym angel” – to no avail. 

We do not always get what we want.  Certainly, we do not always get what we deserve – whether because of good deeds or bad.  It is a myth, I think, to believe that everything is for a reason – we have choices.  My choice, daily, mostly unconscious, is how I conduct myself with others; what I hold dear; how I show love to my husband and family; how I treat strangers.  I fail miserably a great deal of the time, and there are plenty who can attest to that.  But it is in those choices I grow.  I can’t pick the outcomes, only the kind of person I want to be, and try to take little steps toward that goal. 

Who is to say why things ‘work out”, or don’t?  Or even what is the best outcome – we just want to make what we can of our lives.  In my case, on that day – as the administrator rechecked her records, she did find my name, and my smile shone as I rode the escalator down to a crowded hall where hundreds, like me, waited for their time with a nurse, answered some routine questions, and then, felt a little prick.  A tiny sensation that somehow opened the doors to hope more than they were that morning.  As I ascended the stairs to the crowded exits, a familiar face greeted me – if only in cardboard cutout form.  And I walked into the daylight.  Two weeks later, as scheduled, I received my second shot; and, as I write, I am just past the two week “waiting period”.  I don’t physically feel different, or healthier; but I do feel an immeasurable sense of relief.  I held off posting on Facebook, knowing how frustrated I had felt and that thousands like me here were still waiting their turn, while others sat by their loved ones hoping they would recover; my gratitude was humbled because I had received a gift, undeservedly – perhaps that is a fitting definition for grace, in a way. 

Hey, Tony, thanks a bunch!! Glad you stopped by to say hi – but – no mask??

Today, almost a month later, I know there are many more still waiting for their chance to be in that line, or others like it.  Watching the news this week with my husband,  we silently viewed the drone footage of mass cremations outdoors in India; and we know there are many who still do not want to take the shot, or wear the mask.  We are not “through” with COVID by any means – and our communities, country, and planet will not I think ever fully put all this behind them.  Nor should they; we must grow through this. But somehow, I feel I am at a point of turning in my life.  All the time the past year plus that I spent fearful of losing my husband, other loved ones who did become ill, or leaving him and them without me in their lives – there was a lot of sleepless nights, of questioning what my priorities were, and reassessing what I believe.  There were moments of conflict with others that were exacerbated by our joint tensions; changes in relationships; realizations that things that seemed so very important before perhaps don’t really matter as much as I thought they did. 

I am changed.  When I registered this blog in late 2019, Wuhan was not even in the news; it was not until we were isolated in our home that I began posting, just over a year ago.  I have made 34 posts … I have a few friends that sometimes encourage me; I have followers who are strangers.  Someone asked me recently what my blog was about; perhaps if I had registered “The new Normal”.com I would be discovered, but that was not my goal.  I wanted to share, something undefinable – my growth; my discoveries, my questions and my uncertainties.  My humanity – in hopes that someone who might be in the place once was would find some “light” from my path for their own.  Instead, my sharing has been, in a way, a healing process.  We all need healing today, and we are not going to find it on our own.  We are all going through a process of renewal and discovery, separately and together, stumbling, holding one another up; I cannot pretend that I have more answers today, but somehow, I have peace that as I walk – as we all walk the path ahead, wherever it leads – I will find the steps. 

From the Nat King Cole classic – “Nature boy” – my education continues.

Friends, I hope you too will find your way, and reach out to those near you. For me, this is a period of deep reassessment – including my hopes for this blog. A journey, as I titled it, toward “authenticity”. I hope to see you again soon, and that in some way, for some one out there who happens upon my little thoughtful spot – you too, find and share hope. And, grace. Thank you to the “angels” who helped me get my vaccine – and were part of this lesson learned – I had to let go, to take hold – to have my hands open to receive, not reaching, only waiting. They probably will never see these words, and I probably would not know their faces again – but Alice, Bobby, Clarissa, Daniel, Winnie and all those healthcare workers reaching out around the world – you are my angels. See you soon, friends.

Free, for a limited time … after all, isn’t all time limited? Thanks for stopping by!

Look, up in the sky ….

Friends of a certain age would finish that phrase with “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its SUPERMAN!”  And I have lots of fond memories of those shows, movies, and stories, ranging from good old George Reeves (who my Dad denied resembling), up through the recent expanded “Justice League”.  I’d sure love to have super powers – flying, laser vision,  et al would come in handy for day to day life – but that is of course all fantasy.  But recently, I have been looking up in the sky a bit more, and have some thoughts on what I see there –  starting with our recent trip to Muir Woods, less than an hour north of us in San Francisco. 

I was surprised to learn that John Muir really had very little to do with Muir Woods, but rather the famous naturalist was honored with the naming on his behalf by President Theodore Roosevelt, at the insistence of the land donor, a William Kent.   It was the first national monument created entirely by a donation, and Kent wanted to honor Muir, a Scottish immigrant to California, for his leadership in natural preservation and environmental concerns before the phrase was coined, and a co-founder of the Sierra Club.   I had never visited these world famous “old growth” redwoods; for my birthday in 2020, we had planned a trip north but the park, and most of life, was shuttered days before our visit.  It seemed like a promise kept having the chance to at last drive up a year later, surviving all the tempests in between. 

I had of course heard of the majestic redwoods of the Northern Pacific, and how these trees are among the oldest forms of life on our planet, predating humans by millennia – averaging in age from 800 to 1200 years, but some living for 2000 or more.   My grandfather Richard, a descendant of Oregon pioneers from the first wagon train to settle there, was a virtual stranger to me – but among the items I have from him was a poster from the “Pacific Lumber Company” in 1945, titled, “The Redwoods parallel in history”.   The lumber company itself, based further north here in California, was started in 1863 to provide wood during the civil war; in 1945, they issued this poster showing the “San Francisco Peace Conference” as the top of the chain of historical events over its “lifetime”.    That conference, held in this city where I now live more than 75 years later, led to the United Nations charter. 

My husband had wisely made the reservations for parking and tickets early in the day, but there were many cars in the lot already – still, as we proceeded down the path, seeing these giants stretching like fingers from the earth into the sky surrounding us – we had moments of complete isolation, silent except for the song of birds, the buzzing of insects, and the breeze far above our heads.  This was especially true in the aptly named “Cathedral Grove” where visitors are urged to respect the silence in the oldest trees of the Park.  No architect could create more a more majestic tribute to creation than this natural temple which the earth provided without mankind.  Rather than stained glass windows, the sky overhead drew my attention to that which lies beyond. 

And that is the source of my title for this reflection, friends … look up in the sky … what do you see?  After a year in which many of us have felt torn between being beaten down by fears, disappointed by unmet hopes, and faced with crises of all kinds in our personal as well as shared lives – perhaps you, as I, have looked up and asked ourselves what is the meaning of all this.  As I have written before, my own history has been undeniably shaped and influenced by the teaching of the faith in which I was raised … a faith which, at times, has led to great pain, perhaps not as often as great hope and comfort.  Our world, filled with an unending variety of cultures and beliefs over the far lesser period of history than the redwoods have witnessed, has birthed many faiths – and by that term, I deliberately try to disassociate the desire to understand that which is beyond understanding from the structure of religious practice.   Some have lasted, evolved, and changed over hundreds of years – others, disappeared without much left to document their impact other than ancient writing, illustrations and practices.   At their best. the tenets of faith have brought peace, comfort, and hope;  but it is after all we humans who can take what we believe to be true and use it to oppress, crush, and control, as well. 

I am blessed with a wide variety of friends (I take them where I can find them, folks!).  I appreciate that they do not always share my perspective, history or understanding – really, more of a lack thereof – in matters of belief.  As I have grown old – surely, not as old as a these redwood sentries standing silently around me – but feeling the passage of time a little differently than a decade ago, I am realizing that letting go of a desire for certainty brings me a greater peace than insisting I have answers.  I certainly know and understand how the tendency of organized religion to excoriate “outsiders” – including those, like me, who do not conform to their concepts of wholeness, normalcy, or any other measures of acceptability – proclaiming the power of love, practicing the principles of hatred, exclusion and condemnation.  

I respect that people in my life that I love believe – or, as some might say, choose not to believe whatsoever – differently than I do.  We do not have to all be “right”, and I dare say none of us are.  Certainly, in the faiths that celebrate,  as in this season what Christians call “Easter”,  Jews celebrate “Passover”, and other faiths holy days –  there are vast differences in beliefs.  For those who hold these beliefs dear, many do not know, or seek to understand, why the history behind the evolution of those beliefs bring into question aspects of their practices which they would prefer to accept rather than open a Pandora’s chest of uncertainty.  I have always respected the line in “Inherit the wind” where a potential juror questioned by the agnostic defense attorney in a case regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools says “My wife tends to the religion for both of us”; the attorney replies with the question “In other words, you take care of this life, and your wife takes care of the next one?”   It is so much easier to not ask ourselves why we believe – just to somehow hold on, clinging onto the buoy we have found in an ocean of uncertainty, pretending we can keep our head above the crushing waters.  I have found that neither pretending certainty nor ignoring doubt gives me any kind of lasting peace.

Because this is a time of holy reflection for so many in our world – in different faiths – I offer you a personal observation from my own history.  More than half my lifetime ago, as I struggled with trying to find a way to conform to the expectations of others, and the teachings of my church and those who truly did love me, but like me, had a less than complete understanding – I took a trip to Israel with a noted scholar of both the Jewish Old Testament writing and faith, and the Christian New Testament history and traditions. It was a wonderful experience, unforgettable in many ways; it gave me a sense of the sweep of time and belief over centuries and cultures in the small corner of the globe that reverberates still today. We visited “both” traditional sites of Christ’s tomb – one, buried in an ancient Greek Orthodox structure, the other a Protestant site oddly positioned adjacent to a parking lot; and, many other sites of various sects and incidents throughout the history of that conflicted land.  Not surprisingly, both were empty (I had to go there).  We also visited the Holocaust memorial; and, farther from Jerusalem, the crumbled remains of a pagan temple with the signs of the zodiac in mosaic, and a crumbling yet still striking crusader castle from the struggle for control of the “Holy Lands” against Islam.  We were diverted from one area – Jacob’s well – because of safety issues relating to Palestinian acts of defiance nearby.  Centuries of faiths gaining and losing power, leaving relics behind, each one proclaiming its unique, undeniable right to control.  The devotion to those sites – and the bitterness between rivals – has not lessened over centuries. 

As I reflect on that visit now more than half my lifetime ago – and today, as I stare up the seemingly endless length of the towering trees surrounding me in this chapel of nature – I realize that there are many in this world, many of my friends even in my daily life, who have abandoned, discarded and in some cases would if it were within their power would eradicate the concept of faith in something beyond. They see only the destruction and pain that history records. The words that are holy and sacred to some, are for them the names used to curse and hold in contempt.  The practices and teachings, used as weapons to pronounce judgement are wounding for them; at times, they have wounded me, as well.  It is so hard for us to see the little acts of grace, the kindnesses between strangers, as acts of God, through the pain and despair that seems to pile up daily. I cannot tell my friends they are wrong, and I am right, that I continue to believe we are as much spirit as we are physical beings, or that there is a reality beyond that which is measurable, observable by “science”;  our knowledge on this earth is insufficient to capture all truth, and much of what we experience, we know alone, in a silent place in our deepest consciousness, where no one treads and where the light is often hard to find.  I am not a good example of a person of faith; I serve better as a disciple of worry, fear, and uncertainty – yet I still, somehow, believe in that greater source of power – of life – and yes, love.  That which is eternal, and unknowable – but is present, when I look up in awe at these trees, or see it in the beauty of a brief smile, or an emerging seedling, or a faded petal – or in the slumped body of another child of God on the streets around me.  It does not make sense – but perhaps faith lives apart from that which does.   I can only say that my sense of that love, that grace, that power – in whatever limited understanding of “truth” that my mind can encompass – carried me through.  Carries me, still.  Gives me a glimpse beyond, and some sense of peace, and hope. 

I have not been a regular attendant at church for many years; the hymns of my youth were old even then and are mostly not sung today. In fact, being an old man now, I admit I crankily abhor the dependence on other methods of “worship” and entertainment in church gatherings, and the ignorance and lies that are often spoken as truth to congregations of people who trust in their leaders to know better than listen to something deeper speaking to their souls. But I believe there is a value in the tradition of people of faith, as they understand it however imperfectly and incompletely, to gather in churches, mosques, synagogues; to break bread together; to mourn together, laugh together, and pray for one another.  These practices are the real love in action, where each heart In offering the small glimmer of light it struggles to keep burning inside gathers with others and creates a greater light, a common hope.  

In 1984, director/screenwriter Robert Benton created a film, more of a reflection of the lessons of his rural Texas depression upbringing than a memory, that touched on these elements – struggling, flawed, desperate individuals and families dealing with poverty, racism, unfaithfulness and grief – uncertain lives, abandoned and rejected individuals looking for a moment of hope, coming together.  I remember seeing it in Hollywood, and marveling at the depth of compassion shown by these otherwise unexceptional everyday people, just trying to get by, trying to make sense of a world that did not work, did not always show that love, or justice, or hope, prevails.  It features two hymns that I remember from my childhood in the Methodist church – “Blessed Assurance” at the beginning, before an act of violence ends two lives and sets in motion events affecting those who remain.  And, at the end, as a communion service closes the film in a small church where the choir sings “In the garden”, and the minister reads about love from Paul’s first letter to the tiny, outlying church of believers in a radical new faith in Corinth –  we realize suddenly that there are people in the service that weren’t there a moment before; that somehow, they are together even though they are not in that moment. The last two faces, passing the sacred elements to one another as the light fades, are those whose deaths began the film, joined together.  If you have not seen it recently, or before – it is worth a visit one quiet day. Here is that final sequence from Places in the Heart …  

Today we too are faced with the challenge of survival, and at times, it seems overwhelming. Threats surround us, bury us, choke our hope and our joy. It is so much easier to give up on facing the big questions in life.  We can’t really come up with answers as much as make peace with the uncertainty.  But in believing, as I do, that there is a greater source of love, perhaps our goal should be – at least, for those in our little circles of life, coming in and out seemingly randomly – to try to let that love come through us without putting up more barriers.  For Easter this year, Steve Hartman of CBS “On the Road” shared some reflections on faith – how it is shared in this time, how it survives, why it matters still, to many.

The sentries of time in Muir Woods have endured centuries on earth in a way that you and I will never know; staring up at them, knowing they have witnessed more sunrises and sunsets than I can count, leads me to reconsider my own perspective and priorities. As I look “up in the sky” at the vast expanse beyond these ancient witnesses of our world and hear the hymns that the birds sing to ears more able than my own to understand their joy – I truly sense the presence of that greater love that lies beyond daily perception.  I feel it as I hold my husband’s hand and begin another year of life; I believe that greater love brought us together, to what end, I may never know. I believe that same love is reaching out to each of us, even though we cannot see it or prove it or measure it or hold it.  I cannot say what you should look for as you raise your eyes – but I hope you will keep looking, and that in time, we shall all see what is hidden, and know what we have longed to understand.  One day, we all will know – perhaps, gathered together, in a tomorrow beyond anything we can imagine.  I hope to see you there, and smile, again.    

Two Strangers, Two Christmases

I’ve written more than once about how the power of storytelling, especially through film in my own case, can open our eyes to truths we somehow just didn’t see before.  Certainly, I’m a firm believer in the importance of sharing our own true life experiences – honestly, openly in the hopes that others might find encouragement as they pursue their own unique journeys. But, works of fiction, whether in literature, film or other art forms also can bring inspiration – and have done that for me many times in life.  As this will be posted in time for Christmas 2020 – a year without peer, I dare say – my thoughts drift towards two such tales that have very different origins, yet whose primary characters perhaps more in common than one might expect at first glance. 

Charles Dickens created many great works, but for many his most loved is “A Christmas Carol” first published in 1843.  In 2017, a lovely film (not of course entirely factual) gave some insight into how it was created – “The Man who Invented Christmas”, with Christopher Plummer as the Scrooge of Dicken’s creative process. Endless versions and variations have and will continue to be enjoyed long after this year;  the most vivid in my own memory was a one man performance by Patrick Stewart at Cal Tech decades ago complete with multiple characterizations, sound effects and a sense of energy and discovery that he brought to new life. (The full audio performance is available on iTunes, I believe).  

I will never forget seeing this incredible one man performance by Patrick Stewart!

In film, for me, 1970’s “Scrooge” which I first saw in the little Corona theater at age 12 is still a part of my annual celebrations. The musical starring Albert Finney was in many ways a triumph of casting, art, and song – yet it did not initially register with audiences who were more interested in the new cinema of MASH and five easy pieces than a dancing Ebenezer. 

 I bought the soundtrack LP long before VHS made home viewing possible – listening to the songs by Leslie Bricusse, including my personal favorite over the opening credits – a chorus of joy and encouragement.  

Look around about you and see what a world of wonder this world can be! 

It was probably a few years later, in my teens, when (thanks to a gift from my Dad and stepmother of a small black and white tv) that I began to see older films at home, after school.  The ABC affiliate had a 90 minute afternoon movie time slot at 330 – and one day I turned on a black and white film that was spread over two days.  Later, I would see it first “screened” in its entirety at college – then, eventually in theaters in California, and even one December matinee in London, for it’s 50thanniversary.  At first I was mystified why the audience there didn’t seem to love it as much – but, it is a distinctly “American” narrative, made by a director and star who had worked together previously, won Oscars, and both served in World War 2, one as a pilot, the other making films that still are highly regarded for their honest portrayal of that epic struggle.  When they returned home to eventual peacetime, the director wanted to finance his own production – based on a very short story the original author, Philip Van Doren Stern, had included in a 1943 Christmas card to friends – “The Greatest Gift”.  He expanded on the concept and pooled together some of the best talents in Hollywood, including his prior star actor, and built a small town for the location filming.   Perhaps surprisingly it wasn’t a big hit, from an independent production company; and in time, without the licensing and copyright being maintained, the film fell into “public domain”, like the chopped up airing I saw in the 70’s on that little tv.  That circumstance led in time to it being aired so many times, more people saw it, and came to love it – becoming the classic it is today. 

“It’s a Wonderful life” portrayed an America that endured through the Spanish Flu, depression, and World War 2, through the life of its protagonist, George Bailey, in the small town of Bedford Falls. In the years since then, I cannot say how many times, or with how many friends, I have “visited” the Bailey’s and that little town; last year, my husband and I enjoyed a live performance of the score with the film by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, which was unforgettable. 

The film “finale” as performed by the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus

 I’ve had the chance to meet Karolyn Grimes, who played “Zuzu”, the little girl in the film; collected memorabilia (and given it away!), and decorated my tree and now our home with reminders of that story.  It is such a perfectly detailed story, of a time, a place, a family and a set of circumstances – challenges, failures, love, disappointment, loss and hope.  But, mostly to me, the message was – your life matters.  Even if you cannot achieve your dreams; even if you never become what you hoped, or others expected – you can make a difference in this world, one that is uniquely yours – one that is irreplaceable. In my lonely teens, escaping to a world where the promise of redemption was realized at Christmas was one way to hope for a better future. And there was one that I could not then see, but was waiting for me. 

In 2006, I gifted Karolyn Grimes (“Zuzu”) this British 50th anniversary poster!

Much has changed in my life in the now 50 years since I sat in that little local cinema for Scrooge; and the decades since I first watched George Bailey jump off a bridge to end his life on that little black and white screen.   Of course, both stories have happy endings – life doesn’t always offer those, or at least at times the possibility of happy endings seems very difficult to imagine.  Perhaps Christmas 2020 is one of those times for many more than usual, in a most unusual year, bleakness dimming the lights on our homes and in our hearts. 

So as our TV plays the familiar voice of Clarence, George, Mary (and, my special friend Bert the Cop) on Amazon Prime while write; and tomorrow, as I join my husband to again enjoy the dancing, singing cast of Scrooge (with Alec Guinness as Marley!), I have a lot of feelings come up.  If you’ve read anything I have blogged about this year, you KNOW I share my feelings – because I hope that reaches others, and does some good, perhaps – a little George Bailey in me trying to get out.  And I realize – Old Ebenezer and George have a lot in common. 

For my bunny lover friends (and I know at least one!) – here is a special treat!

History – not just fiction – tells us that most cultures have representatives of that part of life which we cannot understand, whether we consider it the afterlife, some representative of eternity, or other spiritual beings that exist outside our ability to measure, but – somehow, we sense, or want to sense, their existence.   Perhaps as some suggest this is just our desire to understand what is beyond our comprehension; for others, these beliefs become deeper truths, very personal truths.  Centuries of faiths with various representatives of such spirits have uncounted stories which most of us will never read or otherwise enter our thinking.  The 3 spirits of Christmas that visit Ebenezer, and the angel hoping to “earn his wings” that answers the prayers reaching heaven as George considers ending his life in despair, are such beings.  Outside forces that enter the lives of two very different men, both on Christmas eve, in very different times and places. 

If you ever wanted to visit “Bedford Falls” – here is one option …… I hope to one day!

Ebenezer, of course, was a selfish, bitter man, hated by many;  Dickens suggests that the spirits visit him because Marley hopes that will save his only friend in life from a similar, doomed fate.  George, a beloved husband, father and citizen who, through his character as much as through his deeds, touched the lives of so many in his small town, had reached a place of hopelessness; through an act of selfishness by Mr. Potter, a “modern day” Ebenezer of post war America, he stumbles onto a bridge hoping to end the life he sees as wasted as the only way to escape his own, undeserved fate.  The spirits help Scrooge, and Clarence helps George, see his life (and the lives of others around them) from a new perspective – and to realize that they want to embrace life anew.    

Many of us know what despair feels like.  Right now, many of our friends and family may be suffering through it, perhaps not with our awareness; trying to find hope.  In other posts, I have talked about some of those periods in my life; thinking back about those who helped me, who either reached out in love or responded to my own seeking of a new way to move ahead, they were the “spirits” helping me to see there was a promise of a better life, perhaps not obvious or easy, but possible.  I remember a counselor sharing with me about the concept of “liminality” – not something I am qualified to explain, but I feel applies in some way to the experience of both our Christmas Eve characters, and perhaps you and I as well. 

The ending you always wanted to see, but Frank Capra left out!

If you look online, where of course there are MANY interpretations of just about any philosophical concept, you can explore perspectives (here is one) on liminality.  I recall that from a purely anthropological sense, the “liminal” state is that “in between” – the middle stage of a “rite of passage”, or a period of growth and becoming.   In religious traditions, similar concepts exist – a stage from separation, between beginnings and the future.  For our two (eventual) heroes, Eb and George – Christmas Eve became a liminal space, in a way – a place between what was, and what could be.  Where spirits could speak to them, and minds, hearts and souls could be open to new understanding.  

I wish I was learned enough, and literate enough, to bring home some insight, awareness to share from these musings with you; all I find I am able to do is to open the door, or perhaps a small window.  To say – or ask – what are the lessons that I learn, that you can learn (or share with someone you love who needs that more than ever at this very instant) – to be open to this moment, now.  To know there is a possible waiting for discovery; a Christmas morn where the presents are not wrapped in paper, but in a renewed spirit that awakens and cries, just like a child at birth, and embraces the future, in faith.  These are OUR unexpected turning points.

To my “Angels” and guiding spirits – THANK YOU for lifting my heart!!

For now, I can only, as always, share what little I have to offer – the thought comes, “to play my drum” for you, perhaps, on this Christmas.  To remember the words of fictional characters that still represent real truths – from George Bailey, his prayer of despair – 

Answers to prayer may not come in the form we expect ……

And from Tiny Tim – not at the triumphant end of the tale, but during the “Christmas Present” where his family struggles with little food, and he is living what the Spirit shows Scrooge is his final Christmas – despite all their travails, faith –

By the immortal Norman Rockwell

Wherever you are today – know, there is hope.  For you – and for you to share.  Until next time – Merry Christmas, and wishes that the New Year brings new joys, discoveries – and renewal, for us all. 

Christmas 2019 – SF Symphony Hall – God Bless us, Everyone!
Thank YOU for reading my blog, as I finish 2020 – see you NEXT YEAR!!!

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No thanks – but thanks – in 2020

Yes, it’s been nearly half a month since Thanksgiving, I know! Why am I so “late” in writing?  Well, I prefer to think that I needed to get to the right place and time to express something worth offering to you – and, perhaps, to discover for myself.  As I go through my reflective/creative process for sharing here, which (like me) is evolving, I often achieve some realizations, awareness, about the issues that are “troubling the waters” of my soul.  There seems to be more troubling of the water, these days.  Some of my friends might be surprised at how much I struggle, daily, and have for many years, with inner conflicts, doubts, depression and uncertainty.  Whether online – here, Facebook – or in person (or zoom!), it’s not that the words I share, or the photos, are not from my heart – they are deeply sincere – but my day to day existence does not always match my aspirations.  

But I have been thinking about thankfulness, gratitude, where it fits in my life – how easy it is to set aside or pretend and just go through the motions.   In reality, choosing to be and express thankfulness is HARD WORK! But also, a very powerful, even life changing force. At last, for now, here are my own small reconsiderations, and reflections on that subject. Or, as an alternate title – “A heaping plate of regrets and a side of disappointment does not make for a pleasant dinner”.

This is not the Thanksgiving you want to have … but it would be memorable!

Even though I am sure anyone reading this has enough weighing on their hearts and is not seeking to focus on my challenges, I am convinced anything I have of value to share are the lessons for which I paid dearly, whether in blood, sweat or tears – that our mistakes offer more room for growth to lead to hopefully our triumphs.  And I know others are like me – struggling to focus on having a positive attitude, expectations and hopes after so many months of, well, everything.  But in that struggle, somehow, the beacon of grabbing onto gratitude in the midst of disappointment still calls out to me. 

I wonder, in my early morning sleep deprived ruminations, what role does the giving of thanks play in our lives today?  What meaning does it have?  If we do not personally believe in what is generically termed a “higher power”, however we frame or conceptualize that – does giving thanks and prayer have any substantive value in our lives?  Are we just begging for help out of desperation, hoping there is someone, something “out there” that will “deliver us from evil”,  eliminate COVID, wipe out our political enemies who so clearly wrong about whatever we are what so clearly right on, and bring back everything we loved about our lives while somehow vanishing the problematic social, economic and other nasty realities we just want to exclude from our awareness?  Or do we just want our “old lives” back – and in the case of far too many, the lives of our loved ones taken from us, struggling to reconcile our grief with our faith. 

Oh, sure, I can put on the “attitude of gratitude” for a while, to fool myself, or maybe appear to for others. It is so very, very easy to mouth the platitudes that I was taught from an early age, whether they be prayers, or songs, or sayings – being thankful for family, food, shelter.  I am very aware that in the larger reality of population I am among the most fortunate of humans, in terms of basic needs, care, and more.  But just saying words is not enough – it is not from the heart.  Perhaps anger and frustration from the heart are more powerful, more real than the practiced pleasant statements that we feel we are expected to include in our traditional gatherings.  Soaking our hearts daily in anger and frustration is like a poison that seeps into every aspect of life.   Our hearts began to be choked into silence by the thorns of despair. 

I have felt like this too much lately … but as I am discovering, there is another way.

So if I was to describe my Thanksgiving – we (my husband and I, and our two cats) followed our local guidelines, and spent the day without in person contact with family or friends, with a low key meal (we are not the chefs that some of our friends exemplify), zooming instead, and enjoying some entertainment.  In many ways, it was a lovely day.  But underneath the traditions, I am dealing with the same frustrations, anger, fears and uncertainties that swirl around us all, daily.   And in that, in the quiet moments when my heart puts all the chaos briefly on pause, somehow, the thought of gratitude keeps bubbling up, saying – “remember me”.  

And I have been trying to do just that.  To remember what it is like to be truly grateful; to think about what that means, when there is so much going on that seems to be coming from someone else’s nightmare, day after day after day.  I try to turn off the news but find myself obsessively checking websites for the latest edict, the latest data, and the latest projections of doom and death.   I juggle that with planning when to go to the store, when to manage our limited time outside the house, and, oh yes, Christmas!  Because I am not going to lose Christmas, dammit! (Try to picture me saying that with a smile, at least in part!) 

2020 has been the year of unwanted presents – but also unexpected gifts

Yet I sense that the way ahead – whether it is “through”, or “out of”, this current state of frustration is not changing the situation – not getting the reality I want – but accepting, embracing the reality I have.  It’s sort of like reaching for something but you can’t because you are too burdened with what you are throttling, trying to choke the life out of, or dragging along with you – you haven’t released it.  If this sounds similar to an entry a few months ago – you are probably right.  I may be circling the same water because I never stopped to taste it.  

I was raised in the traditional Christian church of the 60’s. I didn’t stay in it; I questioned what I was taught versus what I could see in people’s lives; I couldn’t conform to what I felt was expected of me. I don’t have a background in world religions, but I sense that whatever truths about human nature, the way we are built, the way we learn and grow, are central to many faiths.  After all, in many ways, we are a single race, mixed in innumerous cultures and subcultures, families, neighborhoods, classes.  But all of us, in some way, are trying to reach for something we sense but cannot name.   The answers may be unknowable, for us, today.  But the broader truth may be that we must embrace what we have now, make peace with it, yes, even love it and give thanks for it, to be free to move on. 

It’s as though we are trapped in a room and cannot see the door because we are so desperately trying to break through the walls. Think of yourself as a battery – you have energy stored in you; it goes away; but it can also be replenished.  That energy has a focus, where you are centralizing your attention.  If it is on all the things you are frustrated with, it goes into that and produces – probably next to nothing, other than perhaps more frustration for you and those in your life.  Acknowledging our inability to change something is not what my culture taught me. 

Yet, however contradictory it may seem, I sense that it is in a deeper, daily acceptance of our current reality – through giving thanks, gratitude, whatever you want to call it (and to whomever or whatever you wish to express it) – which allows us to eventually be freed from the expectations, demands, fantasies and dreams that we cannot achieve. They have been so deeply woven into our focus, priorities and purpose that they become a cocoon, eve a prison perhaps.  Focusing on our disappointment prevents us from seeing that the path we wanted to take is not the path before us.   We have fixated on the walls of our cell that we want to escape so firmly that we are blind to the doorways which were there all along. 

If the way ahead is not apparent, we must be open to the unexpected and undiscovered

To put it another way – Accepting, truly and completely making peace with the reality we would like to change (and our expectation that we cannot be otherwise whole) allows us to see choices we that were once invisible.  We cannot fully see the possible while we cling to the wished for or expected.  Creating an equilibrium of peace in our current state opens our eyes, and hearts, to new possibilities. 

I am sure those familiar with the history of philosophy can identify the origins of just about any perspective we might take today – I don’t pretend to know those facts.  I just am trying to listen to my heart, and to something outside of myself speaking to me there.  Surely many are familiar with the 12 step programs, initially formalized with AA, and the Serenity prayer in all it’s iterations – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.   I have learned that we do not always share the same challenges, or purpose, or destiny, or understanding – and we cannot let someone else tell us what ours must be.  We have to find our own way, as individuals, and yet – together.  But we are all facing a lot of what we cannot change today, and we all need serenity, equilibrium – stilling the waters of our souls. 

If you google “gratitude quotes” you’ll find an endless listing of helpful websites.  Two rang true with me today, as I work to bring these thoughts to a close.  First, Charles Dickens, whose own life was far from problem free (here is an excellent profile), but whose words still bring hope to readers around the globe in so many cultures – 

And, author Melody Beattie, whose work is not familiar to me but who has written on addiction related issues and provided helpful insights to many – there is no “one size fits all”, of course – 

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie (follow this link for more) on gratitude
In the process of trying to understand what I cannot know … I discover, anew

Thanks for sitting with me for a while, and for reading my little thoughts.  I hope something here may ring true for you – give you some “food for thought” as a post-Thanksgiving feast for the soul (well, maybe a snack, then).  As challenging as times are, the process of focusing on gratitude gives me hope – and that’s something we all need to find, and share, everyday more than ever.  

Until next time – be safe, and find hope – for yourself, and to share. It’s out there!

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An attorney asks a question

This week, in the events happening in Portland Oregon, among others – a man was brutally beaten senseless in the street; his head viciously kicked after he lay helpless, some cheering, followed by others trying to help. A suspect is arrested, blame is being placed – but it won’t be the last.  Perhaps we have reached a place where this is not as newsworthy as other stories – certainly, there is a lot of chaos poured into our eyes and ears daily, along with promises and blame and threats.  It seems to never end. 

That news footage brought to my memory a story, initially from my childhood, and later … much later .. arising from other events in my life. Perhaps you know it, or at least the major elements of it, from Sunday school lessons about “how to be good”.  It has more meaning to it than usually is shared, lost simply because the historical context is less familiar to us.  It’s always interested me, and so .. let us revisit that possibly familiar tale.  You may recognize it, but I suggest there are some aspects that a little more background can add to its meaning. 

First, though … a memory from my own past whose connection will become apparent later. In 1984, early in my quest to somehow find freedom from my “personal defects” according to church teachings, I took a trip to Israel – not just a routine trip, but an archeological study tour. Here are two pics from that trip – the first, a very young and thin me at the Sea of Galilee; and, a shot of me with the trip leader, on the “dig” at Tel Qasile in Tel Aviv, where I did actually uncover the small jug you see (no, I did not get to keep it, it was centuries old, and intact!) I will admit, after seeing “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I was praying to uncover that relic, but did not. 

The Sea of Galilee at Dawn, and, Tel Qasile (with my California Bean Growers Assn. hat!)

It was a wonderful trip – and it included stops at sites associated with all aspects of the region’s history, not just Christian.  Among them, what is known as “Jacob’s well” in Samaria, where according to New Testament writings in the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke to the “woman at the well”, promising her that if she knew to whom she was speaking, she would ask for and receive from him “living water”, “welling up to eternal life”.   We did not stay long – this was the early 80’s, and there was what was described as “rock attacks” in the area.  But we did make another stop, because the children of that area, due to inbreeding, were known for their susceptibility to genetic defects, and the tour organizer would always stop along the way to greet them. 

A photo of “Jacob’s Well”G about 100 years ago

The tale that comes to mind originates in this region. As in most faith traditions, there are people who like to point to their own “good housekeeping seal of approval” – they follow the rules, they “do the right thing”, and are generally pretty pleased with themselves.  Another common feature in many faith traditions is pointing to compliance with specific rules, policies, traditions and doing one’s utmost to always be strictly obedient.  In this story, one described as a “lawyer” – an educated man, familiar with religious laws, intellectual and respected in the community – asked a spiritual teacher what he could do to be guaranteed entry into eternal life.  The teacher responded not with an answer, but a question – what does the law say?  After the lawyer faithfully quoted scripture – to love God with all your heart, soul and strength – and your neighbor as yourself. The teacher acknowledged that the lawyer was correct – but the lawyer, perhaps not unlike some we know today centuries later, wanted to be sure he knew all the angles. And so, he asked again – who is my neighbor? 

The teacher responded not with an answer, but with a story.  A man, on a specific road that those from the area knew well – a steep, treacherous, winding road in the wilderness, where dangers were known to be common – fell victim to those laying in wait, who robbed, stripped and beat him, and left him for dead.  That passage is still in use today – in fact, in his “Mountaintop” speech the day before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. described travelling down that very road – knowing it’s relevance to church teachings – and seeing how dangerous it was still, centuries later. 

It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing….. That’s a dangerous road”.

Martin Luther King Jr.

As the story continues, there is a sign of hope!  A priest is coming and surely sees the beaten body by the side of the road – broken – abandoned – helpless.  But no … the priest crosses to the other side – seeing, but avoiding, perhaps thinking he is dead but – not getting close enough to see if maybe, he might have survived.  Sometime later – another respected, public man of faith, one especially trained in the details of its intricate laws and traditions, so much so that his judgment was sought in matters of “right” and “wrong” – approaches … but he, too, crosses to the other side of the road, moving along his way – the body again, alone.  But, a 3rd passerby stops, sees the body, and chooses to help – described only as the Samaritan.

Now you probably recognize this as the story of the “good Samaritan”.   The teacher, Jesus, or in the original Hebrew more properly Yeshua or Joshua, was an itinerant preacher whose growing crowds and reputation for miracles was growing, becoming a threat to established practice, and a symbol of resistance to his people, occupied by the invading Roman forces.  He (or more properly, Luke) never described the Samaritan as “good”, only by his tribe.  Because – the idea of a Samaritan being of good character was completely alien to his audience.  You see, Samaritans were viewed as “outsiders” by traditional Jewish culture – a rebellious sect who had abandoned the revered practices of their ancestral faith, who had attacked the symbols and were ridiculed and treated as dirt by the majority population of that region.  Samaritans were, for many, the lowest of the low – worthless.  Without value. 

What the road between Jerusalem and Jericho looks like in this century.

Samaritans, like the “woman at the well”, were descendants of ancient Hebrews who had not been taken into captivity during an earlier occupation, who in time developed different sacred beliefs.  There are minimal other references to Samaritans in the Christian New Testament we know; in another Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only one came back to give thanks – the Samaritan. With both examples, Jesus – a Jew – was interacting with someone who, according to Jewish traditions, was to be avoided at all costs, unholy, unworthy.  He defied expectation. 

As Jesus finishes his parable, despite their ancestral traditions of mutual hatred – it was this man, who bandaged his wounds; carried him on his own beast to an inn, and paid for his care, until he returned again to pay the remainder owed.  We do not know what the wounded traveler learned of his rescue; or if he ever met his benefactor.  In finishing his example, Jesus did not answer the lawyer’s question of “who is my neighbor” – instead, responding only with a question in return. 

Who was a neighbor to the man lying on that wilderness road,

left for dead, beaten and alone? 

For a Jewish teacher to suggest that a Samaritan – members of two very different yet related tribes and traditions – would respond to the need when the victims more direct brethren ignored it, for reasons unspoken and unknown – was a radical challenge to the questioner for self-examination.  Would he have responded to the need of someone who not only had he been taught, all of his life, to hate – and, by all expectations, would have hated him as well? Could he had even known that this man lying in the road was a member of that larger group who treated his people as dirt – was it obvious somehow from his appearance, his dress, his skin, his features? We do not know.  It is, after all, a parable – an allegory.  

Yet, the seed within the story is one of hope – that individuals can choose to set aside what they have been taught; how they have been treated; to show mercy and love, instead of shutting doors, and leaving those in need, behind.  That choice is present for us, today.  Perhaps it is needed most for us to offer to the people that we would ordinarily despise, reject, condemn, “cancel” and write out of our lives – for their sakes, and for ours as well.

I have not always been a good neighbor; I don’t have the purest of hearts nor do I do all that I can to help those in need around me.  Few of us make the choice to fully commit to a life of service, such as Mother Theresa. I certainly don’t expect anyone to consider me a saint or even a good example of tolerance.  But that Samaritan, defying his culture and the expectations of those around him, gives us all a reminder to ask ourselves – how can we, even in just a little way, be part of the answer to the needs of those discard broken, rejected and alone?  Are we embracing hate, labeling, casting aside “others” – for whatever reasons we consider perfectly justifiable in our own reasoning – instead of simply, reaching out? Especially in these times – where daily we see chaos, if not in our neighborhood, on our screens – and need, if not in our homes, well within our ability to impact, somehow.  

We don’t know, fully, what the attorney who asked how to be guaranteed eternal life interpreted the story.  Luke, in his account, merely gives his response to Jesus’ question – who was the neighbor – as “The one who showed him mercy”.   Did his life change after that encounter?  Perhaps what we should ask ourselves is – does ours need to?  Whether you believe in a divine force in whatever form – I think it is worth considering.  But, I will leave the final word, to the final words attributed to Jesus in the account.   

“Go and do likewise”. 

“The Quality of Mercy is not strained” – Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

Note -Today, the small Samaritan community still survives and is more open to learning how to use science to reduce the risk of genetic defects in future generations. I found an interesting entry about the genealogical and DNA factors for this small group, here – 

https://blog.23andme.com/ancestry-reports/more-than-just-a-parable-the-genetic-history-of-the-samaritans/