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/

Beyond measure

On Tv this week, we saw a 60’s engineer use a slide rule, and I wondered how many viewers might not have any idea what it was. I never learned to use one myself – but I sure remember how expensive those Texas instrument calculators were before they became more commonplace in the 70s. So much of life seems to be about measurement – starting with learning our numbers in elementary school, or maybe standing in the hallway or garage to have our growth commemorated and celebrated. 

I loved storytelling and the library from my earliest years, and music  – and eventually the old musicals on TV, like Danny Kaye in “ Hans Christian Anderson”. The great Frank Loesser wrote several original songs for that picture, all lovely – but today, the one still performed by artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, the Muppets,  and John Coltrane. Apparently, unlike “The Ugly Duckling” or “Thumbelina”,  “Inchworm” was not derived from one of Hans’ stories, but it resonates for many through the contrast of school children sadly singing “two and two are four, four and four are eight” while Danny Kaye sings his suggestion the inchworm stop measuring the marigolds, and consider instead their beauty. 

Danny Kaye, “Inch Worm” by Frank Loesser, from “Hans Christian Anderson”

Of course measuring is very important to life – my career was based on it. I chose accounting as a career path, learning to categorize, measure, trend and forecast – almost like a psychic with a calculator instead of a crystal ball. Two of the greatest 20th century minds of business management both emphasized the critical nature of measurement to success. W. Edwards Deming used statistics to reinvigorate production models- but also acknowledged the limits of measurement. 

W. Edwards Deming, a 20th century measurement and statistical manager pioneer

I had the wonderful opportunity to study under another great mind of management theory – Peter Drucker, famous for declaring “what gets measured gets managed”. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and was known for his ability to accurately read trends and their implications. But I vividly recall his words that his secret was simple – he simply would look out at what was happening in the world around him as it passed by, and consider the implications. His principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business. In fact, at one of his annual Claremont graduate university alumni events, evangelist Rick Warren, author of the bestselling “Purpose driven life” paid tribute to Peter as a mentor and friend whose teachings helped him in his own ministry. Drucker’s principles of leadership are still studied, taught and practiced today, not only in business.

Often we seek to treat everything as reducible to a numeric value – our grades, our weight and blood pressure, our income and budget.  But we also measure, compare and in other ways – “measuring up”, “fitting in”,  conformity, meeting expectations of our social circles, our parents, and even using our children as somehow indicative of our comparative value.  Yet every milestone we have achieved eventually leads not to a place of rest, but a quest for the next goal.  It can become a constant cycle of trying to prove our worth – that we “made it”. But what is – “it”? 

It’s interesting to me that my writings occasionally lead to comments from friends that there are elements of Buddhist perspective in my writing. I am unfamiliar with  Eastern or Buddhist traditions or thinking; my child and early adult religious traditions varied from standard denominational Christianity to evangelical, and beyond. But for me, and many others, unfortunately the emphasis in those lessons and standards was heavily weighted towards measurement, striving, achieving, conforming. I have come to believe and accept that striving to be something we are not yet needs to be balanced with accepting and sharing honestly who we are right now. And, a hand in hand – learning to offer that same acceptance to others. 

Our desire to measure ourselves against one another can lead to more than just faulty reporting. This week, in a zoom meeting of a few dozen LGBT individuals trying to work together towards meeting needs in our community, we were abruptly and viciously “bombed” by intruders.  Loud music, shouted curses, ugly expletives and hateful labeling made speech for a moment impossible. It was shocking. But what struck most deeply was the power of 3 words – an old and deep lie – God hates faggots. The stain remained after they were disconnected. It remains in their hearts.

I don’t consider God to be a four letter word.  But I know and respect that many – including myself – have been scarred, abused and rejected by those who claim to speak in the name of what they consider to be the ultimate authority, by whatever name they think of it. Yet I feel sad for anyone, for all of us, who have put any hope of a loving creative force aside in a box and labeled it as poison, or something destructive to be not embraced but avoided. In our pain, anger, or fear – we limit the ability of a greater spirit to what we have experienced and seen, closing it off from our hearts, or like the voices of hate on that zoom call, using a twisted version of it to tear down those different from ourselves.  Their limited vision is not the truth. Simply put – their God is too small. Do we, with our desire to measure, to limit, to contain and define and control – do the same?

Humanity and societies across our globe throughout centuries have looked beyond what we “know” for a framework to understand that which is perhaps unknowable – the truths outside of our intellects, that we sometimes sense in a way words cannot express and numbers cannot define. Might it be true that that which is eternal is beyond measure in the senses which our culture and society have hammered into our ways of thinking? That the forces we cannot see or understand are inherently bigger than any box or structure, paradigms or writings might try to reduce it to? Could it be that someone in BCE 400 might experience that eternal Power in a way different than someone on the other side of the globe in CE 1200, or than you do where you are in 2020, and how I do today? Is it that hard to stop trying to put God in a box where we control Him/Her/Them, and instead – just try to listen? It’s hard to hear much when you’re doing all the talking. 

Perhaps what we consider to be irrational is based in a different kind of knowledge – not scientific is the traditional sense, but an understanding that cultures and generations have reached towards without ever truly fully grasping – because it is beyond our ability to encompass with our intellects, beyond being able to capture it in words or images.  In my youth choir and years of seeking my own sense of peace for the questions that have both limited and freed me, my traditions have included many of the old hymns that were common more than a century ago.  One such hymn was written by a Frederick M. Lehman, who as I discovered as I  researched for this article, was surprisingly born in the same small region in Germany where my great great grandfather William Granzow emigrated from in the 19th century – Mecklinburg, Schwerin. That hymn, “The love of God”, is most famous for its final, third stanza. By his own account, more than 100 years ago Lehman heard an evangelist quote those words, as found on the walls of an asylum cell.  To me, this simple analogy captures the futility of measuring, and the immense beauty of that unknown infinite –  

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the sky of parchment made; were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade; to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.

Frederick M. Lehman, “The Love of God”

Interestingly, other background articles on this verse show striking similarities to Hebrew sacred texts dating back to the 11thcentury, and also to a passage in the Quran dating to the 7th century. Perhaps beyond the limits of our precepts there are commonalities in the yearnings of our souls. 

https://hymnstudiesblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/the-love-of-god-is-greater-far/

https://hymnstudiesblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/the-love-of-god-is-greater-far/

Whoever wrote these words, and however they knew them, scrawled on the walls of an asylum, found meaning, and hope from them. For all, our quest to make sense of life – in essence, to obtain what may be only an illusion of control through knowledge – we inevitably reach a juncture where answers fail but questions remain. One of my favorite obscure films is “They might be giants” with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward from 1971.   Scott is a brilliant judge who has retreated after his wife’s death into seeing himself as Sherlock Holmes; his therapist is, perhaps coincidentally, a Dr. Emily Watson. “They might be giants” of course refers to Don Quixote, fighting his windmills who he sees as threats in a quest to become the hero. Holmes tells Watson that only by looking at the things we think we “know” and considering the possibility that they might be something else, do we find the opportunity for new discoveries, new truths. Watson tries to “cure” him as they seek Moriarty in 70’s NYC, featuring an exquisite score by John Barry.  

Photos and John Barry soundtrack theme from 1971’s “They Might Be Giants”

Do they defeat Moriarty, or does he even exist? The film in some ways asks the same questions we all face – or avoid facing. The final words on the screen always struck me as simple, yet profound-

The human heart can see what is hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.

“They might be giants” screenwriter William Goldman, who also wrote “The Lion in Winter”, “Robin and Marion” and “Nicholas and Alexandra”
Joanne Woodward as Watson and George C. Scott as “Holmes” in They Might be Giants

There are elements in all our lives that may defy measurement or understanding,  yet have for more significance than all the seemingly pressing demands that scream for our attention.  I’ve reached a place where questions without answers are ok. Where measuring still plagues me at times, but is balanced with an awareness that a greater love reaches out to me, and all of us, not limited by the words that demand more from us, but instead offer grace  to us.  This passing era – when all we have taken for granted seems uncertain, when there are no answers – brings a hidden gift.  For a moment – we can choose to pause, cease seeking to know – and to listen.  Not perhaps for answers – but for new questions.  And like the inchworm, to stop measuring, and see the beauty that shimmers around us,  in awe – listening, silently.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not – you can enjoy this film on YouTube – for now.

Tattered pages, echoes of faith

Robert Titus Pence and Elizabeth Conger … their names written in faded ink on a colorful page, along with their children.  Nearly 175 years have passed since they wed in 1847 – but it still speaks.  I hear the whispers as I carefully explore the pages, images, and scraps inserted by those long gone. 

Robert’s grandfather, Johann Heinrich Bentz, changed his name to Henry Pence when he emigrated to the colonies in 1749, arriving in Philadelphia with his family at age 9 – hard to imagine a journey like that for a little boy.  Henry married at age 25 and had at least 16 children, raising them in the colony of Virginia, including Robert’s father, “Judge” John Pence. Born there is 1774, John really was a judge, and eventually settled in Oquawka, IL on the western border, married 3 times and fathered 16 children as well.  Just think of how many grandchildren Henry must have had! Robert was born in 1817.  After his first wife and infant daughter passed, Robert married Elizabeth Conger in June 0f 1847, and raised their family of 11 children in Oquawka. 

“RT Pence 1876” is written on an otherwise blank front page of the leather bound bible, making it nearly 150 years old.  It is huge and heavy, worn – perhaps from use, but probably mostly from age.  It is difficult to imagine someone reading this by candlelight, carrying it across the continent over generations. The “family record” page is in color, and legible – but the binding is collapsed, pages missing and torn.    Like many of the items that have found their way to my files, library and stacks of paper – it is irreplaceable.  A reminder of people mostly forgotten except through a few preserved stories and photos with forgotten faces.  They speak to me through these once lost treasures – and their unspoken testimony. 

After their first child, son Harry, was born, Robert captained a wagon train to Hangtown, California, during the gold rush – now, Placerville.  The account of that journey was shared with the readers of the Oquawka “Spectator”, departing in March 1850 and arriving in July.  I had always thought that was how his family came to be here in California, spreading west – but I was wrong.  He returned home, safely but not richer, and remained for nearly 20 more years – their last child, my great grandfather Arthur Sherman Pence, was born there in 1847.  In 1870, Robert and family lived in Kansas, but eventually he bought ranch property in Parkfield, California. 

I have always thought it providential that so many pieces of my family history have somehow found their way into the stacks of paper I now sort through, gaining and understanding of how challenging it was for my ancestors to come from other continents here, hoping for a brighter future.  It was not easy for any of them, from Germany, Portugal, Scotland and Britain, nor from the family members they married from Spain, Mexico, and other areas of Europe – building new lives, surviving, sacrificing and struggling.  Their lives are woven through time into a tapestry whose colors I am just beginning to see – a living legacy across the west and beyond. 

The Sutro library here in San Francisco has a copy of a book written by another son of Robert’s, Kingsley Adolphus Pence – who, although married, died childless, but lived a fascinating life.  Like me, he developed an interest in writing about his family heritage, and published his book in 1912, now available online as well as in many genealogical libraries, including many photos and anecdotes.  Another distant relative, Richard “Dick” Pence, was a pioneer as well, an early advocate of computer based genealogy. He maintained a website about the extended Pence family which I found online, and corresponded with before he passed in 2009.  He provided me with the transcription of my great great grandfather’s journey west.  It is intriguing to me that two generations at least before me were drawn to understanding their family’s past. 

As I turn through the pages of the Bible, I realize I am probably the first in decades to do so.  How it came into my Uncle Morley’s hands I am not certain, but I am grateful to have it now.  There is a letter from Robert Titus written from Parkfield in 1886 – mostly illegible, to one of his sons. I know that my great grandfather, Robert and Elizabeth’s youngest child Richard, eventually worked for the railroad in California and Oregon, where he met his wife Nellie, one of the pioneer Applegate family.  As was the case with many families, unlike his parents, they had only one child – my grandfather, whose two children were my uncle and Mother.  There are letters from Arthur to his brother, thankfully typed – and from them I learn that he needed his brother to provide a notarized statement of the Bible as proof of Arthur’s birthdate and citizenship.  This would make him eligible for the Railroad Retirement act of 1934, in the depths of the depression – he had remarried and was reaching out for help, and the Bible record of his birth gave him the proof he needed to receive it. 

There are also clues to the heritage of Richard Titus Pence wife, Elizabeth Conger, who was little more than a name to me. I find inserted among the pages a copy of the Oquawka Spectator from August, 1902 … describing her passing and burial.  There are also two handwritten brochures from her brother, an O. T. Conger, who is mentioned in the newspaper. One appears to be a treatise on “Foreign Missions” that he presented in Lincoln, Omaha, Malvern and New Albany on occasions ranging from 1874 to 1885; another, in very tiny detailed script, is titled “A quiver of arrows” and includes thoughts and stories – apparently a reference for him in developing sermons, as a little digging shows him to have been a respected Baptist minister.  I find online his obituary showing he left behind a widow and 3 children – I hope one day to find a descendant who would see these as treasures to preserve of their own heritage. 

But it is the remembrance article from 1902 that tells me the most about Elizabeth, her family, and the impact of faith on at least some of her children.  Robert had passed in 1889 and she spent her final years with a daughter’s family in Colorado; at the time of her passing, five sons remained alive, and one, Robert Lincoln Pence, accompanied his mother’s body back by train from Colorado to Illinois, to be buried where her husband family had been laid to rest at Rozetta cemetery.  As I read the words, the depth of feeling is conveyed in a way that still holds power over 100 years later ..

“And now, in the old grave yard, where are laid her father and mother, where he sisters are laid, where he husband and our father, where her daughters and our sisters are sleeping, in the presence of old associates, the casket, borne by the arms of old friends, is our mother laid. Perhaps we, her sons, may never be permitted to see the graves of those near to us again, but in this old haven of rest, the old burial ground at Rozetta, it seems meet to leave her”.  

Oquawka Spectator notice of passing of Elizabeth Conger Pence, August 1902
Memorial Card for Robert Titus Pence, in my grandfather’s papers

I do not know fully the history of how my ancestor’s viewed faith – many families then, and some now, simply had bibles given to them. So, it is impossible to know what meaning faith had to these souls long gone; whether the Bible was simply a volume to record births, or a source of hope and encouragement.  For now, it is time to put it away again, until such time comes as another follows after my quest ends. It and other documents of faith for families over centuries has served many different purposes, and for many today they are of lesser relevance – but the impact of faith itself on their voyages, their quest, reaches into our own even if only buried deep in our DNA.  Whatever answers they sought, and found, are not unlike those that many of us have today, in very different times. They too, perhaps even more so, faced an uncertain future, with hopes and dreams, fears and obstacles. The faith of our fathers and mothers may be one we do not share, or even know – but its seeds brought forth our own lives as well. I find comfort in these letters, and these tattered pages, knowing that as they sought strength and guidance to make their way through the challenge of an emerging world, so shall I.  So shall, hopefully, we all.  

Walking in the darkness

Being trained as an accountant had many, many advantages. For one, it kept me employed, and I am grateful for that. I was drawn math from an early age in school, because I wanted to be able to “get the right answer” – in class, on papers, for grades … and then, in life. Being “right” was just SOOOO important, I am sure I tried the patience of many people over my life with that so called “need”. A lonely child, I didn’t have many close friends in school – so I got some sense of worth by getting grades.

However, life is not a math problem you can solve. Insisting on being “right” didn’t lead me to the life I wanted in my heart. The older I get, the more I begin to see that wisdom is not having knowledge, not having answers, not knowing what is right – but wisdom is rather knowing, even celebrating, that you cannot have the answers all the time. Then, finding a way to live without them, or at least all of them. And in that fundamental ignorance, that powerlessness to know absolutely – to not be able to be “right” – to find contentment. To be at peace with the limitations of your ability to understand.

This week, nearly a month into “shelter in place”, many around the world find they cannot hold their traditional commemorations of traditions of faith together – in particular, Passover and Easter. As a child, I have many memories of Easter morning excitement, egg coloring and hunts, church services, dinners and stories about bunnies and about Christ. And, as was true for many in that time and our society, I was told these things were very, very certain and absolute. In my teens, down the street, I became friends with someone from my junior high whose heritage was Jewish, and came to realize they had very different celebrations. Over the years, through relationships, travel, reading and a lot of personal reflection, I realized that there were a lot of questions about truths that I had been taught – questions I could not answer. Reasonable questions, that for some, could not be discussed or considered.

So today is Easter 2020, one quite different than most of us have known in our lifetimes. Last year we attended a beautiful service at Grace Cathedral, a San Francisco landmark and refuge for decades, with traditional music, ceremony, and readings. This year, Grace and other houses of worship and reflection lie empty. I awoke and made a short trip to our local park with a hillside view to watch the sunrise – trudging along the dark path alone, only the birdsong to greet the dawn. But the dark only turned into a dreary gray, clouds and fog making no space for sun to burst through in glory. Still, I knew it was there, and found comfort in that quiet hour, watching our city awaken.

When we “hold certain truths to be self evident”, or grab tightly on to some belief system because it is so central to our identity that we cannot bear to open our mind to the possibility that it has never been true – we burrow into a cave, close our eyes, and die. Our spirits die, hiding in the dark, afraid to be found out, to be discovered as somehow being “wrong”. But it is in admitting my own flawed character and my ignorance that I begin to see light – a love that transcends the rules and limitations of the past. Our world needs that love. I have many, many friends who have extreme bitterness about their treatment at the hands of people of faith – many faiths – because they did not conform. That works both ways – there is plenty of finger pointing to go around, plenty of blame, plenty of “practice what you preach” and “you didn’t live up to what you expect of me”. Maybe we need to let go of some of the things we grasp and take hold of one another hands instead.

People of faith, many faiths – the world religions but also the smaller, less traditional or more personal belief systems – have done much to reach out with love, to build our world, to support understanding and peace. Great damage has been done as well in the name of religion – power, conquest, dominion, riches at the expense of others. Many have been so hurt by actions done in the name of deity that even the concept of a loving creator is unthinkable. Perhaps they are right, but I have reached a place where I can understand that the actions of individuals or groups don’t necessarily support or refute deeper truths – but also that ultimately I won’t probably ever have the answers to my questions. Being at peace about my lack of answers allows me to acknowledge my own fallibility, and embrace that others imperfections, and move beyond those limits to share with those around me what we have to offer in love and acceptance.

In my friends and family there are many ways of thinking embraced, but every one of those people in my life demonstrate love, and I treasure them all. I still hold many beliefs – some that continue to grow and evolve. I don’t try to explain them or make them fit every situation, because – they don’t. So, at Easter, and Passover, and other times of memories and celebration, in part because my knowledge of them both has increased over the years, I respect the needs of all around me to reach out and be in touch with something Eternal outside themselves. Whether through ritual cleansing, special prayers, songs or moments of reflection – or perhaps outreach and community gatherings – I see the value of holding on and expressing faith in a greater Power.

At last, I am a least a little closer to be able to accept a love that comes from beyond my understanding, walk in it, and try to share it – without understanding it, or labeling it, or trying to put it in a box with a bow for others to accept. Without trying to prove it or convince someone, but … trying to live it a little better. And I feel a kind of peace, at least, in no longer needing to have the answers. For me, the answers are in the hearts, and the loving smiles and acts, of those who turn their eyes upward and seek deliverance, seek forgiveness, even though we sense that on their own, we are undeserving, but the source of that Love they feel offers it freely. Perhaps that is a kind of wisdom, but even if foolish, I will gladly be a fool for the gift of giving and receiving grace. And love. Love, always.