EDITOR’S NOTE 9/27/17:
Some of you have heard me tell, in person or in an auditorium somewhere, the story of my friendship with Hugh Hefner, who went on to his eternal reward today.
My experiences with Hef back in 2004 were among the most memorable and aperture-expanding of my professional life. He is the reason I try my damnedest to leave preconceptions at the door whenever I meet someone I think I know something about, or whenever I meet anyone. Full stop.
I learned so much more about faith and God and even myself from my conversations with Hef than I did about him. He was incredibly warm and kind and generous of spirit. And he was vulnerable, wounded, and there was a certain sadness that dwelt around the edges of his enormous smile and sparkly eyes.
Ninety-one is a respectable number of years. He didn’t out-do his mother, but he got close. And I’d like to think that wherever he is right now, he knows. Now he knows. All the answers to all the questions from a mind that was endlessly curious about the world, love, and yes, God.
Now you know, Hef. Bless your huge tender heart.
What follows below is the chapter about Hef, based on those conversations back in 2004, from my first book, The God Factor.
May we all have our expectations exceeded and our preconceived notions dismantled more often than not.
When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.
What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.
But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.
“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”
That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his fifty-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, that I thought was hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.
“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”
Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late seventies. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.
“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.
“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you, and that leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”
Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.
“Yes,” he says tensely.
Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.
Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.
“Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”
Has he sinned?
“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”
So, how did he learn his definition of morality?
“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.
“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know … most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual were romantic films, but they are … you know … I don’t know if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”
“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s Harold and Maude.”
“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love Harold and Maude. Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. Harold and Maude is one of my favorite films, and Bud Cort [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.
“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with the teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.
Another movie he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film The Male Animal, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mildmannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that is perceived to be pro-communist. “It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Me, too, I tell him.
“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”
Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.
Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.
Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’
“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.” While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Science church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”
He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.
The couple, who divorced after ten years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)
Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved with the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy magazine offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than forty years.
“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.
“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”
When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”
“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how really good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”
As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their twenties. Located in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are fifty coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cavelike alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)
There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.
“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.
“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”
So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?
“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It is the Golden Rule.”
Love is all we need?
“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”
Me neither, Hef. Me neither.
From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
A few of my friends are consummate thank-you note writers and senders, the latter being the most important part of the thank-you note process.
They always send a thank-you note.
For gifts, dinners, advice, favors, and other kindnesses. It’s not unheard of for one or two of them to send a follow-up thank-you note for especially wonderful thank-you notes they’ve received from someone else.
I, on the other hand, am terrible about sending thank-you notes.
I have beautiful stationary. Several sets. And I’m great about saying thank you and sending thank-you emails or posting thank-you posts on Facebook and occasionally via Twitter or Instagram. But I have a mental block about sending actual, physical thank-you notes.
While I am unsure of the definitive source of this strange block (strange for someone who is, generally speaking, deeply grateful and who says “Thank you” all the time to all sorts of people for all sorts of things, and stranger still for someone who, ya know, writes for a living), I believe it has something to do with my First Communion when I was in second grade. I received a load of beautiful gifts from family and friends and my mother — who still is a consummate thank-you note writer and sender — oversaw my writing of thank-you notes with all the zeal of a hangry drill sergeant.
I’ve had the thank-you note yips ever since.
I still feel badly about the thank-you notes I didn’t send for some of the gifts I received when I graduated from high school almost 30 years ago.
This note (which is one of what will be a several-part series of overdue thank-you posts) is not that overdue, but it is much later than it should have been. If it were a wedding present that I’d not yet sent, I would have about six weeks left to mail that Le Creuset four-quart Dutch oven in Marseille blue from what remains of the happy couple’s registry and still make it under the one-year wire.
Happily, etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute insist that, “It’s never wrong to send a written thank you, and people always appreciate getting ‘thanks’ in writing.” So here it goes.
But first, a little background:
Two years ago I traveled to Nepal for the first a few days after the first of two devastating earthquakes struck the Himalayan nation that had occupied my imagination since I was a teenager. The trip was planned long before the quake struck. When it did, I delayed my departure for a few days, pivoted my purpose from semi-pleasure with a side of social justice to freelance journalism with four duffle bags stuffed with water filters, medicine, and whatever else I could carry with me to help the survivors of the quake.
Suffice to say it was a life-changing trip and I fell hopelessly in love with Nepal and her people.
Then about a year ago, my son’s high school spring break was approaching and we were trying to decide what to do when I had tea here in Laguna Beach with a friend I’d met in Kathmandu. She spends part of the year here and part of the year there where she runs a marvelous group home for orphaned and other vulnerable children. Come visit again, she said. Bring your son.
When I returned from tea I began Googling and quickly discovered that a couple of RT tickets on Etihad Airways from California to Kathmandu and a week’s accommodation in Nepal for spring break were more affordable than most of the other options we’d considered, including Cabo, Dublin, New Orleans, and New York City.
So off to Kathmandu we went, my 16-year-old son, Vasco, and me, for what I imagined might be the last mother-son trip for a while. Manhood approaches and such adventures hold less appeal, at least for one of us.
Even from the west coast, Nepal is far, far away. I’d flown Singapore Airlines on my last trip, but this time we rolled the dice and went with Etihad, one of two national airlines of the United Arab Emirates. We’d flown on thet other, Emirates Airways, to Malawi and back in 2010 when our entire family had to make the journey for Vasco’s adoption hearing. There were a few hiccups, but by and large, the service was good — even in coach. Reviews for Etihad were largely enthusiastic, so I booked our coach seats and hoped for the best.
I used to be a terrible flyer when I was in my twenties, worried that every tiny bump of turbulence was the beginning of the end of my life. Over the years, that fear has disappeared, but a few of my tics and habits from my terrified-to-fly era remain. Namely, every time I board a plane, I pause in the threshold for a moment, put my hand on the side of the plane, and thank God for a “safe, uneventful flight” and for the angels that go with us, protecting us on our journey.
While domestic air travel is something one survives or, at best, endures without incident, hope still springs eternal for international travel where small kindnesses and attention to detail make a huge difference on a 16-hour flight. I don’t recall much about our flight to Kathmandu—and that’s a good thing, i.e., no complaints, no horrible food, no surly flight attendants, no stranger with his seat reclined in my lap for half a day, etc.—except that we were comfortable enough to sleep a little and arrived in Nepal more refreshed than frazzled.
I did, however, remember one thing enough to make a note of it in my journal: before we took off, the airline played a video on all of its screens that included what sounded to me like a prayer in Arabic. I didn’t know what it said, but I found it—the sound of the words, the gentle music that accompanied it—soothing.
My son and I spent a wonderful, if too-short week in Kathmandu with friends of mine who quickly became friends of his, saw a lot of things I couldn’t see the year before in the wake of the earthquake, and made hopeful plans to return someday soon when we had time enough to make a trek along the Annapurna range farther west than we had time to visit. Spring Break Kathmandu was a wild success as a perspective-giving, spiritually-inspiring, bonding mum-son adventure. Mission accomplished.
On our last afternoon in Nepal, before heading to the airport we made a quick run into a neighborhood in Kathmandu where a lot of textiles are sold. I was looking for locally-sourced sheep’s wool to bring home for knitting projects. After a few false starts at dealers hidden behind elaborately carved wooden doors tucked into nooks along a warren of tiny dirt lanes, we found a dealer on the main drag, hopped out of the jeep (that carried at least six or seven members of our host’s family) and bought about 20 pounds of wool, much of it spun but un-dyed and carrying the pungent aroma of its former wearer with it.
In that last wool dealer’s shop, I felt something in my eye. I tiny piece of fiber or a speck of dust. I blinked and rubbed my eye, didn’t think much of it, until a few hours later when my eye really began to bother me. My friend Gautham kindly offered to take me to the doctor in his neighborhood, the same place he takes his own children. We had a night flight and I was concerned about being uncomfortable on the 17-hour ride home, so I said OK and off we went. We found the “doctor” at his stall a few blocks away. He looked at my eye, gave me some drops, and said to try to flush it out with water before we headed to the airport.
I followed the instructions, put in the drops, had our last dinner with Gautham’s family where they prayed for our safe journey home. Born in Bhuthan, Gautham became a Christian as a young adult and now is deeply involved in his local church in Kathmandu. Late last summer, his eldest son married the daughter of one of his pastors. Faith runs deep in the family’s bones, as it does among most Nepalese people, whether they’re Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or just simple but robust believers in the goodness of mankind.
A few hours later, by the time we were boarding the first of what were supposed to be three flights home to California (Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi to New York, New York to Los Angeles) my eye was watering nonstop. Not long after our flight from Kathmandu to Lucknow, India (an unscheduled stop to refuel because Kathmandu was experiencing a fuel shortage at the time) took off, I was really uncomfortable. My eye was swollen and I realized the water I was wiping from my eye had turned into pus (think the Beatles’ line “lemon yellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye), and in truth, I was beginning to panic. I called for a flight attendant who responded with calm concern. She brought back the flight purser and they quickly determined I was having a serious medical incident.
They moved other passengers away from my son and me, a precaution just in case whatever was going on with me and my eye was contagious. The cabin crew were wonderfully attentive, bringing me cups of ice and damp cloths. About halfway through the short flight, I began asking to deplane when we got to Lucknow. I wanted to see a doctor, STAT. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the purser, who had consulted with the pilot, strongly encouraged me to stay on the flight until it reached Abu Dhabi five hours later. There, the airline could ensure I received proper medical care. In India, they couldn’t guarantee it. They’d take care of me and my son, who was starting to come down with a nasty chest cold. They’d get us to the United Arab Emirates and a medical team would meet the plane when we arrived.
We made it to Abu Dhabi, the medical team met the plane as promised, put me in a wheelchair and quickly wheeled me to the airport’s medical clinic a few terminals away, while Vasco followed carrying our carry-on luggage. Shortly thereafter, a kindly, efficient doctor examined me, took some swabs (to rule out conjunctivitis or anything else contagious/communicable that potentially preclude me from air travel for a while), gently lifted and turned my eyelid inside out to discover a scratch not on my eye but on the inside of the eyelid itself. It probably happened a few days before, got infected, and then the cabin pressure on the first flight brought it to a head (literally) and it burst.
But at least we knew what we were dealing with. The doctor flushed my eye several times over the course of an hour, administered prescription drops, and sent Vasco with a prescription to retrieve antibiotics from a pharmacy in another terminal. After a few hours, the doctor fitted me with a not-so-swashbuckling eye patch, and told me that I couldn’t fly for 36 hours and only then with the permission of a flight doctor.
Before I could begin to ask about logistics and accommodations and how we’d manage to eat etc., another Etihad employee appeared to collect us, said the airline had arranged rooms for us at the airport hotel (so we wouldn’t have to go through customs and that bother), and had our meals covered, and cheerfully began pushing me in the wheelchair back to the hotel near the Etihad terminal. The airline would check on us and reschedule our flights for us. Just rest, he said.
Back at the hotel in the early hours of the morning, we both crashed. Vasco’s cold was getting worse. He slept for 16 hours uninterrupted. Couldn’t even get him to arise for some food. I kept him hydrated and found whatever over-the-counter cold medicine I could, had several delicious meals at the hotel’s restaurant, and tried to rest while my eye began to heal.
A day later, I walked over to Etihad customer service and was told by a genial man that the airline was working on new flights for us, hopefully a direct flight to Los Angeles so we’d not have to change planes. That was thoughtful. The idea of traveling in coach for 17 hours in the shape we were both in was not appealing, but we needed to get home. I tried to find not-middle-seats online for various flights, but it looked grim.
Heading into the 30th hour of our unexpected layover in Abu Dhabi, we just needed to get home. I walked back down to the Etihad desk in the departures terminal and was told we had a flight early the next morning. They’d assign our seats when we checked in. Fine. We bathed, climbed back into the same clothes we’d been wearing since Kathmandu, grabbed our carry-on bags and headed for the check-in desk. There the gentleman manning the phone asked us to wait for a moment, he had to make a call. My hopes began to flag. What now? More delays? Middle seats? Another visit to the doctor? The kind folks at the Abu Dhabi airport were taking good care of us, wayward strangers in their midst, but we just wanted to be home already.
A moment later, the manager appeared. He looked at the bill-of-health the airport doctor had signed, made a quick phone call, then looked up at us with a smile. You’re all set. Your bags are on the plane and we’ve put you in Business Class to make your flight home more comfortable. Also he was going to walk us through immigration pre-registration so that when we got to LAX, all we had to do was get off the plane and head to baggage. No customs and immigration. That was taken care of in Abu Dhabi.
Please, Mrs. Possley, follow me. Right this way. Your’e all set. And have a safe flight home.
Thank you, I said. Shokran.
It’s been our pleasure and privilege, he said.
I began to cry. To weep, really. I was so relieved and moreover, so grateful for the kindness of strangers. For the gracious care with which Etihad had looked after my son and me, half a world away from our homes, sick and tired and a little bit scared.
Etihad perfectly exemplified the spiritual practice of hospitality, something that is at the heart of Islam, as it is an essential teaching of its cousin religions, Christianity and Judaism. The Quran says, “Let the believer in Allah and Day of Judgment honor his neighbor. Let the believer in Allah and the Day of Judgment honor his guest.”
It also tells the story of Abraham who, when strangers approached his home, welcomed them with greetings of peace, (even though he thought, “They seem unusual people”) and then turned to his household staff and quickly had them roast a fattened calf for the unexpected guests. The idea, as I understand it, beyond just being welcoming is to anticipate the needs of your guests (expected or not) before they even know what they are or have time to ask. It’s a radical hospitality that goes beyond the call of duty, with joy, treating the guest as a child of God.
“The goal of hospitality as an act and as an attitude to life is far more radical; it demands a transformation of the self toward goodness and grace, toward how God wants us to be with one another,”Mona Siddiqui writes in her 2015 book Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name. “At the very base of hospitality is compassion, a compassion that shakes our complacency and leads us to think about more generous ways of being with one another. Compassion creates empathy, solidarity, and has the power to reduce personal and social conflicts. And often it is this compassion toward others which first sows the seeds of surprising friendships—the most challenging but rewarding experiences of our lives.”
When we boarded the flight each of the flight crew members greeted us by our names and with what sure felt like war, genuine smiles. We crawled into our spacious sleeper pods, and Vasco was asleep before we took off. A flight attendant came over to check on us, asked if I needed anything, offered me a glass of juice and a flute of champagne, while I took off the socks I’d been wearing since Kathmandu and put on the soft ones included in the airline’s gift bag.
I leaned back, took out my knitting, put on my headphones, and took a sip of champagne, grateful. So grateful.
Before we took off, the same video I’d noticed when we departed California a week earlier began to play. It’s a verse from the Quran, a prayer that the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers to pray when embarking on journeys.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.
سبحان الذي سخر لنا هذا وما كنا له مقرنين
Glory to Him who has subjected this to us, and we could never have it (by our efforts).
وإنا إلى ربنا لمنقلبون
And verily, to Our Lord we indeed are to return!
صدق الله العظيم
Allah The Mighty has spoken the truth.
Once again, tears came to my eyes. I was overcome with gratitude.
For the gift of travel, very real traveling mercies, and most of all for experiencing radical Muslim hospitality in all its great compassion.
Thank you, Etihad. Thank you to all the brothers and sisters who care for us.
Azak Allahu khair. As salamu aleiykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
Special thanks to Sheikh Jamaal Diwan of the Institute of Knowledge and Yousif Alanazi for their kind help in translating the dua for travel from Arabic to English.
With 36 hours left in our too-short sojourn in Nepal earlier this month, I yearned to escape the “strange, bewilderin’ time” of Kathmandu and its cacophony of humans, motorbikes, sequined lorries, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, giant hens and cockerels, wandering bands of ill-tempered goats, dozy cows, and incessant beeping that together comprise the intoxicating, maddening heartbeat of the capital city.
My 16-year-old son and I had hoped to make it far out of the city to Pokhara and the foothills of the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, but time was not on our side. So we opted instead for an overnight in Nagarkot—a village in the Bakhtapur region of the Kathmandu Valley with what is generally agreed to be one of the best views of the Himalayas (including Everest) in country. If the weather allows it, that is.
Whether my boy and I were able to glimpse Chomolungma (as the Tibetans call the sacred, tallest mountain on Earth) didn’t really matter to me and he was more excited about the hotel pool and hot tub than anything else. I just wanted some quiet, alone time to reflect on our week in magical, mystical Nepal—my second visit to the country I first visited days after the devastating earthquake in April 2015.
Eight of us piled into our friend Gautham’s Mitsubishi I-guess-it’s-a-small-SUV for the two-hour journey (because of the aforementioned cacophony and thick traffic jams that produce much of it) to Nagarkot. Only three of us would be staying the night. The other five just came along for the ride and the chance to gulp some fresh(er) air in the mountains outside Kathmandu and stop twice (TWICE) for the delicacy known as King Curd (a cross between yogurt and custard that is best enjoyed in the Bhaktapur region; it’s delicious).
Of the nine of us, save for the driver I was the only passenger not to feel the effects of motion sickness as Gautham deftly navigated the switchback dirt mountain roads with potholes the size of small caves. (I’m generally a world-class nervous back-seat driver. But not in Nepal. Even amidst the craziness and hair-raising maneuvers, I don’t wear a seat belt. Nobody does. And the more nerve-wracking the driving gets, the more I laugh. It’s an unfettered, I’m-not-in-control-here kind of belly laugh.)
After Gautham, his lovely wife Reykah, their son John, soon-to-be-daughter in law, and chosen nephew Arjun grabbed some lunch on the hotel’s expansive deck facing the mountains, they headed back to Kathmandu, while my son and Gautham’s eldest child, David, adjourned to their room and the indoor pool.
Alone. Finally. I love my friends in Nepal and my traveling-companion child, but my inner introvert—which has taken to exerting itself with greater frequency in my 40s—really needed some solitude.
I placed my overnight bag in my room, grabbed my smartphone and my Canon (opting to bring only the short lens), and returned to the panoramic deck which, much to my chagrin, was occupied by a group of yuppie types from China, all smoking actual cigarettes and talking loudly into their cell phones.
I ducked back inside to find a more peaceful perch from which to (perhaps) glimpse the mountains and, alternately, watch the sunset over the valleys to the west. Three flights up and a few minutes later, I found myself on the rooftop deck of the hotel, completely solo.
I stood on the edge of a parapet and stared east, to where the Himalayas and Everest were supposed to be. I saw nothing but for the terraced farms of the verdant valley and wondered if I was facing the wrong direction. A quick check of a nearby map with arrows pointing in the direction I’d been facing told me that, yes, that was where the mountains were. But they were completely obscured by haze, clouds, smog and/or a combination of all three.
It’s not that I was disappointed or surprised. I knew before we alighted Kathmandu for Nagarkot that this time of the year, spotting the mountains was a dodgy bet. “If it rains tonight, even for ten minutes,” Gautham assured me before he left, “you will see mountains at sunrise.” So there was another chance and even if the Himalayas still were obscured at daybreak, Nagarkot is a beautiful spot no matter the weather.
The thing is, knowing the mountains were in front of me without being able to see them was, somehow, disorienting. They were there, right there, right in front of me—the most majestic range on the planet. But I was seeing through a glass dimly, if you will.
The sensation was strange, as if I were one of the Hobbits standing in front of Mordor just blinking into an abyss of wan sunlight filtered through a thick layer of khaki-colored smog.
A little lightheaded (Nagarkot sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet and I spend most of my time at literal sea level), I sat down at one of the many empty, metal cafe tables and pulled out my notebook, perhaps to write or doodle. After a few moments, I realized I’d been humming a musical phrase from Cat Stevens’ “Katmandu” song all day, so I took out my smartphone and (thanks to the 3G network in Nepal, even at such great heights) found a live performance of the song Cat gave in 1970. Played it twice. Sang along. Then I let YouTube take me, as it does, to the next song in the play list: Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You” from another live performance recorded the same year, a few weeks after my birth.
I found myself in tears. At first I wasn’t sure why, but as I reflected on the lyrics to Stevens’ ballad, I began to see what it was, or at least what I think it might have been.
Whoever I’m with
I’m always, always talking to you
I’m always talking to you
And I’m sad that you can’t hear
Sad that you can’t hear
Now in midlife, things aren’t quite how I expected they might be. My life and my physical person have changed in ways that sometimes bring more than a whiff of despair to my breath, which is, as someone taught me long ago, the truest form of unceasing prayer. There is much in my life that brings me unfathomable joy and I see grace all around me, all the time. And yet, there’s a sadness that lingers in the corners of my room.
Many people I love dearly have passed out of my life and this world in the last several years and I know that mourning is anything but linear. Surely that’s part of it. Disappointment as well. At things professional and otherwise that went pear-shaped and haven’t yet found their original form and maybe never will. That I’d peaked a decade ago and have since begun a slow descent into the never-ending adulthood of blighted hope.
All of that. The tears were for all of that. And still, I saw neither mountain nor setting sun.
So I decided to take a walk—something more than a stroll and less than a trek, even if I was wearing the hiking boots I’d bought before the earthquake last year and had worn (in Nepal) precisely once—that very day in Nagarkot. I thought I should at least try to get them dusty.
The grounds of the hotel where we stayed are expansive and had the feel more of sanctuary than resort. Being Nepal, there were Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind from trees and in courtyards; shrines and tiny temples to various Hindu deities, and brass prayer wheels affixed to the wall every few feet along the warren of corridors. I ducked out through one of those courtyards and kept walking downward until I found a trail that led along the edge of a bamboo forest (at least that’s how I’d describe it) along the eastern side of the property, in the direction of Everest and the clouds.
Lost in thought I walked and looked at flora until the path ended at the back side of the hotel amidst rudimentary construction equipment. I probably shouldn’t be here, I thought. Not exactly what the hotel management would want guests to see. But it was Nepal and the pervasive easy-breeziness of the culture assured me no one would come out yelling.
I walked on, as the path darkened and the pine trees on one side made a canopy with the bamboo on the other. Ten minutes later, after wandering without paying attention to direction or the setting sun, I stopped in my tracks, realizing I might be lost.
It was at that moment I heard Harold Ramis’ voice in my head. Ten years ago, I’d interviewed the late actor-director for my first book and he’d told me a story. Harold was born Jewish and embraced Buddhism as an adult. He described himself as “Buddh-ish.” I loved that guy. Anyway the story went like this:
“Watching other people on their journeys forced me to think reactively about it: Well, what do I believe? You don’t believe in past lives, so if you don’t believe in the continuity of the soul, what do you believe in? I never was able to give myself over to another human being as a spiritual trainer or leader. I could never affiliate with an organization, any doctrinal organization. I could never have a guru or a spiritual teacher because I always believed it was so personal. It seemed to me logically impossible that there could be a concrete answer to a spiritual quest—by definition—and so anyone who said they had an answer was immediately suspect. I’m right now convinced that no matter how much I seek, there wouldn’t be an answer. It’s like when you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
It was that last part that echoed in my mind: “When you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
So I did. On a ramshackle wall on the pine side of the ersatz trail. And another sacred word came to mind, this time from Stephen Hawking who said, “Remember to look up and not down at your feet.” A favorite college professor used to remind us of the same. Look up. You’ll be surprised what you find if you change your perspective.
I looked up. And there, perhaps 100 yards above me in a clearing in the woods, I saw a man praying.
And then I heard faint music. I started to walk toward the man and the music, clambering through a rocky path in the woods until I came upon a house.
Once again, I stopped, worried I might be trespassing, an unwelcome guest and interloper. But this is Nepal, I told myself, and slowly walked toward the building when, surprising both of us, a young man appeared carrying a cup of tea.
“Namaste,” I said.
He bowed slightly, one hand in front of his chest in half of the prayerful posture with which most Nepalis greet each other. (His other hand still held the cup of tea.)
“I think I’m lost,” I continued.
“Where are you trying to go?” he answered with a the kind of genuine empathy and tenderness that is uncommon in most places.
Where am I trying to go? I thought, spotting someone in my peripheral vision. The praying man.
It wasn’t a man, per se, but a statue of Sri Chinmoy, a well-known Indian guru and meditation instructor who passed away in 2007. One of the mountain peaks in the invisible range in front of me is named for him.
“Is this an ashram?” I said.
The man bobbled his head in affirmation as Nepalis do.
“You’re lost?” he said.
“Maybe not so lost,” I said, as my voice cracked and tears filled my eyes. “May I sit down for a minute?”
“Of course,” he said.
I put my head in my hands and had a big boo-hoo cry like I haven’t in a long, long, clearly too-long time. And the kind man didn’t stare or shift uncomfortably. He just sipped his tea and stayed with me, looking up at the sky. I composed myself and said I was trying to get back to the hotel.
“Ah,” he said. “It’s just there.”
Sri Chinmoy’s statue, I quickly realized, sits a few dozen yards away from the hotel’s helipad. I wasn’t lost. I just couldn’t see where I was going.
The sun was almost down and I thanked him for his kindness, and began walking toward the hotel entrance. If it’s possible for one’s ears to come into focus, mine did just then, and I heard the music that was playing inside what turned out to be a kind of ashram gift-shop where the man worked.
A woman’s voice sang the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born into eternal life.
The singer was Snatam Kaur, an American-born Sikh musician and peace activist. I opened iTunes on my phone and bought it immediately.
Later that night, after dinner with my son and our friend, we all retired for the evening, hopeful that sunrise would bring a view of the mountains. I fell asleep listening to Kaur sing St. Francis’ prayer on repeat.
I awoke before sunrise and sat on my balcony alone in the dark, hoping to see the mountains at first light. When it came, I could see nothing but clouds and haze.
Still, the light was beautiful. And I had faith that the mountains indeed were there, even if I couldn’t see them, and that they would wait for me to return to find them another day.
KATHMANDU, Nepal—The Boeing 737 loaded with relief supplies and caregivers touched down at Tribhuvan International Airport six days (nearly to the minute) after the first of two cataclysmic earthquakes wrecked havoc on the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal.
Joining me aboard the flight from Singapore were a few other journalists from the United States and Europe, a team from the China Lingshan International Rescue in their distinctive fire engine red uniforms, and several dozen surgeons from South Africa who had come to Nepal with Gift of the Giver organization, an NGO founded in 1992 by a Sufi sheik from Istanbul.
Among us were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains—people of good will of many religious traditions and none at all. What we had in common was a desire to help the gentle people of Nepal (one of the poorest nations in the world) who had suffered through the devastation of an earthquake on April 24 so massive that it actually moved the global satellite positioning of its capital city by nearly 10 feet.
For some of us, that assistance took the form of pulling corpses and a few miraculous survivors from the concrete and brick ruins of homes, businesses, and even houses of worship leveled by the first earthquake. (A second earthquake of nearly the same size—7.3 on the Richter scale—struck Nepal on May 11, the day after I returned to California from Nepal.)
Others—the healers from Africa and elsewhere—would offer relief to the traumatized during grueling shifts in Nepal’s overwhelmed hospitals, in surgical theaters, setting broken bones, stitching wounds, and compassionate bedside care.
Interspersed among us, undoubtedly, were those hoping to offer some kind of spiritual aid, solace, or direction to the Nepalese. In generations past, we might simply have labeled this cohort “missionaries,” visitors hoping to share their version of the gospel truth with the broken and brokenhearted.
Continue reading the entire report at Religion Dispatches HERE.
When Cathleen asked me to contribute to Disquiet Time, the new a collection of essays by “the Skeptical, the Faithful and a few Scoundrels,” I didn’t think twice about saying “yes,” nor did I worry much about which category might best fit me.
Cathleen and I have been friends since our roommate days in college, which was pre-email, pre-cell phone, and pre-Kim Kardashian.
Yes, we are approximately ancient.
Anyhoo… The assignment was to write about a passage of Scripture that troubles me. I kept coming back to Proverbs 31—or, as it’s fondly called within Christian circles, “The Proverbs 31 woman.”
Proverbs 31 is an ode to the “virtuous wife,” and often is used as a prescriptive for what a “godly woman” looks, acts, and cooks like. The Proverbs 31 woman is to some circles what Barbie is to elementary school girls — the ideal woman. Never mind that the dimensions don’t add up.
I won’t rehash the essay here, but the nutshell is that I don’t have a problem with the passage itself as much as I have a problem with how it’s typically taught, which is as a primer on domestic divahood. That the Proverbs 31 woman is clearly a working woman is conveniently overlooked by those who choose to use it as a prescription for “traditional” gender roles. (Traditional unless you have to work because you are poor or from another culture or maybe had to get divorced. In which case, carry on.)
I feel like I’m in the Hot Tub Time Machine just writing that sentence. I spent a lot of time thinking about gender roles when I was in college, back in the late ’80s, and it’s kind of funny to me (not funny ha-ha but more funny odd) that I ended up writing about this in Disquiet Time. At this stage of my life, I am too busy being a mother, wife, and professional to analyze it much.
When I read about the Duggar girls (from the TV series 19 Kids and Counting) working so very hard to embody the qualities of the Proverbs 31 woman, I cringe but in the same way I cringe when I watch The Real Housewives series. It’s like being at a zoo and observing exotic animals that are one step removed.
I’m not so removed that it doesn’t cause some disquiet. Which is what this collection of essays is about. Those things in the Bible that you wish would go away, but won’t. Because they have to do with the most profound expressions of what it means to be human.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to wrestle publicly with things that make me uneasy and even irritable.
And I’m grateful I’m not alone in that endeavor.
Linda Midgett is the founder of Midgett Productions, a boutique production company that recently created the hit motorcycle adventure series Neale Bayly Rides: Peru.The series aired on the SPEED Channel in June 2013. She is an Emmy award-winning writer, producer, and showrunner with a proven track record of developing hit and critically acclaimed series. She has supervised more than 600 hours of programming for networks such as NBC-Universal, The History Channel, PBS, The Weather Channel and Investigation Discovery. Her credits as Co-Executive Producer include Starting Over, the Emmy-winning syndicated daytime reality series produced by powerhouse Bunim-Murray Productions; The History Channel’s groundbreaking series, Gangland; and Investigation Discovery’s FBI: Criminal Pursuit.
Though Linda enjoys producing pure entertainment, she isn’t afraid of tackling difficult topics such as poverty and mental health. In 2012, she produced The Line, a riveting documentary commissioned by Sojourners that told the first-person stories of Americans in poverty. The film is available at http://www.thelinemovie.com. Her other independent documentary work includes Through My Eyes, which tells the stories of teens struggling with suicide, depression and eating disorders. Through My Eyes won the national Voice Award for excellence in mental health programming. Linda is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I’m very excited to announce that next week (on Tuesday 10/21), my latest book, DISQUIET TIME: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels hits bookstores everywhere.
Let me tell you a bit about the book, which is quite different from anything I’ve done in the past. First of all, I didn’t write the whole thing. Along with one of my best friends, Jennifer Grant, I acted as co-editor of the book and contributed two chapters to it as well. Jen and I asked several dozen of our cleverest, funniest, most honest and deep-thinking friends (many of whom are writers whose names you’ll recognize) to contribute an essay to the book. The assignment seemed simple but turned out to be anything but for most of us who chose to accept it:
We’ve asked people to write about verses/passages/ideas in the Bible that:
~ most confounds them,
~ they wish weren’t in there,
~ are their guilty pleasure,
~ are a solace in hard times,
~ for those who once embraced the Bible in their journey but no longer do – what is the verse or passage or idea that they still return to, that still has meaning for them when the rest of it doesn’t,
~ for those who once embraced the Bible but no longer do, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? was there a verse/passage/concept that sent you packing? if so, why?
~they love most or hold most dear,
~ makes them laugh or cringe or invariably brings a tear to their eye.
The tone is conversational, humor is welcome, language needn’t be pious or PG-rated. Have no fear of being censored. … In other words, just go for it. Just be as honest and as fearless as you can be.
DISQUIET TIME contains more than 40 essays by our brave, marvelous friends who took off their kid gloves and took on the Bible to honestly (and often with great humor) talk about what bothers/elates/annoys/amuses or leaves them in awe about the “Good Book.” They are men and women; young, middle-aged, and sage-aged; Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and none-of-the-above; evangelical, post-evangelical, Episcopal, Catholic, mainline, orthodox, nondenominational, spiritual-but-not-religious, and “nones”; emergent, emerging, and fully emerged. They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian-American, and none-of-the above; conservative, liberal, libertarian, Democrat, Republican, middle-of-the-road, and with occasional anarchistic tendencies; married, single, divorced, gay, straight, bisexual, parents, and singletons. They are faithful, skeptical, and the odd scoundrel (or dozen).
The result is a chorus unlike any I’ve heard (or read) before. You won’t agree with everything you read in DISQUIET TIME, but you will find something — a gem or two or dozen — that click with, challenge, or inspire you.
Beginning tomorrow and running through November, we’re launching the DISQUIET TIME DISQUIETING BLOG TOUR, where you’ll hear from many of the authors included in the book and a few of our friends who aren’t. Check back here for updates and links to each day’s blog or visit www.DisquietTime.com where each of them will be cross-posted.
We’ve also created a few fun bells and whistles to help share the DISQUIET TIME love.
- Take the DISQUIETING BIBLE QUIZ: Are you Skeptical, Faithful, or A Scoundrel
- If you have an Android phone, download the DISQUIET TIME APP for FREE!
- Interested in reviewing or writing about DISQUIET TIME? Request a digital copy via NetGalley.
I wanted to give you a little taste of what DISQUIET TIME is all about by sharing the book’s introduction. Please take it as an invitation to you personally.
As ever, thank you for all of your support and enthusiasm for my continuing work. It means the world to me.
Hugs and kisses,
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF MISFIT TOYS
An ethicist who can’t make the right choices.
A yogi who’s tempted to pray the Jesus prayer over her children.
A poet at the helm of a global corporation.
A buttoned-up suburban parent with a penchant for Eminem.
A Hollywood producer who dons a superhero costume and proclaims, “Sola Scriptura!”
A female professor at one of the nation’s most religiously conservative schools who has a passion for tattoos and scatological literature.
These are but a few of the souls you will hear from in the pages that follow.
The voices collected in this book are those of nonconformists and oddballs—not-too-distant cousins, perhaps, to the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Not unlike the tiny cowboy who rides an ostrich instead of a horse, the toy train with square wheels on its caboose, and Hermey the Elf―who would rather pursue a career in dentistry than make toys in Santa’s workshop―most of us are well acquainted with the itchy, out-of-place feelings wrought by the spiritual subcultures in which we have sometimes found ourselves.
Some of us self-identify as orthodox (with a small o) Christians, while others feel a flush of pride when called liberal, mainstream, or conservative. Some of us used to identify as Christians or Jews, but now answer “none of the above” (or “all of the above,” as the case may be) when asked to choose a religious label. Whatever our spiritual predilections, each of us seeks an end to the divisiveness and name-calling that too often surround discussions of the Bible.
As diverse as our voices are, they harmonize; and we hear echoes of our own stories in those of the “other.” We learn something new when we hear how a particular biblical passage sustains some people, while other folks continually stumble over (or are repulsed by) the same passage.
We see God’s spirit shining through each other’s eyes as we grant ourselves permission and a safe space to, as Edgar says in King Lear, “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”―even (and especially) when it’s messy.
All the contributors to this book are personally connected to one or both of us. You’ll meet our pastors, professors, mentors, chosen families, and some of our dearest friends, as well as thinkers and artists who have long inspired us.
While we like to say that Disquiet Time is “not your mama’s Our Daily Bread,” we do hope it nourishes, sustains, and even invigorates you as you encounter the full array of these diverse writers’ authentic experiences with holy writ.
Please consider this book an invitation to join a conversation that has been going on for millennia―one that asks only for you to listen and respond with an open heart. We pray that, through reading it, you will grant yourself permission to express your own faith and doubts about the Good Book, honestly and without caveat.
Remember: even if you end up feeling like a cowboy riding an ostrich into the sunset, you are not alone in this. And when it comes to the greatest concerns, biggest questions, and gravest doubts about the Bible, you have the right and freedom to voice them.
God can take it.
My friend Joshua DuBois writes a column for The Daily Beast. While I haven’t talked publicly about Justin in a long while (as I mentioned earlier I felt I had nothing helpful to say) I trust Joshua as a good man with the heart of a true pastor so I agreed. I’m pleased with the result, which you can read in its entirety HERE. But thought I’d also share the answers I sent him as a few were edited for length, etc.
It’s Sunday. Let’s remember our little brother Justin and his family in prayer.
Q1. Cathleen, is Justin Bieber’s arrest and recent troubles evidence of a deeper spiritual struggle, or simply the normal behavior of a 19-year-old seeking to find his way?
A1: Joshua, I think the most honest answer I can give to this two-part question is: Yes.
Yes, Justin’s arrest and (mis)behavior of late (and I’m talking about the last 18 months or so, at least from what little we know publicly about his life and activities, much of which he’s provided himself via Twitter/Instagram and the like, as well as through video and photographs from the paparazzi, which hounds him) seems to me to be the outward manifestation of some of what’s going on with Justin spiritually.
And yes, I do think that some of this is “normal” behavior for a 19-year-old boy/man seeking to find his place, stance, and stride in the world. I have a 19-year-old nephew who is just a week younger than Justin. He’s a freshman in college and experimenting with new freedoms — most often making good, sound decisions, but sometimes not. That’s normal. When I was 19, I spent a lot of time depressed, wearing black, sleeping 14 hours a day, while listening to The Smiths and The Cure and mooning over the 19-year-old man/boy who’d broken my heart. That, too, is normal.
But what we have to remember is that Justin, while a “normal” kid in many ways, is living a life that is anything but normal. At 19, I had a $100 stipend (it may have been a lot less than that, it fact) from which I lived. Justin has more money than most small nations in the developing world. So what and how he is able to “act out” and the magnitude of his less-than-stellar decisions is a whole different ballpark. And so, then, too is the worldwide amplification of his worst public moments, the world’s access to and judgment of them, and (I would imagine) the level of his embarrassment, shame, and humiliation.
Q2. From the time you wrote “Belieber” – which quotes Justin as saying, “The success I’ve achieved…comes from God,” to today, clearly something has changed. To what do you attribute the apparent radical shifts in Justin’s character and life?
A2: I don’t necessarily agree that “clearly something has changed.” I am far from an apologist for Justin (whom I don’t know personally, just to be clear), but I think you can know and love God, be cognizant of where the blessings in your life come from, believe in the God of grace, mercy, redemption, and salvation; and still make incredibly stupid mistakes. Just because Justin is famous doesn’t make him inure to the pitfalls of being human, young, and at least occasionally idiotic.
What has changed, in my opinion, is how much we see of his misbehavior in public, and the extent to which, again publicly, we see him thumb his nose at authority and, at least in some sense, his legions of very young, very impressionable fans.
I have a 13-year-old niece who is a Belieber (aka big fan of Justin). When news of his arrest broke earlier this week, she texted her mother from school, saying, “Mommy, Justin Bieber is in jail!!!!” She clearly was heartbroken, worried about Justin, and trying to make sense of why he’d do what he apparently/allegedly did. Her mother reponded by saying, in part, “You know God loves him and this might be just how he comes back to living in a way that pleases God and tha tis much happier and healthier for him.”
I’ll add my amen to that.
I also have the sense that Justin’s parents — biological and chosen — let go of their parental responsibilities for Justin far too soon. Again, I don’t know Jeremy Bieber or Pattie Mallette (his biological parents), nor do I know Scooter Braun (his manager who has played the role of a surrogate parent for much of Justin’s career), but when a child turns 18, yes he or she is of the age of majority, but that doesn’t mean one’s job as a parent stops. In fact, the transition from boy-to-man or girl-to-woman is the time in many children’s lives when they most need a parent’s guidance and involvement, even if it’s precisely the time they want it least.
If it’s true that Jeremy Bieber was present for Justin’s Big Mistake in Miami Beach, whether he was “partying” with his son or not, the elder Bieber entered the land of Bad Parents the moment he let his child get behind the wheel of a car whilst impaired. Justin may not have been drunk, but (if police reports and the glassiness of his eyes in his mug shot are any indication) it sure looked like he was higher than Jerry Garcia at Woodstock. Jeremy Bieber is still physically larger than his eldest child. I have a teenage son who soon will be bigger than both his father and me. If we were standing there while our drunk/stoned/rolling-on-Molly/otherwise-impaired son attempted to get behind the wheel of a car and drive it (whether it was a rented Ferrari or our 22-year-old Miata) we would physically stop him, even if that mean tackling him to the ground or dragging him out of the driver’s seat, or jumping on the hood of a moving automobile. Jeremy Bieber apparently did none of those things and that’s a world-class PARENT FAIL.
I wonder whether there are any people in Justin’s inner circle today who are there simply and only because they love him for who he is and not what he is. That seems to me to be the most significant shift I’ve watched from a distance in the last few years.
Q3. Some folks watch Bieber’s challenges with bemused interest, others with disgust, and others with genuine concern. What are the responsibilities of a society – and of people of faith – towards a mega-star facing this type of trouble? Do his fans enable his behavior?
A3: We have the responsibility to be kind to one another, and that responsibility extends to celebrities, too. We’re the ones who placed them on their teetering pedestals. Justin didn’t ascend his without our help. So when they tumble off, the fact that we cheer and sneer is awful, hypocritical, and deeply, sometimes savagely unkind.
As for people of faith, we should be rushing to his aid in whatever way we can, which for the vast majority of us is prayer. Pray for Justin. Pray for his family, blood and chosen. Pray for Justin’s friends. Pray for God to send Justin his Anam Cara – soul friends, the rarest and most valuable and necessary kind for any of us to have as we navigate our lives on this side of the veil.
Don’t shame Justin. Instead, let’s remind him of who he is: A beloved child of the Most High God whose love for Justin is the same as it was last week and last year and every moment since he took shape and form in his mother’s womb. There is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any less and there is nothing Justin can do to make God love him any more.
Grace isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it covers not just a multitude of sins – it covers them all. Even if you’re a celebrity. Even if you act like an entitled, spoiled brat. Even if you get drunk and pee in mop buckets, or swear like a sailor at the cop who’s arresting you for drag racing. Even if you get behind the wheel of a car drunk or stoned and you drive it and you hit someone and you kill them. God loves you. And God’s grace is still available to you. Grace is the final word and we should remind Justin of that.
Q4. How can Justin turn it around – practically, emotionally and spiritually? If you could speak with him today…what advice would you give?
A4: As a mother and a person of faith who has made myriad mistakes (some of them fairly epic) in my lifetime as a believer, I don’t think Justin can turn this around. I KNOW HE CAN TURN THIS AROUND. But in order to do that, he needs a sabbath. A long one. Out of the public eye and surrounded by or at least accompanied by someone who loves him, will be honest with him, kick his arse when he needs it, hold him while he bawls his heart out, and make him matzo ball soup. He needs time to heal (and no, I don’t think he should go to rehab – I don’t believe he’s an addict) with the help of people who can help him get healthy, whether they are therapists or clergy or friends (famous or not).
I know for a fact that several older celebrities — goodhearted people of faith who share Justin’s Christian faith and upbringing and have been in the business since they, too, were teens — have reached out to him as mentors and friends in the past, but were rebuffed. Now is the time, Justin, to let them help you. Let them accompany you through this difficult time.
Find a spiritual director or pastor or rabbi or clergy person (and please not the kind who is interested in having his or her picture taken with a pop star or asking you to endorse his or her latest book) and lean into their wisdom and care. Let them remind you of God’s promises to all of us. Also read Eugene Peterson’s “Run with the Horses.” You are a Jeremiah.
And then go away. For as long as you need to go away to get well and remember who you are and why you are here. Don’t worry about your career or the Bieber Industrial Complex. Those people got on fine before you arrived and started lining their pockets with Benjamins and they’ll be fine if (and hopefully when) you take a break for a few months or years or however long you need to be whole.
AS an artist, you break yourself open and pour yourself out. It’s like Eucharist. But you can’t share that amazing gift of Eucharist with the world if your internal well is dry.
Go fill it up. Let people help you find a way to do that. Be gentle with yourself – shame is not helpful – but neither is arrogance.
SAY YOU’RE SORRY TO YOUR FANS. Fans like my 13-year-old niece. Don’t just tell them how much they mean to you and thank them for putting you in the spotlight and giving you this life. APOLOGIZE FOR NOT BEHAVING THE WAY YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD; FOR NOT BEING YOUR HIGHEST AND BEST SELF.
And then go take care of you. Not for the sake of your career, but for the sake of your heart, mind, body, and soul.
Justin, I’m sorry for being party to the atmosphere of media pressure around you that at the very least contributed to where you are right now. Please forgive me. I don’t want to sell another copy of the book I wrote about you. I just want you to be well. And if there’s anything I can ever do to help you privately to get whole, please call on me.
Praying for you, dear brother in the One who loves both of us more than we ever could fathom.
According to the Huffington Post:
A recent interview with Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the “Almoner of His Holiness,” raised speculation that the Pope joins him on his nightly trips into Rome to give alms to the poor, and it turns out that the rumors are probably true.
A knowledgeable source in Rome told The Huffington Post that “Swiss guards confirmed that the pope has ventured out at night, dressed as a regular priest, to meet with homeless men and women.”
Krajewski earlier said, “When I say to him ‘I’m going out into the city this evening’, there’s the constant risk that he will come with me,” and he merely smiled and ducked the question when reporters asked him point-blank whether the Pope accompanied him into the city.
When he was still Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, Papa Frank used to do the same thing, sneaking out at night “to break bread with the homeless, sitting with them on the street and eating with them to show that they were loved,” HuffPo says. So the next time you find yourself riding the bus at night in the Eternal City and the priest across the aisle looks really familiar, it may be Pontifex Rex himself (or an angel in disguise.)
Just a stranger on a bus …
Papa Frank is a good shepherd and he’s concerned for the welfare of his flock — particularly those who aren’t dressed appropriately for the weather.
The folks at Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau posted this awesome Vine of Papa Frank talking to someone in the audience in St. Peter’s Square where you can see him saying something to the effect of, “It’s cold outside and you’re wearing short sleeves?!”
Ah, Il Papa. He’s a hugger and he worries. He’s like a Bubbe (or a Zayde, actually). Reason #890,398,471 why we (heart) him so much.
I’d imagine the man is not used to being embraced like that — not by strangers, maybe not even by family and friends.
But the Pope is a lover and, as I’ve mentioned before, a hugger.
A photo of the embrace went viral (as it should have):
According to CNN:
The man the Pope comforted suffers from neurofibromatosis, according to the Catholic News Agency. The genetic disorder causes pain and thousands of tumors throughout the body. It leads to hearing and vision loss, heart and blood vessel complications, and severe disability from nerve compression by tumors.
Earlier today, Papa Frank tweeted the following: 11h
Saints are people who belong fully to God. They are not afraid of being mocked, misunderstood or marginalized.
I can’t help but wonder whether Papa Frank was thinking of that man when he tweeted that.
Also Wednesday at the general audience, @Pontifex congratulated a newlywed couple who are members of L’Associazione Arcobaleno Marco Iagulli-Onlus (an organization that uses clowns and humor to cheer sick children). They’re known by their red plastic noses — the international symbol for healing humor (think Patch Adams). They couple were wearing their wedding garb and their noses.
So Papa Frank put a nose on, too. (Have I said today how much I love this guy?)
To wit, in a worldwide survey launched by the Vatican today, questions about how to care for (pastorally) LGBTQ folks and their families were among those posed in a lengthy questionnaire sent round the globe.
According to a report from Agence France Presse:
The Vatican on Tuesday launched an unprecedented worldwide consultation on the new realities of family life including gay marriage as part of Pope Francis’s efforts to reform the Catholic Church.
A questionnaire has been sent to bishops around the world asking them for detailed information about the “many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care”.
“Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from the widespread practice of cohabitation… to same-sex unions,” it said.
The 39 questions are unusual because of their non-judgemental, practical nature in what could be a signal of greater openness and increased pastoral care regardless of a believer’s background.
Referring to gay couples, one questions asks: “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of union?”
“In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?”
I’m so grateful Papa Frank is being, well, frank about issues related to LGBTQ and families in general (which are complex, no matter how they are created.) It’s much better than sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting “LALALALALALALA” with the hope that it might go away if he wills it to be so.
I like him. A lot.
BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:
“The Face of God.”
Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.
The Bible even tells us so.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27
When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.
Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.
That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.
Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.
Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)
Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.
Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.
Before I went on CNN live this afternoon to talk about the current debate about President Obama’s faith, one of my best friends handed me a cool bottle of water and a copy of Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, which she had marked with a post-it note on the chapter titled, “Faith.”
I had hoped (alas) that the anchor would ask good questions and that I could, at some point, make reference to the following quotes:
First of all, faith is not an emotion, not a feeling. It is not a blind subconscious urge toward something vaguely supernatural. It is not simply an elemental need in man’s spirit. It is not a feeling that God exists. It is not a conviction that one is somehow saved or ‘justified’ for not special reason except that one happens to feel that way. It is not something entirely interior and subjective, with no reference to any external motive. It is not just ‘soul force.’ It is not something that bubbles up out of the recesses of your soul and fills you with an indefinable ‘sense’ that everything is all right. It is not something so purely yours that its content is incommunicable. It is not some personal myth of your own that you cannot share with anyone else, and the objective validity of which does not matter either to your or God or anybody else.
But also it is not an opinion. It is not a conviction based on rational analysis. It is not the fruit of scientific evidence. You can only believe what you do not know. As soon as you know it, you no longer believe it, at least not in the same way as you know it.
Too often our notion of faith is falsified by our emphasis on the statements about God which faith believes, and by our forgetfulness of the fact that faith is a communion with God’s own light and truth. Actually, the statements, the propositions which faith accepts on the divine authority are simply media through which one passes in order to reach the divine Truth. Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God.
SAVE ME A GOOD SEAT IN HEAVEN, UNCLE DODI.
Seven years ago, at the start of the war in Iraq and its accompanying societal discord, a rabbi friend of mine told me something that I’ve thought about every day since: “We learn the most from the people we think are the least like us.”
Earlier this month, when my Uncle Dodi crossed through the veil into the eternal hereafter at the age of 74, the rabbi’s words returned to me with fresh power.
Dodi was my chosen uncle — a life-long friend of my father’s from New Hampshire where they’d known each other since childhood. Despite the lack of blood bonds, he had an epic and enduring influence on the spiritual life of my entire family.
You see, Dodi is the person who introduced my parents, and then my brother and me, to Jesus. Not as an historical figure or as a spiritual idea, but as a personal savior — the giver of life eternal and unending, staggering grace.
In the late ‘70s, after having studied intensively the New Testament in its original languages on his own, Dodi came to believe wholeheartedly in the message of the Gospel. And he shared the good news he’d discovered with my mother and father.
Soon after, they became born-again Christians, left the Roman Catholic church and led our family into the brave new world of Protestant evangelicalism. It was, at the time, a thoroughly scandalous transformation.
My parents’ spiritual epiphany, for which Dodi’s own newfound faith was the catalyst, changed the course of our lives.
But Dodi was the most unlikely of evangelists. A consummate intellectual, Dodi came from stubborn Greek and Italian stock, was a proud Dartmouth graduate and a member of Mensa,. He was not, for most of his, a believer of any kind. Nor was he any sort of gentle spirit.
Dodi was the quintessential New England curmudgeon, straight out of the J.D. Salinger handbook. (He and Salinger even bore a striking resemblance to one another.) When Dodi became a born-again Christian, his soul was reborn and remade, but his personality remained intact.
Irascible. Intensely private. Perpetually grumpy.
Still, he was a believer in the most authentic sense of the word. When I was a teenager, Dodi would call our house to talk to me, engaging me for hours in conversation about the Bible and faith, and never once condescending to my young heart or mind.
Dodi always spoke to me as an adult. He was unfailingly frank. I could (and did) ask him anything about God and he would give me the straight answer (as he saw it), but he would not abide intellectual dishonesty. I couldn’t get away with faking it. I had to know what and why I believed.
He was thoroughly convinced that we were living in the “end times” and that the Second Coming of Christ was nigh. Time’s a wastin’, Dodi insisted, no room for mucking about. It was time to get down to business.
Dodi was no blind apostle. He embraced the great Jewish tradition of arguing with God and he did so endlessly. He had many unanswered questions about Christianity and Christ. Despite his lingering conundrums, Christianity, he told me time and again, “is the only game in town.”
Prayer is meant to be an ongoing conversation with God — we can say anything to God. God can take it, my uncle would say. And God talks to us as well, Dodi insisted.
“What does he say to you?” I asked him once.
“Mostly he tells me that I’m an asshole,” Dodi answered. He wasn’t kidding.
When God “told” Dodi that I wasn’t meant to understand it as a damnation. Rather, it meant that God knew exactly who and what Dodi was — and loved him anyway.
That kind of truth was liberating. It wasn’t Pollyannaish. It was real. And messy. And honest.
As I got older, Dodi and I had less in common. His politics were somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun (at least from my perspective), while mine were adamantly liberal. It drove Dodi nuts.
While he never gave up trying to change my politics, Dodi never implied that because of them, my faith was any less genuine than his.
As I see it, God, with that holy sense of humor, used the most unlikely of men to lovingly and powerfully shape my spirit.
Dodi was my opposite just as certainly as he was my soul’s mate. A hot-tempered Yoda, showing me the way and that the force was strong within me.
I can’t help but smile picturing him now, sitting with Jesus in heaven, a long list of questions in his hand, crossing each one off as he gets the answers.
Still arguing his point.
Bless his soul.
OK KIDS — TIME TO GROW UP, GET UP AND GET TO WORK
President Obama’s inaugural address might not have been one for the ages.
But it certainly was the right one for the moment.
Somber, sober and almost stern, our new president placed a mantle before the nation — We, the people — and gave us a gentle, but clear, kick in the collective pants.
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America,” he said. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.
“We remain a young nation,” Obama said, “but, in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
He was quoting from the New Testament — 1 Corinthians 13: 11 — St. Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece.
I was struck by the implications of this choice of Scripture, in a speech in which the president explicitly reached out to the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and non-believing populations as well as to his own Christian community.
Most people, if they are familiar with this particular Bible passage, probably have heard it read at a wedding. This is the “love chapter” — verses that come before and after the one the president quoted — speak eloquently about true love.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails,” it says.
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. 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.”
When St. Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth, he began by addressing the problems it faced. The church was beset by infighting and divisions, and threatened by immoral influences from the surrounding community, where, for instance, 1,000 priestesses engaged in prostitution at the Temple of Venus in the name of worship.
Corinth was a young city, and the church there was a young church, just as we are a young nation. Teenagers, if you will.
St. Paul delivered a stern, yet loving, reproach to the Corinthians, telling them, essentially, to quit their bickering, grow up and get busy with what they were called to do in the first place: Love.
Love one another. Love their neighbors. Be God’s love in the world — the light of the world and a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden, as St. Matthew says in his gospel.
Be love with arms and legs — feeding the poor, comforting the sick, visiting the prisoners, sheltering the homeless.
How interesting that the Bible passage about growing up and putting away childish things (in the name of love) was chosen by our 47-year-old president and his 27-year-old chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau — perhaps the youngest team ever to craft a U.S. presidential inaugural address.
I wonder whether they chose the passage from 1 Corinthians in part to evoke another letter written by St. Paul. In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul writes to his young friend Timothy, an evangelist in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor.
“Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young,” St. Paul told Timothy, “but be an example for other believers in your speech, behavior, love, faithfulness, and purity.”
Favreau also helped Obama craft his famous victory speech after the Iowa caucuses where he said, in part:
“You know, they said this day would never come … They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.”
“Years from now,” he said, “you’ll look back, and you’ll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope . . . Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
In his timely inauguration speech, Obama gave us marching orders anchored in a conspiracy of hope and a love that never fails.
This is it, kids. The big show.
This is when we put our American ideals into action.
Today, our ideology meets reality.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.
For me, at least.
It’s almost always an appropriately cloudy, brooding day, as if the weather is setting the mood for what is, for many Christians, the most somber of days.
It’s the one day a year I know, with absolute certainty, that I am a complete and utter asshat.
The day to recall all the horrendous things I’ve done and do on a regular basis. Terrible, toe-curlingly uncharitable thoughts and deeds. Callous antipathy, more often than not, for the rest of the human race.
The lowlights of my life.
It’s the day I’m sure it’s all my fault. That I am a failure. That I’ve sinned and fallen short of the glory, if you will. That I must repent my evil ways.
Other religions have similar days or times set apart for serious reflection on the condition of our souls. For the Jewish people, it is Yom Kippur, a day of atonement for the sins committed in the previous year. For Muslims, it is Ramadan, 40 days of fasting, abstinence and prayer observed each year to commemorate the time their holy book, the Quran, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
In the Christian tradition, there’s Lent, culminating in Good Friday, the day the Bible says Jesus atoned for the sins of the world by dying on the cross. (See the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John for more details, or “The Passion of the Christ” for a synopsis.)
In theory, all of Lent is supposed to lend itself to deep spiritual reflection. But Good Friday is the day my audit report arrives from the Eternal Revenue Service.
And it’s not pretty.
Most distressing is the realization of just how unforgiving I can be, how ungracious and unloving. Toward the people I love, and especially toward a few folks I don’t. (That “love your enemies” bit trips me up every time.)
As far as I can tell, I’m not alone in this annual exercise of lamenting the human condition in general, and my own in particular.
There are liturgies and, some might say, even entire religious traditions built around it. Books and music have been written about it, and art made to reflect its anguish.
A lot of people ask me what I turn to for guidance and inspiration this time of the year. (I’m no spiritual savante, so perhaps they ask me because I go to churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, etc. for a living. Who knows?)
I tell them that since 1999, when it was first published, I’ve read and reread Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith just about every Lent. In ways big and small, her thoughts on faith transformed the way I see myself, my spirit, the world. And God.
Over the years, I’ve bought at least a half-dozen copies of Traveling Mercies, but they always seem to walk off in someone else’s hands. It’s that kind of book.
If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. Lamott, a recovering everything, is inspiring with her stunning feats of boundless humanity and reckless leaps of faith. She’s my hero.
Last week, Lamott, who described herself as “a big ole lefty and a big ole Christian,” was in town for a reading and lecture at Chicago’s North Park University, a Christian college associated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, where Traveling Mercies is required reading for every student as part of the core curriculum.
At the college, Lamott spoke, variously, about faith, forgiveness, parenting, hiking regime change, Jesus and George Bush.
Everybody has those somebodies in their life that just make it difficult to do the right thing and nearly impossible to do the loving thing. The Difficult Ones.
For Lamott, it’s George W. Bush and his administration.
She has a hard time loving the president, she said, especially because Bush and many of his cronies are Christians. Just like her.
“I’m doing whatever I can that I think would not horrify Jesus,” she told the North Park crowd, referring to her opposition of all things Bush. “I just want to be one of the people who’s not a right-wing fundamentalist who totally loves Jesus.
“I think that there’s nothing that can separate us from God’s love and there’s nothing that is so awful and heinous and barbaric and evil that would have Jesus just go, ‘Oh, forget it,’ and stomp off,” she said.
Not even right-wing conservative Christians who have “stolen the Bible” or the architects of a war based on a lie that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers, she said.
Earlier this week, as I picked up Traveling Mercies again, I had a conversation with Lamott (via e-mail because we’re both better with a computer keyboard than with a phone) about what was on her mind as she stared down Good Friday.
“On Good Friday, I have to think doubly hard about the resurrection, because if it is not true, then we are all going tourist class, and it is all truly hopeless,” Lamott was telling me.
“I do believe in the resurrection, and I have had my own resurrection story, and know many, many people who have, too — the end of the light, the end of all sanity and good ideas, and hope. And then grace steps in — and for some of us, this came as Jesus, and for other people, it came in other direct experiences of Divine Love — and salvation and redemption are jiggled out of the dark, brutal, hungry world.
“I thank God that Jesus seems to have such low standards that people like me are welcomed into the kingdom, and entrusted with his love, to share with others, as others have so freely shared with us.
“I try to keep things really shallow; I understand about as much as is in the songs we sing with our kids on Sunday: Jesus died, and rose from the dead, for me, and for Donald Rumsfeld and Karen Hughes. Go figure.”
She and Bush and everyone else in the world are suffering from the same “sickness in us that is fatal and progressive and disgusting,” Lamott said. Humanness.
“Inside, I’m just as capable of any madness or egotism that Bush has displayed,” she said, explaining that she feels sorry for him and empathizes to a certain extent. “But mostly I hate George Bush.”
“I am a bad Christian,” Lamott continued, echoing my own thoughts. “And Jesus is so sweet and kind. I think he watches me, and knows the inside of my heart and loves me anyway, and I guess — urrrr — he feels the same way about Bush and Cheney.”
So it seems.
Maybe on this bad day called Good, we’ll both find the courage to love The Difficult Ones in time for Easter, and pick up some traveling mercies for the coming year.