Monday, November 23, 2015

When Death Tries to Defeat Love, Death Loses

My circle of friends and family have been mourning the premature and altogether tragic death of a good and honorable man. Terry Read, just 57 years old, was struck and killed by an automobile while walking his dog near his home in Los Angeles. He and his wife, Linda, serve as full-time ministers in the Community of Christ, a small denomination with international headquarters in Independence, Missouri. Together with their daughter, Andrea, they are a remarkable family committed to their faith, to community service, and to each other.

Terry was a giant of a man, hovering over almost anyone he encountered, but carrying the most humble and gentle spirit imaginable. He spoke softly, listened intently, and touched tenderly. He was tenacious and yet considerate on a basketball court, quickly lending a hand to those he knocked over, couldn't help himself, graciously apologizing. He is one of those people about whom one never hears a bad word. Truly.

This reflection is not intended as a tribute to Terry or his family, although I could write into the night about their lives and accomplishments. There are already many hundreds of those on their Facebook pages, soon rippling into the thousands, demonstrating the constellation of relationships that grace their lives. There one will also find the remarkable words of his beloved wife, Linda, and their wonderful daughter, Andrea. They are each embodying what Henri Nouwen called the "wounded healer," distilling from their grief words of hope and redemption that comfort others.

Terry, Andrea, and Linda Read
I have found my own response to be more tears than words, unusual for me. I tend to look to language as my way of working through difficult times, but instead I found myself inconsolable for a while--disbelieving, unaccepting, angry, denying, pounding my fist and erupting with "No, no, no!" I cried out for justice: "This is as good a human being as I know. Why Terry? Why this family that gives so much of themselves? It's not right! It's not fair!"

When I write it down like that it sounds like a petulant third-grader with a lower lip curled out declaring the world to be unfair because their little brother got a bigger scoop of ice cream. And I suppose in the grand scheme of things, my cry for justice is about as shallow as that, although it didn't seem so at the time the telephone call pierced the night with the horrible news.

Terry is not letting go of me. I am haunted by the fact we share the same birthday, although not the same birth year. Photographs of him are popping up everywhere and they speak to me  of his life, not his death. I hear his voice, I remember conversations we had at camps and retreats, walks in a nearby neighborhood when he came to town, projects we worked on together, some going back decades. The other day while I was looking up some things about Terry, I came across a letter he and Linda wrote me several years ago at a particularly needful time. It touched my heart then, and now, over a decade later, it touched me again as if he was beside me, arm over my shoulder, speaking those words of love and support.

It may sound like we were the closest of friends, inseparable. But that is not so. I'm sure there are hundreds of people who would speak this way. Terry had only friends; there were no enemies.

That's where love comes in. When you give it out, it comes back. It is not just that it survives, it thrives. Given my initial soul-sobbing, fist-pounding, death-denying, love-ignoring response to this tragedy, you can imagine my surprise at reading the hundreds and hundreds of responses from family and friends who saw only love, who looked at it the way Terry would have seen it, not with anger or questions or despair, but with gratitude for this gentle man and with love for the community that embraces him. It was as he had been taught and as he had taught.

I should have known. I do know. I guess I just forgot for a while. None of this is to take away the profound sadness, the terrible hurt, the numbing sense of loss. But already, those are being overcome by a family choosing to be healers, knowing that the healer will also be healed.

"Oh death, where is thy sting?" That question is posed in I Corinthians 15:55, and is answered by Terry Read and by those who love him. And here is the answer: "Death, you came up against love, and you lose."

Love wins. Every time.

Rest in peace, Terry Read, awash in the love of those who have been loved by you, and assured that your wonderful family will be enveloped in the love you saved up for them. Stay with us awhile and you will see.

Monday, November 02, 2015

"Oh the Losses I've Seen. Glory Hallelujah": The Spiritual Significance of the World Series

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
Glory, Hallelujah

Sometimes I'm up, sometimes
I'm down, oh yes, Lord
Sometimes I'm almost
To the ground, oh yes, Lord

The old Negro spiritual describes a horrific kind of suffering, but in the process it also manages to define the human condition itself, both in its sorrow and its redemption. The spirituals sing of life in its lowest moments, in its deepest despair, but within the same verses embody faith ("Glory, Hallelujah") and hope ("oh yes, Lord"). These powerful lyrics have been sung around the world, applied to all manner of trouble and all forms of salvation.

I certainly wouldn't want to equate baseball to the conditions that birthed the spirituals, but it does offer an analogy that helps explain what is going on today, especially in Kansas City, but many other places as well. Last night, as the clock ticked past midnight on the east coast, a band of lads in blue erased three decades of baseball futility, bringing a World Championship to Kansas City for the first time since 1985. A significant number of those players were not even born when the pain began.

I'll be quick to acknowledge that sports is an imperfect metaphor for ruminations about life, marked as it is with greed, cheating, mistaken priorities, and moral ambiguity. But since life suffers similar shortcomings in virtually all its expressions, we can probably let it serve without undue apology.

I am a lifelong fan of the grand game of baseball. I truly believe that the kind of game it is, the multitude of human stories that are played out in every contest, and its respect for its own heritage and tradition, infuse it with meanings beyond itself. Some say "baseball imitates life." Others go further, claiming that "baseball is life"--a tad pretentious, perhaps, but I respect the sentiment. At the very least, the game offers parallels to life that are useful and worth pondering. I think that is evident on the streets and airwaves of Kansas City today. What happened isn't just silly playfulness. It is about people allowing a game to speak to the hole in their souls.

Today there are scores of writers and pundits pounding out elegant descriptions of the World Series and its meanings. The game lends itself to literary endeavors; there are dozens of anthologies that collect thoughtful prose about America's Pasttime. It's just that kind of game.

A year ago I wrote several pieces about that enchanted season that foreshadowed last night's triumph. The 2014 Wild Card Game, still the greatest game I've ever seen and arguably the best ever played, prompted some musings about "baseball and the soul." And the excruciating loss in the seventh game of the World Series led me to a "joyful lament" about what had been gained and what had been lost. I was clearly captured by the quixotic journey out of the wilderness. It had provided a salve to year after year of 100-loss-seasons, embarrassing video lowlights that reminded one of the Katzenjammer Kids, and where baseball's classic promise to "wait till next year" became a cruel hoax. Such angst triggered reflection, hence the blog posts.

I was a little surprised therefore to discover that during this historic season of winning--seven straight victories out of the box, sole possession of first place in the division for virtually the entire season, and the best record in the American League--I had hardly written anything about baseball, and then only tangentially. It's as if defeat was worthy of attention, but I had nothing much to say about winning.

My initial thought of a title for this post was "When Losers Win." But somehow it felt kind of like a junior high kid in a schoolyard spat calling another kid "Loser!" It didn't capture the intent.

But the truth is that this baseball season, with its Houdini-like escapes, its personal drama (three Royals players lost parents in the last few months), and its embodiment of what national commentators came to call Royals-style baseball, has been about losers becoming winners. In doing so, legions of fans, many of them newly-minted fans, have sensed something personal--that amidst disappointment comes hope, within despair there is nested joy, and "the trouble I've seen" is not my trouble alone.

Eric Hosmer dives headlong to score the tying run in the ninth
inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series, an 
improbable dash
 that led to the first KC Royals World Championship in 30 years.
Last night with one out in the ninth, a loss was imminent. The opposing pitcher had dazzled the boys of virtue and truth throughout the entire game. The crowd was roaring, mocking, waving flags, urging the scoundrels on.

Then came the convergence of every moment into one moment.

A kid who was born to play baseball stood at third base, down by one run, remembering in a nanosecond everything his dad, his coaches, his baseball heroes, had ever told him, buoyed by scouting reports about the range of the shortstop and the arm strength of the first baseman, aware not consciously but instinctually of the speed of his feet and the length of his stride.

A slow ground ball on the infield was handled routinely. The defender checked him, looked him back to third, then threw to first. The kid’s body coiled, his instincts prickling, his timing impeccable. He broke down the line at warp speed, launching his body headfirst toward the plate, his arm stretching, stretching, the ball threatening to beat him there. And failing.

And then his hand found home. The game was tied, and soon to be won. The dugout erupted as he lay face down on the ground.

I'm down, oh yes, Lord
Sometimes I'm almost
To the ground, oh yes, Lord

And then Eric Hosmer was up again. Human again. A winner again. For the first time again.

And so are we.

Glory, Hallelujah!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Taking the Fork in the Road: The Words of Yogi Berra and Pope Francis

It's unfortunate, in a way, that the death of baseball's philosopher-king overlapped as it did with the visit to the United States of the "people's pope." Yogi Berra is one of the most beloved baseball personalities in the history of the game. Pope Francis doesn't have as many years in the limelight, but he is making his mark in the world, even among those not members of the Catholic faith.

Both of them have a rightful claim to the world's stage and on another occasion they would only have had to joust with Donald Trump for front page news and airtime on the network broadcasts. Trump would have been buried in either case, and that is a break all Americans needed, however one might feel about this aspirant for the presidency.

I suspect Trump would have been highly interested in Catholicism if he had heard about the canonization of a new saint. Among other things, you are supposed to have been credited with two miracles to qualify. He could easily cite the last two Gallup Polls as evidence of Trump fulfilling that requirement. Since he also recently claimed that he had nothing for which to ask forgiveness, it would appear that Donald Trump could well be a candidate for sainthood. Better a saint than president, one is tempted to observe, at the risk of sounding snarky.

I have been transfixed by the arrival of Pope Francis, his first visit on American soil. The reception by the 78 million Catholics in the United States is perhaps predictable, although the church has been experiencing significant losses as a result of the sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, and the resulting coverup attributed to the church's hierarchy. Pope Francis has moved resolutely to resolve the problem, beginning with asking forgiveness of both God and the victims.

But it has not been just Catholics rejoicing in the visit of this good and humble man. The media, usually jaded by matters religious, has been almost fawning in its coverage. One suspects that reporting on the American political scene leaves one yearning for words of hope, softly spoken, and sincerely lived.

Which takes me back to Yogi. If it is the use of words that gives the Pope the ability to encourage and inspire his followers, it is the misuse of words that gave the Yankee catcher the charm to state things that everyone could understand, despite the malapropisms that made English teachers cringe.

Now some spoilsports at the New York Times have done research that shows that some of Yogi's sayings didn't come from Yogi at all.  In some respects it doesn't really matter; we don't just read those quotes, we "hear" them and it is always Yogi we hear. Even he acknowledged that he may not have been the source of all those sayings, admitting such in a book entitled, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!

I recognize that it is a little unusual to be mentioning Yogi Berra and Pope Francis in the same sentence, especially in reference to their use of words. But listening to the message being eloquently delivered by the Pope this week, I think there are a few Yogi-isms that are Pope-worthy.

  • The Pope declared that he was anxious to engage in a time of listening and sharing. Yogi said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”
  • The Pope talked about the direction of the church. Yogi cautioned, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
  • The Pope invited the faithful to keep moving forward. Yogi warned, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
  • The Pope acknowledged that many had erred and made mistakes. Yogi commiserated, noting that "If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be."

And finally, the Pope took on his critics and at the same time impressed the faithful with his openness and his loving spirit.

As Yogi said, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”

Friday, September 11, 2015

Why the Reasons Joe Biden Should Not Run for President are the Reasons He Should

Vice President Joe Biden on Late Night with Stephen Colbert,
September 10, 2015.
Vice President Joe Biden’s remarkable interview with Stephen Colbert, an unforgettable moment in only the third episode of Colbert’s new late-night show, was a powerful demonstration of the soul of American democracy in a political season that has generally exhibited its underbelly. Whatever one thinks of the Vice President or the current administration, I think most will agree that his open heart and honest feelings are the very qualities we most need in those who would lead the nation.

The interview between Colbert and Biden was a meeting of two men who had both suffered extraordinary pain and tragedy. Biden lost his wife and 19-month-old daughter in a 1972 automobile accident, and most recently his 48-year-old son to a brain tumor. Colbert, similarly, was ten years old when his father and two older brothers died in a 1974 plane crash in North Carolina.

If the shared experience between the two men established the evident rapport in the interview, the crescendo of response overnight makes it clear that they touched a universal chord that resonates with the entire human family. It makes one wonder why this should be. Why are we surprised and touched when a politician shows up with feelings on his sleeve and tears in his eyes?

I don’t know whether Joe Biden should run for president or not. If he chooses to do so, he has my ear. I have always admired him as a person, appreciated his broad domestic and global experience, and chuckled at his occasional good-hearted gaffes. He has always been the real deal.

Vice President Joe Biden with his son, Beau,
who died earlier this year.
But the tortuous road he has traveled to a decision has given us an even deeper insight into the human being behind the political persona. One has to believe that many other politicians have gone on similar journeys; they have just chosen to make it an inward sojourn, perhaps thinking they would otherwise appear weak or indecisive. Just the opposite is true.

Meanwhile, the ship of fools that is the 2016 presidential campaign paddles on. This morning, in the wake of the beautiful and heartfelt experience of Biden/Colbert, we hear about whether Carly Fiorina is attractive enough to be president, whether Donald Trump’s hair resembles a squirrel, and whether Hillary Clinton’s handlers should have leaked that she is planning to be more spontaneous.

I understand fully the reasons why Joe Biden hesitates to take on a national campaign while his family is awash in the life-changing, life-questioning, life-affirming experiences that shape what it means to be a human being. We feel their pain, and not in a sloganeering way. We truly feel their pain.

The problem is that that is exactly what we need in a president -- somebody who feels our pain.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

And the Walls Came Tumbling Up

"Walls, then, are built not for security, but for a sense of security. The distinction is important, as those who commission them know very well. What a wall satisfies is not so much a material need as a mental one. Walls protect people not from barbarians, but from anxieties and fears, which can often be more terrible than the worst vandals. In this way, they are built not for those who live outside them, threatening as they may be, but for those who dwell within. In a certain sense, then, what is built is not a wall, but a state of mind." (Costica Bradatan, "Scaling the ‘Wall in the Head,’" New York Times, November 27, 2011.)
The Berlin Wall comes down in 1989 after separating
East from West for 28 years.
Early on the morning of November 10, 1989, I rousted my two sons, aged 11 and 15, out of their beds and parked their sleepy bodies in front of the television so they could see what had been happening overnight. The Berlin Wall was coming down.  It was built in 1961 to prevent citizens from the Communist-controlled East Germany and East Berlin from escaping to the West. Over time it had become a stark symbol of the Cold War, no more so than in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan stood at its foot and demanded that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall."

To see this wall coming down brick by brick was a slice of history I didn't want my boys to miss. After all, as a naturalized U.S. citizen whose family relocated here from Canada when I was twelve years old, I had been schooled in the inscription appearing on the Statue of Liberty: 
"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
So, having lived in a free Canada (though not tired, poor, huddled, or wretched) and in a free United States, I found the notion of a wall along national borders to be somehow incongruous, not to mention impractical.

In fact, walls and fences usually generate negative images. A few years ago a neighbor built a five-foot high wooden fence around their backyard because they had acquired a large dog and needed to keep it penned up. I understood the reason but was saddened by the loss of a clear expanse of land across the lots that covered our side of the cul-de-sac.

The Great Wall of China stretches not only across the miles
but also across the millennia.
I have long read about, and subsequently had the opportunity to visit, the Great Wall of China, which was built in fits and starts over the centuries. What is commonly thought of as the Great Wall today was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and took several hundred years to complete. If you count all sections of the Wall that ever existed, the process took over 2000 years. Obviously, it wasn't a short-term solution to the problem of keeping out the Mongols, Manchus, and other lowlights.

The present election season has ushered in a non-stop volley of nonsense about walls and immigrants that, while it generates both cheers and chuckles, has some serious and troubling issues at the core. Some of it tracks back to the 2012 election when Michelle Bachman proposed a fence to line the U.S./Mexico border and Herman Cain one-upped her by suggesting the fence be electrified. I guess the idea was to hear the hissing sound of illegals hitting the fence, just like mosquitoes make a similar sound when they fly into those bug zappers we put on our decks.

The 2016 candidates are all having to cope with explaining how sealing off a 1900 mile border with a 10-foot high wall is both feasible and affordable. Meanwhile, one of the candidates has now suggested that he would be open to building a wall to secure the U.S./Canada border as well. (Trust me on this, folks, I know a lot of Canadians and none of them have ever expressed a desire to slither on their bellies from Saskatchewan into Montana so as to be eligible for our healthcare system.)

Another candidate was inspired by a FedEx commercial and noted how they tracked their packages so efficiently. Why not apply that principle to immigrants who come in with legal visas but overstay their time limit, he asked? I suppose we could tattoo a barcode on their rump and just have them scan that wherever they go so we can track them down if they're overdue on their visitors pass. Or their library card.

This is great material for the late night comedians, but taking this either too lightly or too seriously has its own problems. I understand that we have an issue with securing borders and I know we are in dire need of immigration reform. But we are dealing with a 1,954-mile border and untold billions of dollars of unbudgeted costs, not to mention constitutional questions, profound issues of land acquisitions, environmental impact statements required by law, and fistfuls of problems that are already known, let alone those not yet known. Simply declaring that it can be done doesn't get it done, no matter how much bravado accompanies the declaration.

There is another deep-seated issue here, one I am not qualified to do anything about other than mention, deferring instead to psychologists and other specialists. But we have learned in school and life that we need to break down our walls. They prevent us from knowing ourselves, keep us from understanding one another, and cut us off from the Source of our being. This is the personal cost being exacted by a national agenda. Soon we will be walling off our cities, enclosing our homes, and locking ourselves in rather than locking others out.

There is something wrong, even slimy, about all this talk of walling ourselves off. It is starting to feel like the kind of society we have deplored, always pointing instead to our freedoms, our cultural melting pot, our respect for others. But now we are demonizing other countries and cultures and buying up bricks and mortar to build walls of exclusion, a fool's errand unlike any I have seen.

In a global society where our place in the world is more important than it has ever been, we are choosing walls instead of bridges. This is starting to have a deleterious effect on our national psyche. We are applauding crudity, disrespecting cultures, living in false fears, and making a laughing stock of our country around the world.

Walls are symbols of our failures. We talk of building walls because we have been unable to solve our problems with word and deed, and now we build a wall of blame that will become a wall of shame.

If we do this, some day in the not far distant future a Reaganesque leader will stand at this border and in a voice with a rising crescendo declare, "America, tear down this wall!"

And the world will cheer.