grace

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)

Overdue Thank-You’s, Part One: Radical Islamic Hospitality

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.

Shokran or “thank you” in Arabic.

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.

Etihad Airways’s dua (prayer) for travel

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.

Locally-sourced wool from Kathmandu.

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.

GROSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!

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.

Anatomy of a travel nightmare. Selfies by the author.

 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.”

Reclaiming the trip: Etihad FTW. Settling in for a 15-hour-plus flight home to LAX. Photo by author

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.

Taken from the Quran (Surat Az-Zukhruf 13-14), it says:

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

 

Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Nepal

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.

Terraced farms in Nagarkot, Nepal. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.
Terraced farms in Nagarkot, Nepal. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

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.

Yesssss.

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.”

Always remember to look up. Photo from Nargakot, Nepal by the author.
Always remember to look up. Photo from Nargakot, Nepal by the author.

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.

GodGrrl on the Radio: Pope Francis, “The Joy of Love,” and WGN-Radio Chicago

I had SUCH fun talking to Wendy Snyder and Bill Leff on Chicago’s WGN radio yesterday about Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. Have a listen below.

Religion journalist Cathleen Falsani: People love ‘Papa Frank’!

Papa Frank’s “apostolic exhortation” Amoris Laetitia is at times beautiful and challenging and worth a read (all 250+ pages of it). For those of you less inclined, here are a few of my favorite bits from the his “Joy of Love”:

++ “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.”

++”We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations…We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.”

++”At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.
This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite.”

++”We have often been on the defensive, wasting pastoral energy on denouncing a decadent world without being proactive in proposing ways of finding true happiness.”

++”Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel…It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal.”

++”A pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in ‘irregular’ situations, as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.This would bespeak the closed heart of one used to hiding behind the Church’s teachings, ‘sitting on the chair of Moses and judging at times with superiority and superficiality difficult cases and wounded families.”

++At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity…We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance…That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth.”

++”Keep an open mind.. Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both.”

And in perhaps my favorite passage, which reminds me of a few people I’m blessed to know, particularly this guy:

++ “The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: “Ah, how you will delight the angels!” It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centered, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give
freely to them and thus bear good fruit.”

U2 and Compassion: There’s Someting In the Air

“For there is nothing heavier than compassion.
Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, 
a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

 

Compassion can be tricky business. It’s a lot like empathy—the human ability to imagine what it might be like to experience what someone else experiences and feel what she or he feels—that’s hardwired into most of our hearts and minds.

But compassion transcends empathy. It’s more than that, and it asks us to be and do more, too. Compassion has a conscience and heartbeat, legs that will march, arms that embrace, and hands that beckon, rise in solidarity, and defend when necessary.

As the Innocence + Experience tour heads into its final stretch, compassion (and its inextricable partner, action) have emerged as a theme that unified fans from North America and Europe.

From the racially motivated tragedies and traumas in Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere in the United States and the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis, to the epic strides made this year toward true equality for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters via the Irish referendum and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and how very close we are to seeing the first AIDS-free generation become a reality, each night’s concert stoked compassion and sent it home into the streets.

If compassion isn’t tied to action, it’s little more than an interesting notion. But when it causes us to move beyond ourselves and our comfort zones, when it inspires us literally to reach out—to the margins, to our neighbors, to those seeking refuge, justice, comfort, or grace—it becomes the special sauce (and a tangible sign that the Spirit is in the room and not down to street having a pint.)

Standing in London’s O2 and Glasgow’s Hydro SSE last week, waves of regret and joy washed over the audience as the lads took them by the hand and asked that we recall the “stolen voices,” those whose lives ended too soon or too violently, taken by preventable illnesses, war, ignorance, greed, or the most pernicious of all killers: indifference.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” Bono told the audience in London, recalling the words of the late Nelson Mandela.

Bono changed the lyrics of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” to include alongside Dr. King and Jesus Christ, precious Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey and broke our collective hearts.

Images of bombed out buildings that could have been from Syria last week or Sarajevo two decades past, flashed across The Cage while the band sang “October.”

A few verses from “Zooropa” introduced an extraordinary rendition of “Where the Streets Have No Name” that had the entire Hydro crowd on its feet, dancing, arms (and consciences) raised.

We’re gonna dream of the world
We want to live in
We’re gonna dream out loud

“What do you want?” Bono asked the Scottish audience the second night at the Hydro, an extraordinary show where compassion flowed like lager, filling the cup of mercy to overflowing. “What do you want? A Europe with it’s heart open or a Europe with its borders closed to mercy? I know what I want. A place called home. A placed called home, somewhere, anywhere. Here! HERE! Open. Open people. OPEN!”

As the band heads to Paris and then on to Belfast (for its first concerts in nearly 20 years), before their homecoming in Dublin at the end of the month, the calls to compassion and action feel as if they’re continuing to reverberate long after the U2 crew has left the building.

As Bono said one evening in Scotland, there’s something in the air, isn’t there?

Yes. Yes there is.

Intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes…

On Justin Bieber's Annus Horribilis : My Interview with Joshua DuBois

justin crying believe
Justin sheds tears in this still from his film “Believe.”

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.

On Justin Bieber's Arrest in Miami Beach

justin mug shot
click photo to go to TMZ.com full story

Thank God no one was hurt in the alleged drag-racing incident in Miami overnight that led to the pop star’s arrest.

But Justin IS hurt. He’s been injured in a way that’s worse than what could have happened in a car wreck.
I had hoped he’d avoid taking this path, the one far-more-traveled-by than the one he should have taken. He can change course, right the ship, and carry on paying it forward. But he’s going to need help (divine and human). It’s going to take time.
And he’s going to have a lot of amends to make — but NOT for the sake of his career.
I wish I could dispatch (Justice League-style) a few particularly wonderful clergy and musician friends to grab him when he’s released from the lock-up and bundle him off to somewhere safe and private where he can deal with the mess he’s made and still know that he is loved by God exactly the same (and just as much) as he was before he started misbehaving, and that grace is there for him.
For all the media who have been contacting my agent to talk to me about Justin’s arrest: I have been turning down interview requests for months because I have had nothing constructive to say. But I do now.
And it starts with an apology to Justin for being a part of  the media pressure that contributed to his arrival at this troubling, scary, and sad place.
Justin, I am sorry. Please forgive me.
“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.” ~ Richard Rohr

My media colleagues:To request an interview, please contact my agent: chris@christopherferebee.com

 

@PONTIFEXCELLENT: 'Nolle timere'

<> on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.To my memory, I have never been brought to tears listening to a Pope’s Christmas Eve homily. Until tonight.

Weeping as I type this, wrapping a few last gifts, listening to the replay of the Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica, I am so grateful for this man. “Sometimes there’s a man … he’s the man for his place and time.”

I am so grateful for this man, for our beloved Papa Frank.

Here’s the part of his homily that turned on the waterworks. It’s just so poetic, beautiful, clear, and true:

 

Papa Frank said:

The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing  we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.

The shepherds were the first to see this “tent,” to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks. Pilgrims keep watch at night and that’s what they did. Together with them, let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence.

Together with them, let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us, and with them let us raise from the depths of our hearts the praise of his fidelity: We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.

On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us. He so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness. To us the Lord repeats: “Do not be afraid!” (Lk 2:10). That’s what the angels said to the shepherds and I, too, repeat: Do not be afraid! Our Father Jesus is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Our father forgives always. He is mercy. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is our peace. Amen.

You can watch the replay of the Midnight Mass here:

And read the prepared text of the pope’s homily (spoken it was slightly different) HERE.

Merry Christmas everyone. May you see the light in the darkness, know God is with us, and be not afraid.

@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/

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.

GODSTUFF: For better or for worse, by the power vested in me …

Todd and Susan, the happy couple

Nine years ago, when I spent five minutes and $10 becoming duly and legally ordained online, it was a lark (and, frankly, provided fodder for my very first religion column.)

I really never expected to use my “ordination.”

Well, somebody finally called me on it. This weekend, with fear and trembling, I will officiate when Susan, one of my dearest friends, and her fiancé, Todd, are married in a laid-back, barefoot, thoroughly Southern California morning ceremony on the beach.

I’ve offered many times to friends and relations who, in the midst of planning their nuptials, wondered aloud about who should marry them. “I can do it,” I’d propose, only half in jest. When Susan asked me a few weeks ago about officiating at her wedding, I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.

“I’d be incredibly honored,” I told her and, perhaps for the first time, truly felt the meaning of that statement. What an honor — a staggering and unexpected grace, in fact — to be able to walk with my sweet friend as she and her new husband step across the threshold of their lives into an amazing, daunting, and yes, holy, new journey together.

Honor is a word that evokes many different ideas, feelings and actions. Respect. Obedience. Deference. Affection and loving-kindness. It is an attitude, an aim and a behavior.

I like Samuel Johnson’s definition of honor from his 18th century Dictionary of the English Language. “Nobility of a soul,” he called it.

Honor is both a noun and a verb. It also is a place, I suppose, much like love. In the Gospel of St. John, Jesus tells us that love is a place where we are to “abide,” where we wait patiently and expectantly for whatever the future brings.

Likewise, honor is a destination and through the act of honoring another person — our life partners or our parents, for example — by the way we live our lives, through the choices we make and in our posture toward world, we verb it into a noun.

In the Book of Common Prayer’s traditional marriage vows, which Susan and Todd have chosen to exchange this weekend, I will ask them if they will “love…comfort…honor and keep” each other. “Honor” is something that they will do. It’s not something that they will feel or sense or even bestow. It is active. It is a choice, a practice, and a discipline in the same way that loving, cherishing and keeping are.

As I am a novice marriage celebrant, and therefore appropriately daunted by the sacred task before me, I asked a number of my professional clergy friends what I should say to happy couple during the homily/sermon/message portion of the nuptial event.

The general consensus was clear about one thing: Keep it short. No one goes to a wedding to hear the celebrant preach.

Make it personal and intimate. Honor the couple. Speak to them, not the audience.

The best advice I received came from my pastor friend Tripp in Chicago. “Love [the couple] in your sermon and through your sermon,” he said.

Love. The verb.

When Tripp gave me that charge, it brought to mind something a clergy friend in Mississippi (we call him the Screamin’ Frenchman) told me a few years ago while we were discussing our experiences with divine grace: “Grace took me by the hand and romanced me.”

When I asked Susan what she and Todd would like me to speak about during the ceremony, she answered simply, “Grace.”

While I’m still working on my very brief (promise!) remarks for the wedding, I am certain I will remind Susan and Todd, while waves crash on the shore announcing the Holy Spirit moving across the surface of the waters behind them, that God lovingly took each of them by the hand and led them to the other.

God romanced them to that sandy beach, beckoned them to one another and to the abiding place of love. Such is the amazing grace — how sweet the sound — we’ll sing about in the gentle morning light of the strand.

As Susan and Todd embark hand-in-hand upon the epic adventure that is marriage, they will honor God, and one another, by how they love each other and the world.

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,”

Calling all Gracespotters: Thursday night in Chicago (4/29/2010)

Please join me TOMORROW NIGHT, THURSDAY APRIL 29, for a reception beginning at 5:15 p.m. and a discussion about GRACE at 6 p.m. at St. James Cathedral, Huron and Wabash in Chicago.

I’ll be speaking about grace – my favorite subject – from 6 to 6:30 and then I’ll subject myself (willingly) to a thorough grilling by “The Seeker” herself – Chicago Tribune Religion Writer Manya Brachear, from 6:30 to 7 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public. If you’re a Facebooker, you can RSVP by clicking on THIS LINK.

Hope to see you there!

A Sort of Homecoming:
God Girl returns to Chicago 4/29

Hey all in Chicago and environs:

Join me at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 29 at St. James Cathedral (Huron and Wabash in Chicago) for the inaugural address of the new “Consider This …” series, sponsored by the Sunday Evening Club, The Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, Seabury-Western Seminary and St. James Cathedral.

I’ll be talking about grace and will be interviewed by my esteemed colleague and friend, Manya “The Seeker” Brachear of the Chicago Tribune.

A pre-reception begins at 5:15 p.m. Admission is free.

RSVP HERE

Chikondwelero Pasaka!

St. Freddie of Rupert on EASTER:

The Gospels are far from clear as to what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man whe thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that ther were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of ‘fear and great joy.’ Confusion was everywhere. This is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did they say? What did he do?

It is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. Its’ not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great dram. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.
The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.
He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching till they find his face.
— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith

GODSTUFF

GOOD FRIDAY BLESSINGS: SWEET SISTER FRIEND

As you know, I spent the earlier part of this week in Bolivar, MO speaking at Southwest Baptist University. When I received the invitation last year to speak there, I was wary. I wondered how in the world they’d heard of me and if, in fact, they really were familiar with my work.

Preconceived notions on my part nearly prevailed. I’m so glad they didn’t.

As it turns, a lone student named Mallory – 20 years old, from a town south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River; Roman Catholic, tiny nose ring, earth keeper, a heart for justice like a young Dorothy Day – had heard my lecture via podcast from last year’s Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. It was titled, “Jesus is my Mix Tape: a Spiritual Biography. Mallory is a die-hard music lover. We talked and talked about the music that speaks to our heart and why.

Mallory is with a group of students on campus who are responsible for choosing the programming for chapel two weeks a month. She is the one who invited me and convinced the school that it was a good idea.

Mallory was a breath of fresh air to my hurdling-toward-forty spirit. She reminded me of many of my dearest friends when we were 20 and students at Wheaton. Wide-eyed and idealistic. Endlessly curious about the world – this one and the hereafter. She is smart – whip smart – and deeply, deeply kind. A gracious soul. She took great care of me during my sojourn in Bolivar, consummately professionally and wonderfully sure of herself.

An absolute delight. An unexpected blessing. Startling grace.

When Mallory drove me to the airport in Sprigfield,  MO, she gave me a gift: a CD mix of her favorite music. She introduced me to some artists I’d never heard of before. Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter, Deb Talen, Mumford & Sons, Oriole Post, The  Avett Brothers and Mike Crawford. One of Crawford’s songs, “Words to Build a Life On” really touched  my heart this Good Friday.

I wanted to share it with you. And give a deep bow of gratitude to my sweet new friend, Mallory.

Blessings and Easter graces to you, dear sister.

“Words to  Build a Life On”

By Mike Crawford

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed are the poor
Blessed are the weak
Blessed are the ones
Who can barely speak
Blessed in your hurt
Blessed in your pain
Blessed when your teardrops
Are falling down like rain
Blessed when you’re broken
Blessed when you’re blind
Blessed when you’re fragile
When you have lost your mind
Blessed when you’re desperate
Blessed when you’re scared
Blessed when you’re lonely
Blessed when you’ve failed
Blessed when you’re beat up
Blessed when you’re bruised
Blessed when you’re tore down
Blessed when you’re used

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed when you’re heartbroke
Blessed when you’re fired
Blessed when you’re choked up
Blessed when you’re tired
Blessed when the plans
That you so carefully laid
End up in the junkyard
With all the trash you made
Blessed when you feel like
Giving up the ghost
Blessed when your loved ones
Are the ones who hurt you most
Blessed when you lose your
Own identity
Then blessed when you find it
And it has been redeemed
Blessed when you see what
Your friends can never be
Blessed with your eyes closed
Then blessed you see Me

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed when you’re hungry
Blessed when you thirst
Cause that’s when you will eat of
The bread that matters most
Blessed when you’re put down
Because of me you’re dissed
Because of me you’re kicked out
They take you off their list
You know you’re on the mark
You know you’ve got it right
You are to be my salt
You are to be my light
So bring out all the flavor
In the feast of this My world
And light up all the colors
Let the banner be unfurled
Shout it from the rooftops
Let the trumpets ring
Sing your freaking lungs out
Jesus Christ is King!
Jesus is my Savior
Jesus is divine
Jesus is my answer
Jesus is my life

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Give us ears that we may hear them
voice that we may sing them
life that we may live them
hope that we may give them
hearts that we can feel them
eyes that we can see them
thoughts that we may think them
tongues that we may speak Your words