god

Requiescat In Pace, Dear Hef: Hugh Hefner, The God Factor Interview

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.


Photo of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner from a Stage 67 presentation “Sex in the Sixties.” Photo: Public Domain via Wikipedia.

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.

 

AUGUST 2004

 

From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)

Guest Post: Ina Albert on Changing Faces of Spirit

"Ber'eshit", the first word in the book of Genesis.
“Ber’eshit”, the first word in the book of Genesis.

            “Religion is an agreement between a group of people about what G-d is.
Spirituality is a one-on-one relationship.”
~ Conscious Way Magazine

It was the 1960’s and I went to the right rather than to the left.

Someone gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged and I swallowed it whole. Especially the part about altruism and religion being irrational and atheism being the only intellectual alternative.

As a follower of Ayn Rand and Objectivism and a Republican-for-Goldwater, I rejected my Jewish heritage and announced that I had become an atheist at a family dinner.

Of course.

My mother cringed and asked, “What about the children?” (I had sons ages four and six at the time.)

My father looked at my mother and said, “She’ll get over it.”

He was right.

But the reason I returned to Judaism was not a deep-seated belief in G-d. It was Judaism’s conviction that being Jewish could not be denied. No matter what, I could not be excommunicated. I could question whatever I wanted and still be “kosher.” Denying G-d in front of the altar in the synagogue, blaspheming the Torah, refusing to have my boys circumcised, would not release me.

I was Jewish, and once a Jew, always a Jew.

Why? Because now and forever Jews have had to adapt to change. As we moved from society to society, the community integrated some customs in their new home and rejected others. Certainly the Spanish Inquisition is the prefect example. Jews had to choose between being burned at the stake or converting to Catholicism, so they became secret Jews, lighting the Sabbath candles in wine cellars and basements and praying secretly on the holidays. Called Maranos or Crypto Jews, they developed their own hidden culture. Like their ancestors, they re-adapted to Spanish society where acceptance was conditional at best.

Yet Judaism grew in each new circumstance. The most sacred music was created during the Inquisition. Once a year on Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre – All Vows – sings the musical withdrawal of the covenant that forced them to become Christian. Their individual survival demanded that the vow be made, but the survival of Judaism accommodated this necessity with a heroic statement that is now sung in every synagogue in the world to reaffirm commitment to Judaism—no matter what.

Once a Jew, always a Jew.

So what became of my vow to become an atheist?  I found that, where Judaism obligated me to ask questions and discover my own brand of spirituality, Objectivism did not.  It was rigid, dictatorial, defined on only one level of human experience. It failed to support curious minds, human kindness, and intellectual growth.

In Judaism I found ways to explore everything from orthodoxy to Humanistic Judaism in which G-d plays no part.

Where did I land? I’m still in process. But my connection with G-d is clear. I feel it every time I meditate, every time I pray, in every walk in the woods and in the eyes of each person I meet. G-d’s energy is with me and with all creation. I feel it, experience it and have no doubt that it exists.

The new book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, to which I contributed a chapter, offered us authors the opportunity to explore our beliefs out loud. And to listen louder to each other.  It explores the essence of religious freedom that allows us to express our spirituality as a one-on-one relationship without boundaries or restrictions.

Disquiet Time has created a sacred space between all of its contributors and you, our readers.

Thanks for listening,

Ina_2
Ina Albert

Ina Albert  is co-author of Write Your Self Well…Journal Your Self to Health, finds that listening is her most valuable quality as she grows older. Her new children’s book, Granny Greeny Says…Listen Louder, tells us how it’s done.

A life transitions coach, certified Age-ing to Sage-ing® seminar leader, and adjunct instructor at Flathead Valley Community College, Ina has logged 40 years as a healthcare communications professional. She shares 78 years of life experience with clients and readers of her monthly column in Montana Woman Magazine. She is published in Second Journey, Beliefnet.com, Jewish Magazine, Elder Woman Newsletter and various other publications, including a chapter in The Art of Grief edited by J. Earl Rogers for Routledge Press. Ina’s “A Letter On Behalf of Myself,” was selected by University of Portsmouth (United Kingdom) for their anthology, Borderlines.

Ina and her husband, Rabbi Allen Secher, are God Girl’s adopted spiritual parents. They live in western Montana with their Kugel the Wonder Schnauzer.

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: Noses & Kisses

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.At the end of Wednesday’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Papa Frank embraced a man. He took the man’s disfigured face in his hands, cradled it in his chest, kissed him, and blessed him.

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):

Pope Francis' General Audience

 

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?)

Photo by Alamy Live News via the Daily Mail
Photo by Alamy Live News via the Daily Mail

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: Baby Noemi

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.In the General Audience at St. Peter’s today, Papa Frank asked the 50,000 or so folks standing in the square for a solid:

Pray for a baby named Noemi.

Apparently the child, who he had met before the public audience and may even have been among those in the crowd, is gravely ill.

Papa Frank said, in part (translated from the Italian but watch the video below where you can see how expressive and funny and warm he is):

“And now, I will ask all of you for an act of charity. Don’t worry, it’s not about money,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Even though we might not know her, she is Baptized. She is one of us, she’s a Christian. Let’s express an act of love for her. First, in silence, let’s ask the Lord to help her at this very moment. May He give her health. Let’s take a moment of silence, then let’s pray a Hail Mary.”

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: LGBTQ

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.Papa Frank cares about all of his flock — and just what part of all don’t you understand?

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.

Cartoon of Papa Frank tending to his flock by cartoonist Tony Jones: http://www.cagle.com/2013/09/pope-francis-tends-flock/
Cartoon of Papa Frank tending to his flock by cartoonist Tony Jones: http://www.cagle.com/2013/09/pope-francis-tends-flock/

On My Nightstand

book pileEvery day a new book arrives in the mail from one publisher or another, or by my own choice from various booksellers (independent whenever possible).

Lately it’s been a bumper crop. Here’s what I’m reading these days:

AND HOW COULD I FORGET ( not pictured because it literally was under my pillow in bed) :

  • STITCHES: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair By Anne Lamott

Hey. Watch This. (Updated)

oprah-winfrey-shared-a-photo-of-her-and-christian-author-and-pastor-rob-bell-during-filming-for-an-episode-of-her-super-soul-sunday-series-on-ownRob Bell and Oprah.

BOOM.

http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/event-viewing.html

West Coast (PST) viewing begins at 11 a.m.

(Update, 12:45 p.m. PST) So … Ms. Winfrey let the cat out of the bag:

 Oprah Winfrey ‏@Oprah 3h

@MalikaGhosh@realrobbell there is a part 2 but we split them .. Developing a show with @realrobbell

(Drops the mic.)Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 12.41.00 PM

PASTRIX Bonus

Image

The curse of a journalist is never having enough room for everything in one piece. It’s an art of subtraction that often is a painful but necessary practice.

So here’s something Nadia said that I wanted to share but didn’t have space for in the original column. After her reading/riffing at All Saints last week, during the Q&A someone asked her about grief.

I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death (I loved him more than life itself) and what Nadia said is

1) true and

2) actually helpful.

Nadia answered:

I have nothing other than grief is such a such a disfiguring process. And speed it up or deny that that’s true is to not honor it. And there is no way through but through. Sometimes all that somebody needs to is someone to go through it with them. Not to give them platitudes, not to try to speed it up. That’s it. That’s all I got. There is no magic there. It just sucks.

YES IT DOES.

A few minutes before that, while talking about something else, she also said the following, which will stay with me a long time, grief, grieving or not.

I’m almost always stricken by an experience of God. Broken into a million pieces and put back together.

Amen, sister.

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: All Saints

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.Today is All Saints Day, the time in the liturgical calendar when we remember those who have gone before us into the More – that Great Cloud of Witnesses who crowd the bleachers and cheer us on while the rest of us play out the game of Life in this mortal coil.

But what is a saint? The Bible says we all are – those of us who know and love God.

Today in St. Peter’s Square, before reciting the Angelus, Papa Frank had a few things to say about saints. This was my favorite bit:

“The saints are friends of God,” he said. But they “are not superheroes, nor were they born perfect. They are like us, each one of us.”

“Friends of God.”

“Like us, each one of us.”

Selah.

According to Catholic News Service, Papa Frank continued, saying:

“The saints are men and women who have joy in their hearts and bring it to others. Never hate, serve others — the neediest, pray and be joyful, this is the path of holiness.”

The pope said the saints’ message to women and men today is to “trust in the Lord because he never disappoints.”

“He’s a good friend who is always at our side,” he said.

With the example of the way they lived their lives, the saints encourage all Christians “to not be afraid to go against the tide or to be misunderstood and derided when we speak about (Jesus) and the Gospel.”

Frederick Buechner (aka St. Freddie of Rupert to my tribe) said this about saints and I love its imagery and simplicity: “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchiefs. Those handkerchiefs are called saints.”

It’s been almost a year since my father, Muzzy, (who always carried white cloth handkerchief) passed over into the More. He now sits next to my Aunts Mary and Patti and Carol and Joan and Jeannie, my Uncles Satch and Ceasar, Grammy and Poppy Page and Grampy Falsani and Nellie; my dear friend David Kuo who left us last year, my favorite professors, Jimma Young and Arthur Holmes; Seamus and Bob and Iris and Kirsty and Mr. Chevron (in the section reserved for Irish hooligans); Johnny and Ravi and Lou and Buddy and Billy with the band; sweet Naomi, Tom and Henri and Jack and Flannery; Vasco’s birth mother and father, Edina and Sylvester, and his siblings who died before him; and my beloved, pretty-fucking-close-to-a-superhero-in-real-life buddy, Mr. Mark, and all the others gathered in the cloud of witnesses in the cheering section just on the other side of the veil.

allsaints2013

My Open Letter to Justin Bieber on CNN.com

Puff the Magic Dragon. Screen capture from "Puff the Magic Dragon and the Land of Living Lies" via http://youtu.be/h8pQQ5RIxZ8
Puff the Magic Dragon. Screen capture from “Puff the Magic Dragon and the Land of Living Lies” via http://youtu.be/h8pQQ5RIxZ8

Below is an excerpt from “My Take: An Open Letter to Justin Bieber” posted on CNN.com today:

“…Last year you reached a milestone when you turned 18. You are living in a liminal state, standing at the threshold between childhood and adulthood, still more boy than man.

Times of transition and change are difficult for anyone, never mind someone whose every move in public is chronicled by relentless paparazzi and other members of the media. You must be gentle with yourself as you navigate these new waters, but you also must be diligent to guard your heart and mind more now than ever.

Whether you’ve partaken of the “sacred herb” just once or burn more cabbage than Tommy Chong at a Furthur show is not the issue that most concerns me.

It’s the decision to light a spliff or one-hitter or cigarette or whatever it was in that Newport Beach hotel room last week where folks were snapping pictures with their smartphones that troubles me.

What you do and say echoes around the world. Your very young fans watch and listen to you carefully. When they see images of you with a butt or blunt in your hand or waiting for a friend to pour you a glass of vodka, the message they receive is inconsistent and confusing.

I can’t imagine that was your intention, if you gave much thought at all to what you were doing before you chose to do it, but that’s the reality.”

Read the letter in its entirety HERE.

 

'At the Sound of Mary's Greeting, Elizabeth's Child Leapt Within Her'

''At the Sound of Mary's Greeting, Elizabeth's Child Leapt Within Her'

A child at Little Church by the Sea portrayed St. Elizabeth in the Christmas pageant Sunday.

Can you see the living God in this girl’s face? I can.

Photo by Cathleen Falsani

 

God Was Here

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Image of “Street God” by Sweetsofa (Streetart) via Wylio: http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/102953079

Michael Hidalgo has a powerful post over at my old shop, Sojourners, this morning reflecting on the question, Where is God? or, rather, Where was God? during the Newtown school shootings on Friday.

Michael writes:

When I heard the news of Friday my gut response was to say, “God, why?” My heart wondered where God was in all of this. Many people wondered the same thing. Sometimes it is hard to mesh the words of Scripture with our world.

One commentator suggested that it was precisely because God was not there that this heinous act happened. Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed we should not be surprised to see this kind of violence since we have removed God from our schools and our society. His sentiment is to say, “God is NOT here.” If that is the case, then it surely can explain the existence of pure evil that we saw displayed on Friday.

However, thinking like that of Gov. Huckabee suggests that we somehow have the power to remove God from our schools and our society. This kind of God is quite small, weak, and impotent  — one that is dictated by the mere whims of humanity. This is not the God of whom Matthew spoke.

Read his post in its entirety HERE.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

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Nativity image by Midiman via Wylio: http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/317537450

Trish Ryan is a writer you should know if you don’t already.

She’s the author two really fine memoirs: A Maze of Grace: A Memoir of Second Chances and He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: A Memoir of Finding Faith, Hope, and Happily Ever After. And she blogs regularly at Trish’s Dishes.

Today on her blog, Trish tells a story that so many of us parents will resonate with about driving her daughter, whom she calls “Princess Peach,” to school this morning awash in lingering fears that have descended like a low-pressure front in wake of the Newtown tragedy.

(On my own drive to school this morning, I felt unusually anxious, but did my best to hide that fact from The Lad. As we approached the school, The Lad shouted, “A rainbow!” I looked and didn’t see it at first. “Maybe I was wrong,” he said. But as we made the turn into the school parking lot there it was: A big rainbow hovering in the sky just above his school. I decided to take it as a good sign — all shall be well — told The Lad I loved him, he said he loved me to, grabbed his backpack out of the car, and off he went. As I drove away, I caught the vice-principal’s eye and mouthed, “THANK YOU.”)

Trish writes in part:

On the way to school this morning, flustered by the new level of fear hovering in the air and trying not to show it, I was SO frustrated to find that our usual route was blocked by construction, and the next two roads turned (inexplicably, without warning) into one way streets a block and a half down.

There were repeated three point turns (and suppressed four letter words).

Princess Peach is very tuned into the emotions of the adults in her world, so she asked me, “Are you angry?” “No,” I said, trying to sound reassuring, “I’m just frustrated – all these turn arounds are making it hard to get you to school.”

“JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH!” She yelled. I took a deep breath, trying to say calm.

We’re working with her on the whole “Not using God’s name as a swear word” thing (and how there is some language you don’t get to make choices about until you’re a grownup.)  Then I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that she was pointing.

I looked, and sure enough: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  A manger scene, lit from within, covered in icy rain.

Read the rest of Trish’s post HERE.

Get Wonderstruck This Christmas

ImageMy dear friend Margaret Feinberg has a new book out (i.e. the perfect Christmas gift for the word lovers on your list) called Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God.

Today Margaret writes about being left “wonderstruck” by a simple act of kindness by one New York City police officer to a homeless man.

Shoes as grace.officer-larry-diprimo-gives-bootssocks-in-nyc-nov-14th

She says in part:

Less than a month ago, a New York Times police officer Lawrence DiPrimo left us wonderstruck by an act of kindness when Jennifer Foster, a tourist from Florence, Arizona, snapped a photo of a member of NYPD kneeling down to give a homeless man a pair of boots on a frigid night.

The officer didn’t just hand the man a $100 pair of Skechers but took the time to slip socks and new boots on the man’s blistered feet—a scene reminiscent of John 13:1-17.

The photo was posted on Facebook and soon went viral with more than 20,000 comments. The story was the perfect reminder during the holiday season of the power of kindness, generosity, and love.

Read Margaret’s post in its entirety HERE.

To order Wonderstruck, click HERE.

President Obama's Address to Mourners in Newtown

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

________________________________________________________________

For Immediate Release                          December 16, 2012

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT

AT SANDY HOOK INTERFAITH PRAYER VIGIL

Newtown High School, Newtown, Connecticut

8:37 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you, Governor.  To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests — Scripture tells us:  “…do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”

We gather here in memory of twenty beautiful children and six remarkable adults.  They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school; in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America.

Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation.  I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts.  I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight.  And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it.  Newtown — you are not alone.

As these difficult days have unfolded, you’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice.  We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate.  Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy — they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances — with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.

We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms, and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying “wait for the good guys, they’re coming”; “show me your smile.”

And we know that good guys came.  The first responders who raced to the scene, helping to guide those in harm’s way to safety, and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock and trauma because they had a job to do, and others needed them more.

And then there were the scenes of the schoolchildren, helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do; one child even trying to encourage a grown-up by saying, “I know karate.  So it’s okay.  I’ll lead the way out.”  (Laughter.)

As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown.  In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another.  This is how Newtown will be remembered.  And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through.

But we, as a nation, we are left with some hard questions.  Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around.  With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice.  And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm.  And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them.  They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments.  And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.

And we know we can’t do this by ourselves.  It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself.  That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation.  And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.

This is our first task — caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations?  Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?  Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return?  Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no.  We’re not doing enough.  And we will have to change.

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting.  The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors.  The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims.  And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims whose — much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.  Because what choice do we have?  We can’t accept events like this as routine.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

All the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question:  Why are we here?  What gives our life meaning?  What gives our acts purpose?  We know our time on this Earth is fleeting.  We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain; that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame, or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped.  We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way.  We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships.  And even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have — for our children, for our families, for each other.  The warmth of a small child’s embrace — that is true.  The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger — we know that’s what matters.  We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness.  We don’t go wrong when we do that.

That’s what we can be sure of.  And that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us.  That’s how you’ve inspired us.  You remind us what matters.  And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do, for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.

“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them — for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Charlotte.  Daniel.  Olivia.  Josephine.  Ana.  Dylan.  Madeleine.  Catherine.  Chase.  Jesse.  James.  Grace.  Emilie.  Jack.  Noah.  Caroline.  Jessica.  Benjamin.  Avielle.  Allison.

God has called them all home.  For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory.

May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place.  May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort.  And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America.  (Applause.)

END                 8:55 P.M. EST

It's the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel … Peace

shutterstock_93428659For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

~ Isaiah 9:6

On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.

The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.

Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw?  With whom would I want to share my last breaths?

For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.

Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.

If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.

He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.

And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.

It’s a terribly disquieting thought, one that had filled me with sheer dread since the father of a classmate died suddenly when we were in junior high. Stefanie’s dad was probably in his late 30s. At the time, my dad was in his 50s. And I was terrified that something awful would happen and he’d be gone.

The idea of losing my father terrified me and made me panicky. I wouldn’t let Daddy leave the house without telling him to be careful and that I loved him, whether his destination was a transcontinental flight or a trip to the Stop & Shop down the street.

If he died, I wouldn’t be able to function. It would be chaos. The planet would spin off its axis. The sky would fall. I’d be utterly lost.

It would be the end of the world as I knew it.

So 30 years later, when Daddy did go home to Jesus – peacefully, in his sleep – I was shocked to find the panic and terror I had anticipated for so long replaced by a palpable, otherworldly sense of peace.

I was in Washington, D.C., when I got the call from my mother in the wee hours of a Wednesday telling me that Daddy had passed. Well, at least I was on the right coast. I could drive north on I-95 to Connecticut in a few hours rather than trying to find a flight from the West Coast.

Instead of hopping in the car right away, I took my time getting ready for the drive home. I sent emails and made phone calls to family and friends, letting them know that my father had passed away. One of the first friends I told was a fellow who was in from out of town to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. I was supposed to see him at lunchtime, and sent a quick note to say Daddy had died and I wouldn’t be able to make it.

A few hours later, just as I was heading out of the district toward Baltimore, my friend emailed me back saying that he had sought out a quiet corner in the U.S. Capital to pray for my family and me – for God to give us “the peace that passes all understanding.”

Such an articulation of peace comes from the epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, where, in the third chapter, the apostle writes:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God. And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil. 3:6-7)

In other words, God says, “I got this,” and hands us peace.

But what is this peace of which the Bible speaks? In the Hebrew scripture the word used most often for “peace” is shalom. It means more than just a lack of conflict or absence of war. Shalom comes from the Hebrew verb shalam, which means to “make amends.” Shalom describes a completeness or a soundness; a healing or making whole again.

In the New Testament, the Greek word for peace used most often (including in the passage from Philippians 3) is eirene. It describes a state of tranquility and rest, but also a “joining together,” God’s gift of wholeness when all the disparate parts will be joined together.

Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.” Therefore, Jesus himself is both the definition and incarnation of God’s peace – the Prince of Shalom described by Isaiah.

In his book The Magnificent Defeat, the author Frederick Buechner explains divine peace this way:

True peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. Picture Jesus at the Last Supper: He had every reason to believe that the end was upon him, and we see im looking around at his friends who will all betray him and saying, ‘Peace I leave with you,’ he says, when you would have thought he had no peace at all anywhere. ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ John 14:27)

Christ never promises peace in the sense of no more struggle and suffering. Instead, he helps us to struggle and suffer as he did, in love, for one another….Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought. Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep…you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them. You need whatever name you choose to give the One whom Lewis named Aslan.

That kind of peace is what descended on my heart and mind in the wake of my father’s death. I didn’t do anything to get it to arrive.  I didn’t pray the right prayer or read the right thing. It just … arrived. Like a gift.

It feels like a pair of strong arms I can wrap myself in and sink into like a cosmic bear hug. It makes no sense to have this kind of peace when the world as I knew it had come to an end and my greatest fear had come to pass.

Perhaps even in the darkest of times personally or collectively – even when the most horrific evil we could imagine wrecks havoc and terror in the halls of a Connecticut elementary school, violently ending the lives of 26 innocents – there is a peace that can cut through it all.

Even on the day when the Mayan calendar stops, when some say the world will end and the Apocalypse will begin. Even on the shortest day of the year that I will always think of as annus horribilus. Even when all hope is lost and darkness threatens to swallow the last flicker of light.

May you know the peace that passes all understanding in these last days of Advent — as we look with hope to the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace — at Christmas, in the new year, and in all the days to come.

Amen.

Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Follow Cathleen on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.

Photo credit: Mayan glyphs by zimmytws/Shutterstock. Photo (bottom): Cathleen Falsani  and her father, Mario “Muzzy” Falsani, at Christmastime 1972. Photo courtesy of the author.

Ethiopia: The Face of God

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Ethiopia: Motherhood is Powerful, Precious

Ethiopia: God Is Even Bigger Than We Think

Secret Church: Welcome home…

Secret Church: Welcome home…

For more than fifteen years, I didn’t go to church.

I mean, I did — a lot, in fact — but that’s what I did for a living.

The sweet Episcopal church I attended my last year of college and for a while after fell victim to the acrimony that continues the haunt the Anglican Communion. It split. Factions formed, sides were taken, harsh words were spoken, a biblical/spiritual/communal tug of war ensued.

It was awful. It was hurtful, the worst that the church has to offer.

I had had enough of Christians shooting their own. So I left.

My hiatus was about 15 years longer than I had expected it to be.

But after the wounds of that split, and countless others that brothers and sisters in Christ had inflicted on me and on each other, I was gun-shy. I love God and Jesus and all that Jesus told us to do and be while he walked among us in the flesh. But I no longer trusted his alleged followers to not be appalling.

In hindsight, that was pretty unfair. We may be believers, of one flavor or another, but we are all human and we all make mistakes, stumble, fall, drag others down with us, relish our hypocrisy, compare ourselves to other Christians rather than the One we are supposed to be looking to as the perfect example of how to be human and faithful.

A few years back now, I tiptoed back into the fold. I found a home in a sweet Episcopal parish not too far away from the one that had shattered like a cheap wall mirror so many years before. I learned that this parish, too, has split some years before, but what remained were not sharp edges and bitterness. What I found there was love, acceptance, true community and abundant grace.

About 18 months ago, on a visit to Laguna Beach long before the thought of living here had ever crossed our minds as a remote possibility — “I can’t believe people are actually allowed to live in a place this staggeringly beautiful!” — I visited a church here where a few of my dearest friends worship.

Little Church by the Sea.

Really. That’s it’s formal name.

Whatever that conjures in your mind — a certain sweetness and humility, a laid-back-ness, a groovy loving kind of vibe, a welcoming place where the pastors wear flip-flops, perhaps — is spot on. Even though the denomination to which Little Church belongs is one that is, on paper at least, an uncomfortable, itchy, pinching fit for me, the love in this local church — a community of faith in the truest sense — won my heart.

My family moved from Chicago to Laguna last summer to live in community. With old friends, new friends and, in large part, with the folks at Little Church. It beckoned to my heart. It called me home.

We are blessed with a handful of marvelous pastors who share the shepherding duties, and although the pastorate of Little Church is still a boy’s club, my hope springs eternal that that may change, perhaps even sooner than later. (As an aside, when I was looking at the Little Church Web site earlier today and clicked on the link that read, “Women in Ministry,” it took me to an error page. “Page not found.” Once upon a time, I would have been livid. Today I just thought it was really funny. Ironic. Very us.)

I have to bracket stuff like that. But every church I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime has some things that every person must choose to bracket, put aside and stay, or not. And leave. And keep looking.

My family has found a loving, faithful home in this most unlikely of places (at least for me.) I even joined the prayer team. I KNOW! I’m all-in for this church. And no one is more surprised by that than yours truly. And no one is more grateful.

One of our lead pastors, Jeff, was my friend long before he was my pastor. Along with Clarke — the children’s pastor who led my son to the Lord a few weeks back — Jeff was one of the first new friends I made in Laguna, introduced to me by two of my dearest friends who I’ve known since we were college kids together. I immediately liked and trusted Jeff and he has never, not for a moment, given me cause to second-guess my first impressions of him.

He is an epic blessing to me and my family. He’s also one of the finest preachers I’ve ever heard.

Earlier this month, Little Church began a lengthy teaching series on the Book of Job. Yes, groan.

But each of the teachers who have taken us through a chapter or two each so far of what may be one of the most troubling books in Hebrew Scripture, have done a stellar job with their difficult assignment.
Last Sunday, it was Jeff’s turn. He was charged with the task of explicating the 4th Chapter of Job.

What Jeff gave us, a remarkable gift, is, simply, the best sermon I’ve ever heard. Yes. The best.

And I say that as someone who went to church for a living for more than a decade and has been “churched” from the day I was born.

Jeff’s sermon was magnificent. Humble, funny, literate, astute and deeply, deeply true. Quintessential Jeff, really.

I believe it transformed me in a powerful way, in a way that I hope will continue to reverberate through my spirit for the rest of my life.

I stand in a threshold, about to embark on a literal epic journey. There are so many unknowns and the accompanying temptation to be terrified and try to clutch the reins until my fingers bleed. But Jeff, well he recalibrated how I see my life, how I see my story — the one God is writing. I see only the daily rushes, if you will, and sometimes I wonder if the narrative is holding together. Is my story a comedy, a tragedy, a thriller? Science fiction? Cath-sploitation, David Lynchian in its weirdness, or B-movie lackluster?

What Jeff explained so beautifully is that we’re not the ones writing the screenplay or the story of our lives. That job is God’s alone. God knows the beginning and God knows the end and God knows intimately the vast middle, where we all dwell.

Jeff read a quote from the author Sue Monk Kidd toward the end of his sermon. As the words left his mouth, the tears rolled down my cheeks.

Ms. Kidd says:

We seem to have focused so much on exuberant beginnings and victorious endings that we’ve forgotten about the slow, sometimes torturous unraveling of God’s grace that takes place in the ‘middle places.'”

Grace — like the bracing blast of a Pacific swell — crashed over me. It woke me up.

In my middle place.



Thank you, Jeff.

You are a gift and a beautiful vessel of grace to me.

I’m so glad you’re walking with me on this journey, quoting CS Lewis and Henri Nouwen and St. Freddie of Rupert and many other giants of the Communion of Saints, living and gone, along the way. Inviting me anew into truth, love, joy, grace. Into community. Into The Communion. You help to make it so dang attractive.

Thank you for your humble wisdom and your tender honesty.

Thank you for your overgrown cardigans, that hand-thrown pottery coffee cup in one hand and your floppy Bible in the other.

Thank you for your flippity-floppities, your humor and  kindness.

More than anything, thank you for your friendship.


Dear Reader, please take 47 minutes and listen to Jeff’s take on Job 4. It is glorious. And I promise you, you’ll be changed for the better. It’s a great story. And so is yours.


As for Little Church and all its beautiful souls, I am joyfully indebted to you. You have welcomed me back into the family, like the Father who sees his prodigal son coming and runs out to greet him, shouting for his staff to fire up the barbeques, bust out the good wine and get ready for an rocking homecoming party.

I didn’t think I’d find this place again. I didn’t think I’d find the secret church.

But I did.

Thank you, Jesus, for whispering to my heart, “It’s ok, Cath. You’re safe here. You’re loved here.”

Little Church is the kind of place I wish everyone who is afraid of getting hurt  by church could experience — even once.

Come be welcome … into so much more.

Secret Church

By David Wilcox
(Listen HERE)


This great cold steel
that bars the way inside
was molten when the Blacksmith
was still living
This dead heavy door
that’s oak by oak
and all the way a cross is unforgiving
This inscription tall
on that pristine wall
behind the steel so rusted
says, love remains
to break the chains
of those who would dare to trust it.
Meet me here any night
There’s a secret church
that’s gathered
by these gates of steel
a gathering of refugees
enough to feel
that we’re warm inside
with our candles in the wind
Though we’re standing on the outside
of these walls alone
the secret church
feels taller than cathedral stone
The doors may be locked
but they’re just doors
Come be welcomed
into so much more
Come be welcomed into so much more
Then the wind turned strong
when the gathering was done
and the chains upon the bars
began to falter down to the floor
From the center of the door
fell the lock that was
placed on the altar
The inscription tall
on the pristine wall
behind the steel so rusted
says love remains
to break the chains
of those who would dare to trust it.
Meet me here any night
There’s a secret church
that’s gathered
by these gates of steel
a gathering of refugees
enough to feel
that we’re warm inside
with our candles in the wind
As we’re standing on the outside
of these walls alone
the secret church
feels taller than cathedral stone
The doors may be locked
but they’re just doors
Come, be welcomed
into so much more
Come be welcome,
come be welcomed
into so much more

GODSTUFF

HARD-WIRED FOR GOODNESS

In the creation story in the biblical Book of Genesis, after God created fish and sea creatures, birds and animals — including the hilariously odd duck-billed platypus — and pronounced them “good,” God created human beings and declared that they were “very good.”

If it is true that God thinks human beings are very good, indeed, what might it mean to our understanding of sin, evil, our relationship with one another and with God?

God’s goodness and the inherent goodness of all of God’s creation — including you and me — is the subject of Made for Goodness and Why This Makes a Difference, a new book co-written by the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and his youngest daughter, Mpho Tutu, who, like her father, is an Anglican priest.

Human beings are “hard-wired” for goodness, the Tutus assert in their book.

“We are fundamentally good,” father and daughter write. “We are tuned to the key of goodness. This is not to deny evil; it is to face evil squarely. And we can face evil squarely because we know evil will not have the last word.”

Embracing our inherent goodness does not mean endless striving to “be good” or “do good,” the Tutus insist.

“Goodness is not the coin with which we anxiously pay for God’s love,” they write. “’Being good’ is the wrong goal. Attached to that notion of ‘being good’ are all the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ that we think will win us the prize we truly crave: God’s love and divine favor. We are wearing ourselves out in a quest to buy what is already ours: God’s unmerited love.

“God does that even for the ones that we call bad people, evil people. God is as intimate with them as God is intimate with the most saintly. There is not a single person that God gives up on, because God knows that we are made to be like God, who is goodness itself.”

(You can watch a video of Mpho and Desmond Tutu discussing their book HERE.)

The Tutu’s take on the nature of humankind — that we are deeply and inherently good because that is precisely how God created us— flies in the face of some schools of Christian theology that teach the “total depravity” of humans.

“What that takes as the starting point for who we are is sinful,” Mpho Tutu said in an interview from her office in Washington, D.C. “It says that the thing that is most important about us — the thing that is our most essential quality — is sinfulness and wrongness. It seems to me that it’s a warped kind of God who is going to create a creature that can never satisfy.

“It’s as if a God who can create whatever God desires decides that the thing I’m going to create is the thing that most annoys me,” she said. “That doesn’t compute. Yes we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but that’s not what is essential in us or what is essential about us. What is essential about us is that we are capable of living into the best that we are.”

Such an approach to the relationship between God and God’s human creatures may lead some to understand Jesus’ life and mission on Earth differently. Perhaps, as the Bible claims, Jesus became human, lived and died among us not because God required a sacrificial atonement, but because God knew Jesus’ sacrifice was the best way to demonstrate to our limited human imagination just how much God loves us.

“Precisely,” said Mpho Tutu, who was ordained in 2004 by her father. “We as human beings have a tendency… to get a hold of the wrong end of the story. We start the story at the end and work backwards, instead of starting the story at the beginning and working forward. If we do start the story at the beginning and work forward, we begin from God who was good creating us out of God’s love for us. We mess up along the way and God says, ‘No, I want to show you what is possible. This is possible. Living as human beings out of your goodness, out of your innate goodness, is possible.’ And comes to show us that, for Christians, in the pattern of Jesus Christ.”

Because Jesus lived a full human existence — with all of its joys and wonder, pain and struggles — temptation is not just a notion to God, Tutu said. After Jesus’ baptism, according to biblical accounts, the Spirit of God led him into the wilderness where he faced the Tempter. Jesus felt the seductive appeal of temptation, and chose not to give in.

“We don’t face temptations in the face of a God who has no idea what that means,” she said. “We face temptation held in the tender hand of a God who knows what temptation feels like to us … and who also knows that, yeah, it is possible to resist. It is possible to turn around and walk away.”

Happy 50th Birthday, Mr. Bono

On this day in 1960, a wee child with an enormous spirit was born in Dublin, Ireland.
His parents named him Paul.
We call him Bono.
Like untold millions of people around the world, B has touched my life in a transformative way. On this his half-century birthday, I am deeply grateful for his presence in this world of ours.
Rock on, B.
And thank you.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from Mr. Bono:

“The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it. Actually, maybe even far fetched to start with. But the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in shit and straw and poverty, is genius. And brings me to my knees, literally,”