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Finding Compassion for the Unvaccinated

Healthy and in their 30s, Christina and Josh, parents of three, figured they were low-risk for COVID-19. With conflicting viewpoints about whether to get vaccinated filling their social media feeds and social circles, they decided to wait.  On July 20, Josh came home from work with a slight cough initially thought to be sinus trouble. On Aug. 11, he died of COVID-19.

“It’s just a fight out there. This side and that side, and political garbage. … You don’t know who to believe,” Christina said.  Now, their family members are getting their COVID-19 vaccinations, and she wants to share her husband’s story to help people — as Josh would have wanted.  “I have lots of feelings and lots of regret and lots of what ifs.  You don’t want to do that. You don’t.”[1]

We have all heard many stories like this.  Shortly after I read this narrative about a family in Alabama, another friend posted of a similar story in Texas.[2]  In that case, the father had been an active leader in his community’s anti-masking movement.  I have heard people express the sentiment, “It’s sad, but if this is what it takes to get those people to wake up and get vaccinated, then so be it.”  I know—because I have felt that sentiment myself.

“Those people.”  No phrase more clearly warns us of a dangerous lack of compassion.  As if we needed more flash points for polarization, vaccination status has emerged as our latest division into “them” and “us.”  I fear it is even more inflammatory than the flash points that preceded it, as deaths in the U.S. are now exceeding 1,500 a day for the first time since March, when vaccines were just becoming available.  The science is clear that our current health crisis is largely preventable, leading the governor of Alabama to proclaim, “It’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks.”[3]

There it is again: unvaccinated people and regular people.  Them and us.  And again, I have to own up to resonating with this sentiment on many occasions.  I want to do better, but it’s hard when you and the people you care for are suffering from the impact of this latest COVID surge.

This concern has come into sharper focus for me over the last few weeks, as I’ve been preparing myself to begin a second chaplaincy internship at the end of this month.  My supervisor just wrote:  “I cannot properly put into words the atmosphere you shall find.  Staffing is paper-thin, staff stress and weariness is high, and includes staff rage and cynicism due to most sick COVID patients being unvaccinated (including some outspoken anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers).  It shall be an extraordinary experience.”

May be an image of indoor and hospital
COVID overflow unit in a parking garage at University of Mississippi Medical Center

The plan for now is to keep chaplaincy interns out of COVID-positive patient rooms, but I still find myself visualizing encounters with COVID patients and their families.  In situations like the father of three that I described at the beginning, where confusion has now turned to regret, it’s hard to imagine myself not feeling compassion.  But what of the patients and families who remain defiant, if not belligerent?  How will I find my place of compassion with them?

Chaplaincy is the lens I am using to focus my own feelings on this topic, but everyone I know is struggling with this right now.  I have felt led to contemplate a statement attributed to Jesus on the cross—“Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  But I have to restrain my condescending impulse to put myself on the side of Jesus, rather than include myself among those who “do not know what they are doing.”  Ignorance regarding science and medicine, compounded by misinformation, is a key factor in this crisis, but there are others:  a legacy of racism in U.S. health care; barriers in accessing vaccines among many low-income workers (e.g., farm laborers); and the pressure to conform to family, cultural, religious, and political norms.  Many who have chosen vaccination view their decisions as a simple matter of science and reason.  But the vaccinated, too, are strongly influenced by the norms of the company they keep, and many have the privileges of easy access to vaccines and never experiencing racism.  Neither group has a monopoly on intelligence or correctness.  When I listen to the story of Christina and Josh, I hear people trying to make sense out of the confusing information they received and the conflicting norms they perceived—and not knowing what to do.  What they did—remain unvaccinated—led to tragic death, but I don’t at all believe this was their intention.  I am angry at the forces that led to their inaction, but I still feel compassion for them.

What about those patients and families who remain defiant?  When I step back from my anger, I see it as a different verse of the same song— people trying to make sense out of what they hear and read, and the norms they feel pressure to conform to, and reaching a different conclusion than their caregivers.  I feel anger at them and at the forces leading to their defiance, but I still feel compassion for the situation they find themselves in—their worldview is colliding head-on with a reality that contradicts it.  Some of us respond to such collisions with brokenness and contrition, others respond with defiance.  Most of us have done both at different times.  My own experiences in this regard serve as a helpful call to humility.

Beyond the hospital walls, we encounter stories of people whose behavior we feel justified to condemn.  Friends and family members who still refuse vaccination despite mounting evidence of the risks, even deaths of loved ones.  An unvaccinated, unmasked California teacher who gave the coronavirus to half of her students in May.[4]  An unvaccinated worker at an Oregon assisted living facility who initiated a COVID-19 outbreak that infected 64 people in July, killing five thus far.[5]  Politicians, especially governors, who continue to fight mask mandates even as their citizens suffer and succumb in unprecedented numbers.  Charlatans who peddle fear and misinformation for profit.[6][7]  Do I really believe “they do not know what they are doing,” and thus are deserving of my compassion?

Returning to the statement of Jesus—“Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”—I wondered who Jesus was including in the “they” whom he was forgiving?  Was it just the soldiers at his feet, or also the mob demanding his execution?  How about the religious leaders who incited the mob, or the Roman authorities who let the religious leaders have their way?  How about Caesar back in Rome, presiding over a government that systematically crucified anyone threatening its authority?

I researched this question and discovered—no surprise—that scholars have debated this verse at length. The consensus seems to be that the scope of this prayer includes all who had any involvement in Jesus’s death, for the simple reason that its radical forgiveness is so consistent with his teaching and moral example throughout the gospels.

I want to try to follow Jesus’s model of compassion, even toward those whose behavior I consider harmful—even, or especially, if it is someone I am close to.  I’m not laying down my opposition to the forces against vaccination, masking, and other science-based public health measures—far from it.  Jesus battled every day of his ministry against forces he believed were harming humankind.  Yet he did so without forgetting that we are all flawed humans, deserving of compassion even at our worst.

How will I do this?  I’m still working on that, but I don’t see it as optional.  I don’t want this issue to drive a wedge between me and people I love—something I see happening all around me.  And I don’t want to carry the burden of living with disdain for my fellow citizens, even if I am angry and frustrated with their actions.  They, too, are part of my community, and they, too, are suffering, even though I may see their wounds as self-inflicted.  We all know what it means to care for a loved one with self-inflicted wounds.

With the chaplain’s lens, I note that, unlike other caregivers, whose job is providing medical care—with compassion if possible—compassion is the care a chaplain provides to patients, families, and staff.  And compassion includes understanding and accepting that at times it may not be possible for someone to feel compassion for those who disagree with them on this issue.

For me, a central part of engaging others with compassion is finding common ground—those shared experiences and emotions that make our commonality as human beings feel larger than our differences.  It strikes me that, at this moment, for better or worse, fear is an important part of the common ground we all share.  I see fear within those who are resisting vaccination and masking:  fear of being harmed by the vaccine, fear of the disapproval of others close to them, fear of electoral retribution by “the base.”  Fear also permeates many caregivers and others promoting vaccination:  fear of contracting COVID, fear of further disruption to their lives by the pandemic, fear of losing loved ones.  I feel that fear, too.  But as I see it, a lot of the current strife boils down to one side trying to convince the other that their own fears are more valid than the other’s, and in my experience, that rarely works.

My goal is to offer a safe space for any person to share their fears—whether a friend or someone I visit as a chaplain—and to respond with love.  I need to do so while remembering that it’s not my work to fix anything, nor win any arguments, nor change any minds.  It is to listen compassionately, and to respond with love.  It is my hope that if I do that well, it can help diminish fear.

I discussed my work on finding compassion with a friend recently, and she asked, “Do you think you will get there? I don’t know if I could right now.”  I said I thought I did, but that it would take a lot of prayer and preparation.  My ability to offer compassion will surely be tested in the months to come, but my plan is to keep trying …


[1] https://apnews.com/article/health-coronavirus-pandemic-32b7763e53ec1c77b18e842a264ecb03

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/08/28/world/covid-delta-variant-vaccine?smtyp=cur&smid=fb-nytimes&fbclid=IwAR3oEJVrTR9bJQbJtWMcMgJPWDSOs_lW3ecQx3bJnBd5gtf17g4kh2DMRcY#caleb-wallace-covid-masks-dies

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/27/health/coronavirus-vaccination-hesitancy-delta.html

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7035e2.htm

[5] https://www.opb.org/article/2021/08/28/oregon-covid-19-outbreak-unvaccinated-worker/?fbclid=IwAR3XVv0FoqPbyU7tSOJJBz6Dp7PS2eIalDPUIwl7GBJRU8LgQz-f1mA4E_8

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/anti-vaccine-movement.html?action=click&algo=bandit-all-surfaces&block=trending_recirc&fellback=false&imp_id=161505379&impression_id=8a8c3c33-0ad9-11ec-926f-dbcfbdfa657d&index=0&pgtype=Article&pool=pool%2F91fcf81c-4fb0-49ff-bd57-a24647c85ea1&region=footer&req_id=301088023&surface=eos-most-popular-story&variant=0_bandit-all-surfaces

[7] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/anti-vaccine-influencers_n_60be36b9e4b0ea8a1920d73f

Preparing My Heart

During my reflections early Tuesday morning, the following thought rose for me.

In my theology, God doesn’t know the future, but God knows the present fully—which means God knows the contents of all ballots that have been submitted, and knows the hearts of all who are heading to the polls right now.  So, my query for today is this:  How is God preparing my heart to handle what God already knows?  I need to listen carefully…

Now it is 2:00 am Wednesday morning, and I’m reflecting and listening again.  You need not share my theology or my politics to have a heart that needs steadying.  The presidential election is not decided but it is very close.  The majority of supporters of each candidate—and thus the majority of all Americans—believe the consequences of their candidate losing will be catastrophic for America’s future.  President Trump is doing all he can to ensure this is true no matter the final result, claiming without basis that he has won the election yet also that the election itself is “a major fraud”—a position guaranteed to agitate anyone of any political stripe.  And it is working …

So, again I ask: How is God preparing my heart for what lies ahead?  Upon reflection, it seems clear that God’s work of preparation has been going on for some time.

Four years ago, in the early Wednesday morning hours following the 2016 election, I received one of the clearest divine nudges of my life, and I proclaimed Midlife Sabbatical is Over.  In closing that post, I declared, “I don’t know what difference I can make, but it won’t be for lack of engagement.”  Four years later, I can question how much difference I have made in the grand scheme of things, but I can also reflect on the organizations and people I have been engaged with during this time, and I can feel the difference I have made to them—and the difference they have made to me. 

Perhaps just as importantly, the very act of engagement has prepared my heart for the challenges that have come our way, especially in 2020.  It has exercised my muscles of hope, helping me be present for others whose struggles can feel hopeless.  So, in this moment when our future as a nation and a world feels under assault, without hope for a better tomorrow, I feel a leading to renew my commitment to engagement.  Despite all the troubles the last four years have brought, it has been this attitude of my heart that has made them bearable.  This gives me hope that, with continued engagement, the next four years will be bearable, too.

God has also prepared my heart today by pushing into my consciousness the song “We Shall Overcome,” and all that comes with it.  My studies in seminary and my ongoing study of the history of oppression and racism have impressed me with just how long the arc of the moral universe is, while still leaving as a matter of faith that it bends toward justice.  I was not prepared for what felt like a setback four years ago, and I’m not prepared for another setback this year.  But the disappointment that white educated progressives like me might feel is insignificant compared to the centuries of setbacks and disappointment that people of color and other marginalized people have endured and continue to endure.  “We Shall Overcome” reminds me that this is no time to lose heart in the struggle to build a society that treats all its members with dignity and compassion.  Indeed, that time should never come.

I still don’t know how events will unfold over the coming days, but my heart feels as prepared as it can reasonably be, and for that I am grateful.

My Birthday Wish

Today is my birthday, but as the day dawns, my heart is heavy.  Last night I decided I needed to unfollow a dear friend from my past after she shared yet another post expressing fantasies of violence toward those with whom she disagrees politically.  I have confronted her on this before and she has expressed contrition and stopped—she is kind-hearted at her core, but she is in the circle of influence of others who are less so, including her pastor.  We have shared thoughts over Black Lives Matter, and she has acknowledged the reality of disproportionate police aggression against people of color.  But as the protests here in Portland have escalated, these posts have returned.  Last night’s—fantasizing injurious water-cannoning of “rioters”—made my stomach turn, and Diane turned away, unable to continue watching.  I just can’t have such hateful thoughts in my feed—it is hard enough to bear witness, which I must, to the real violence that is occurring on downtown streets every night.

Throughout my time in seminary I have wrestled with the nature of love and hate, violence and peace, poverty and greed, power and oppression, and community and conflict—all in the context of how, and for what purpose, we were created into these lives we inhabit.  I found no simple answers, but certain beliefs emerged stronger than ever, none more important than this: each of us is made in the image of our creator, and this obligates each of us to treat every other person, individually and collectively, as equally worthy of love and respect as we believe ourselves to be.  When this breaks down—when we allow ourselves to see another person or group as sufficiently different from ourselves that they are not worthy of this level of love and respect—hate takes root in our hearts, and violence, oppression, and conflict are quick to follow.

The Black Lives Matter movement has taken its current form in response to innumerable instances of police or vigilantes treating certain black lives as less worthy of love and respect than their own.  These lives have names.  Lloyd Stevenson, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are among those whose brutal deaths have touched me most personally, but there are many others, and their deaths all meant something to somebody. 

Image may contain: tree, grass and outdoor

Showing love and respect for their lives means we must say their names and not let them be forgotten.  It means we must acknowledge the history of slavery, conflict, and racism that has shaped each of our lives and the cultural conflict we find ourselves in the midst of.  And it means we must commit ourselves to fighting the attitudes of mind, heart, and culture that lead each of us every day to treat some people as “others” less worthy of our love and respect.  Race is by no means the only way that we treat people as “other,” but it demands our urgent attention, today and always.

My birthday wish for myself—a prayer, really—is that I find my voice and my place in this next stage of my struggle to become more like the person I was created to be.  That is to say, someone who seeks to see that of God in every person, and to help each of them feel as loved and respected as I want to feel myself.  However, doing so in my individual interactions and relationships is not sufficient, for we as a society are much more than the sum of our parts.  So I wish to find new places where I can use my gifts and experiences to help us move forward through this difficult time, toward a society where each person feels valued and respected for the unique creation of God that they are.  And I wish to be joined in community with each person who shares this aspiration with me.

Pink Moon

Last night my friend Kathy posted about the wonder of the full moon.  A month ago she was visiting her daughter, helping put her two granddaughters to bed, when the full moon rose.  One at a time, she hoisted each granddaughter, already in her nightgown, onto her shoulders, and walked down to the end of the gravel driveway to marvel at the moon.  Last night, she gazed at the full moon again and reflected on our current quarantine, “that I can’t go and get a little girl to marvel with me,” and reminded us to “Say yes every way you can” to the gifts that each day presents us with.  A friend of hers commented, “Pink moon tonight … beautiful!”

This morning I awoke at 6:00 and noticed an unusual light piercing the translucent west-facing shade in our bedroom.  Remembering Kathy’s post and recognizing the source of that light, I hopped out of bed and soon was pedaling down the Springwater Corridor, heading west toward the full moon hanging in the dawning sky.  It was as big as I can ever remember, and pink—very pink.  This was not the first time I have enjoyed a setting full moon on a morning ride, and it never fails to fill me with a sense of accompaniment by my creator.

The moon spoke:  “I see you, and I see the entire planet you live on.  I see fortunate ones like you, and I see your neighbors sheltering in tents near you.  All around the world, I see people rushing toward emergency rooms with tightness in their chests and fear in their hearts, and I see health care workers heading in to those same hospitals with a commitment to serve, and fear in their hearts, too.  I see you all, and I love and care for every one of you, for you are my children.”

The moon continued:  “I have been watching your planet closely for billions of years now.  I have seen civilizations come and go, and I have seen species come and go, and I have loved you all.  I live in every moment with you, I share in each smile and each tear, I know the depth and urgency of your passions and your fears.  Having seen so much gives me a perspective you can only imagine, but it does not diminish in any way my caring for you and those you love.

“I love that you are following after me as I head west over the horizon.  Soon you won’t be able to see me, but remember that I am there whether you can see me or not.  I will always be speaking my wisdom into your heart and your condition, and I pray that you will be listening for my voice.”

Upon returning home, I learned that “pink moon” refers to the full moon of April, so named for the blooming of ground phlox, one of my father’s favorite flowers.  This year, the pink moon is the largest supermoon of 2020, the closest the moon will come to earth during its full phase.  The pink moon is associated with rebirth and renewal, in keeping with the season; I pray for these things now more than ever.  They say the pink moon, however, is not pink—but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Like many, this season has brought us a unique mix of challenges and blessings.  We faced a family health crisis that necessitated my daughter’s family moving in with us, but navigating this has brought us closer together.  The coronavirus crisis put an end to my chaplaincy work for the time being but extended our new living arrangements, so now I get to share each day with my five-month-old granddaughter.  She is still too young to appreciate the pink moon, but I look forward to the day when I can hoist her onto my shoulders to gaze at the moon, and to tell her of the things the moon spoke to me this morning.

Photo credit – Bruce Alber

Christmas at 64

Quakers speak often about the Light.  One particular Quaker, yours truly, cried his way through last night’s Christmas Eve meeting for worship, as I always do.  This year …

I cried tears of sadness, for the darkness in the world around me, near and far.  I cried tears of joy that on this night we celebrate a Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.

I cried tears of joy for the seeds of faith that were planted in me in my youth.  I cried tears of sadness for the shame I felt for years in expressing this faith, until the darkness almost overcame it.  Still, the Light persisted …

I cried tears of joy that God so loved the world as to make a home among us, to help us see the Light within us, full of grace and truth.  I cried tears of sadness for how often I still fail to see this Light.

I cried tears of joy to be in a community of those who celebrate this Light of all life.  I cried tears of sadness at how distant this Light still feels for so many.

I cried tears of joy for the many relationships that help me feel like a child of God on this night.  I cried tears of sadness for so many who feel unloved and abandoned.

I cried tears of joy for the work of sharing my piece of the Light with those who seek it, and for the gift of receiving the Light they share with me, whether they know it or not.  I cried tears of sadness that the need of the world for the Light is so great, and my piece of the Light is still so small.

And yet, my tears tell me, the Light shines in the darkness, and that Light is full of grace and truth.

Shivani, The Born-Again Hindu

It has now been more than a decade since I wrote this for my Quaker meeting, yet I have come back to it many times.  It describes one of my foundational experiences of mutualism, the idea that “an admixture of truth, error, and incompleteness of revelation exists in all religions, and we need one another to understand and find the truth,”[1]  While remaining grounded in the Christianity that sustains my spiritual life, I have drawn enormous wisdom, insight, and fellowship from those who follow different paths, including no traditional religious path at all.  As Quakers say, there is that of God in each person, but each of us has only been granted a measure of the Light, so only by sharing our piece with each other can we come to know God more fully.

Shivani, The Born-Again Hindu

“In very truth I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he has been born again … from water and from spirit.” (John 3:3)

“I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me.”    (John 14:6)

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep.  They know my voice. I call them by name and lead them.  But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well, and they too will listen to my voice.  There will then be one flock, one shepherd.”  (John 10: 14, 16)

This story isn’t really about me, but for it to make sense I have to disclose this one fact:  I consider myself a born-again Christian.  Not a “take me to the river, drop me in the water” type; much more the “Paul on the road to Damascus” type (Acts 9).  For the first 34 years of my life, “born-again Christian” is about the last descriptor I’d have thought would ever apply to me.  But, then, Paul didn’t exactly see his moment coming either.  God can be like that …

The person I really want to introduce to you is Shivani.  Shivani is a woman of exceptional intelligence and spirit who lives in New Delhi, and who served as a guide to that city for the small group with whom I visited India in February.  In that role, Shivani provided historical and cultural context for the amazing sites we visited, telling the stories behind their construction and explaining the significance of their design and ornamentation.  Perhaps even more enjoyable, she offered herself up for candid question-and-answer sessions about modern Indian life, including such topics as the structure of the Indian family, arranged marriage (and the role of astrologers in them), and the aspirations of her teenage children and their peers.

Of course, this being India, many of the conversations were about some aspect of Hinduism, and for a while it was not clear just what relationship Shivani had with Hinduism:  was it just cultural familiarity, or ritual observance, or believer – or did the phrase “believer” even make sense in the context of Hinduism?  But one of her stories led into a personal tragedy of her own, when in a very short period of time she lost both of her parents and watched as her only brother was brought to the brink of ruin.  She said “It was as if God slapped me across the face and said ‘Wake up, and follow me.’”  And I said to myself, “Well, that’s exactly what God said to me,” and I told Shivani of my own experience when we had a private moment.

What ensued from that point forward was a spirited exploration of the dimensions of each of our experiences of God’s slap and its aftermath.  What did it mean to follow God?  What were our prayer disciplines?  What are the similarities and differences between Hindu meditation and Quaker silent centering?  Unlike Judaism or Islam, Hinduism is not simply another branch on Christianity’s family tree, and the stories in Hinduism’s sacred texts can seem not just unfamiliar but downright bizarre to the Western mind.  Yet the more we talked, the more we became in awe of the common nature of the God that we followed.  If I was a born-again Christian, then Shivani was surely a born-again Hindu – and we had been born again in a common Spirit.

So what does my experience mean for the text “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me”?  I have often heard this text used to limit salvation to those who follow narrow and specific view of Christianity.  Yet, given the meaningful touchpoints between Shivani’s God and mine, I find I must take a more expansive view of the risen Christ.  And my heart finds peace in a new reading of the story of the Good Shepherd.  I invite you to read it again through new eyes …

“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep.  They know my voice. I call them by name and lead them.  But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well, and they too will listen to my voice.  There will then be one flock, one shepherd.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology_of_religions#The_Mutuality_Model

Strangers on a Train

One of the things I have appreciated about working at CareOregon is a focus on what we call “member moments”—encounters with the population we serve that we find motivational for our service.  My daily rides on Tri-Met have offered me several of these.  The central character in the story that follows may or may not be a CareOregon member, but it is a member moment just the same.

On this day I was seated on the MAX Orange Line headed out of downtown.  I could not keep from overhearing a conversation between two men seated in the row behind me.

What’s with the coloring books?

I like coloring books.  I’ve just started getting back into them.

I like coloring books, too.  They’re cool.

The cool part for me is that I get to share them with my daughter.  I didn’t see her for a long time because I was using heroin.  Now that I have been clean for two years, I get to see her again and we like doing coloring books together.

That’s cool.  I do heroin sometimes, it feels good but it’s not like it’s the best thing ever.

Good that it hasn’t hooked you.  For 99% of people, it’s “hello, I just found the new love of my life.”  Please don’t ever do heroin again.

You homeless?

Yeah.  I’m staying tonight at the shelter near 17th & Holgate.

I’m homeless, too.  I’m staying at a place in Milwaukie tonight.

So, I was serious.  Please don’t ever do heroin again.

I don’t do it much, mostly just when I’m drunk and think, “Why the hell not?”

That’s when people die.  Alcohol and heroin are deadly together.  I almost died several times.

Yeah, I died a couple of times, but they brought me back.

Well, please don’t keep pushing your luck.  And there’s worse things than dying. Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Yeah, I got a brother three years younger than me.

Well, I’ve got younger brothers, too, and they won’t see me anymore because I was a junkie.  Why should they look up to a junkie?  Having little brothers that won’t see you is worse than dying.  Please don’t ever do heroin again.

I’ll think about it.

Listen, I’ve got to get off at this stop, but please promise me you won’t do it again.  It will be the best decision you ever make.

I exited the train along with him, as this was my stop.  I felt a strong nudge, so I tapped him on the shoulder and spoke.

I just wanted to say that I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation on the train, and I wanted to tell you that you were doing really good work back there.  I really admire you.

Thanks, man (he says, his eyes welling with tears.)  Can I ask you a question?

Sure.

Do you know God?

Yes.  Depends on what you mean exactly, but I think … yes.

Would you be willing to pray for me?

Absolutely.  How would you like me to pray for you?

It’s complicated (more tears) …  I don’t know … Do you have a minute, could we sit on the bench here?

Sure.  I’m not in a hurry.  (So we sat …)

It’s like … (heavy tears) my Dad, he lives in Africa now, I haven’t seen him in years, and I just learned he’s got cancer bad …

That’s really hard news …

It is but … (he stops for a moment, hearing the train going the other direction beginning to approach the platform).  Listen, I have to catch this train, ‘cause I should’ve gotten off at the last stop … but what I really want you to pray for is my girlfriend and her daughters … my daughters … they are in a really bad place right now.  Really bad.  Her name is Melissa Johnson … Melissa Johnson.

And your name is …

Brian.

Brian, I will pray for Melissa Johnson, and for your daughters, and for your dad … and for you, Brian.  I will hold you all in my heart, and in God’s light.

Thanks, man—that really means a lot.

I patted Brian on the arm, as his hands were laden with grocery sacks, and he stepped onto the train.  The doors closed, and he disappeared into the night.

God Not Feeling Omnipotent

Several years ago I came across a cartoon that I liked so much that I tracked down the artist – Portland’s own Shannon Wheeler – and sent him a check to buy a good quality .jpg of the cartoon. I knew that at some point a story would arise for me that would be a match for the cartoon, and that story and image together would help me understand God more deeply. My first class at seminary was the setting for making this connection, though it was with a story I had already known.  With that teaser, here is the cartoon … (click for better resolution, then back-tab to return)

God Not Feeling Omnipotent-Compressed

This story itself goes back to 1998, when I directed a consulting practice that operated up and down the west coast.  One of my managers at that time, named Dan, was married to a woman named Kerry, who was a newly minted pediatrician; they lived in the East Bay area of northern California.  One day Dan came home from work to find Kerry dead on their kitchen floor, murdered (as it ultimately turned out) by a carpet cleaner who had been working in their home.  I got the news from Dan via voice mail late that night.  It fell to me to organize coverage for Dan’s work responsibilities, to handle communications around our practice regarding what had happened, and to provide counsel to all who sought it.

At the end of the week I flew to Portland to spend the night with Diane, then the two of us flew to the Bay Area the next morning for Kerry’s funeral. All this time I was struggling to find words that could console Dan in any way. No one seemed certain what faith tradition Dan followed, if any, though some thought he might be Christian – which, as it turned out, he was. While I thought his faith might prove to be a source of consolation, I thought it was just as likely to be a source of anguish, that he might be asking “What kind of God are you that you would let this happen, or even cause this to happen?” Of course, I was wrestling with the same questions myself.

On the flight down I composed a Dear God letter, as I often do when I have no answers.  What rose for me then was a powerful response to the question “Where were you?” I had a vision of the actual attack, a vision of God speaking to the murderer from the moment the idea first arose in his head, with the volume rising to the point of yelling and screaming, with God pleading with the murderer to change his course of action – but to no avail. I then had a vision of God sitting alone with Kerry on the floor, crumpled in tears, waiting for Dan to come home. And from this vision rose a prayer, which I wrote down within my letter.

Dear God – This terrible tragedy has left many of us pounding on your door, asking “Why?”  Of course, your door is always open, and when we come in we find you beside yourself in tears.  We then realize how much you love Kerry, and Dan, and realize that if it were within your power to control human events this would not have happened.

We sit down beside you and ask “Why?” and we realize that you don’t have all the answers about these things either – this is the meaning of free will, that you don’t govern what choices people make.  So we find ourselves today looking for some things that we can know, some firm ground to cling to in the storm.  And in response I hear you tell us these things, which we can know to be true:

  • You love Kerry, Dan, and each of us, with all your might and all your power.  Whatever circumstances might befall us, this love will remain unshaken.
  • You did not want this to happen, you did not cause this to happen, and you did everything you could to keep it from happening.  The fact that this happened does not in any way mean that your power or love for us is less than perfect.
  • Your love is with us today.  You are here grieving with us, hurting with us.  You know what it is to lose a loved one to human cruelty.  You truly share our pain.
  • At the same time, you have the strength and power to overcome grief and lead us to a healing place.  You have done this for us before, and you are at work here today again.  You can take us there if we are willing to follow you.

Help us hear you through our pain, and to feel your healing touch.  Help us find the words and acts of kindness to share with each other, so that we can all know that you are with us and at work for us.  Help us to know that your love is eternal, that it remains undiminished through this tragedy, and that it is our source of strength to go on in this life.  We ask these things in your name.

The funeral was terrible and beautiful.  The venue had to be moved twice as it became clear how many people Kerry had touched through her work, even though she was only 30.  At some point after the funeral it felt right and appropriate to share this prayer with Dan, and he later shared with me that it helped in his grief process.  Dan and I remain in touch to this day (including today as I post this), though we have never worked together since then.

I want to return now to the cartoon.  It looks different now, doesn’t it?  I think about this image on the day Jesus was crucified, when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think about how God must feel this way about each and every human cruelty, every illness or natural catastrophe that causes suffering. The God in this cartoon isn’t diminished by his lack of omnipotence – it only makes his love feel that much more real and pure.  This is a God I can actually have a relationship with.

This cartoon and story arose for me, after all these years, out of a “spiritual friendship” conversation I had with one of my fellow seminary students, who has been both witness to and victim of atrocities on the scale of Kerry’s.  I asked him the question “Where was God when this was happening to you?” and out of our discussion came both my story and, later in class, my cartoon. To be able to share and discuss such deep questions of “Who is God to you?” with such amazing fellow travelers was a great gift.

One of the authors we read and discussed in this seminary class – Parker Palmer – summarized this view of God beautifully. “God is not all-knowing and all-powerful.  God is in this mess with us and has the same unfulfilled yearnings that make our human hearts ache. God depends on a partnership with various beings to accomplish the Great Work here on earth.  Jesus, it seems to me, is a prime example of this partnership … I cannot love [a static] God – nor can I feel that such a God loves me.  Love is a dynamic relationship, a two-way exchange of energy … We are too often told to worship a God whom we need but who doesn’t need us … Only a God who is vulnerable and even needy will evoke our love in a way that completes the circuit of human-and-divine.” (from The Active Life)

To return to a phrase I used in a previous post, this is an understanding of God that complements and completes my rational understanding of the world, an understanding that functions well with, and makes more sense, not less, out of the rest of what I know and experience.  I am excited to have the opportunity to get to know this God better over the years to come!

P.S. If you want to know more about Kerry’s passion and how it lives on today, please visit Kerry’s Kids. Further evidence that God’s love, in cooperation with those touched by the Spirit, endures despite tragedy …

A Spiritual Autobiography – In Six Movements

I have decided to publish this in its entirety as one post, with advance apologies for the length (six pages).  Doing so provides for a better overall flow, and frees me to move on to other topics.  Thanks, as always, for your readership!

E Pluribus Unum

From the beginning my siblings and I understood that our parents had a “mixed marriage”: my mother, born and raised in New York City, the daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants; and my father, born and raised in Wichita, KS, an Emersonian deist with Midwestern roots. They met in New York City during World War II, fell madly in love, corresponded over 30 months of separation, and married upon my father’s return. To marry in the Catholic Church, my father had to promise the Church that we would be raised Catholic. And so we were …

From my mother I learned of God as my unconditionally loving Creator, and of Jesus as the human incarnation of God’s will for us. From my father I learned to see the beauty and complexity of our natural world as evidence of God’s love for us and of the genius of God’s mind. Despite differences in theology and practice, they agreed on many important matters: that we exist to serve a purpose; that, having been granted much, much also is expected; and that foremost among those expectations are loving each other and working for peace and justice for all.

As a tween I had the great fortune to attend a camp in Colorado for three summers that was run by Benedictine monks. The monks reinforced the teachings of my parents, but also integrated the beliefs and practices of the Native Americans from that area, illuminating the universality of God’s ways and will for people across all cultures.

From the Catholic school and church back home, though, I learned mindless ritual and nonsensical rules, and of a God that was cold and arbitrary. In 8th grade I sought permission to leave the Catholic Church and, by extension, organized religion. My parents, from their different perspectives, both impressed upon me the importance of having beliefs of substance, so I began a series of “kitchen debates” with my mother regarding Catholic doctrine and Christian theology. She advised me to see my relationships with God and Jesus as being distinct from any church, and thus rescued Jesus from Catholicism for me. My parents became satisfied that I was thinking about these things seriously, and I was granted my freedom to roam spiritually.

I read widely in high school (from The Religions of Man to Siddhartha) and college (Greek classics, Augustine and Aquinas, Enlightenment and modern philosophers and theologians), but I kept returning to the words of Jesus, especially as I saw how his teachings harmonized with and enhanced – or shaped and influenced – the other teachings I admired most. In the story of the Good Shepherd, I saw Jesus’s ability – and desire – to embrace not only my diverse origins and influences, but the diversity of all humanity: “My own sheep … know my voice. But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold … they too will listen to my voice. There will then be one flock, one shepherd.” E pluribus unum.

Finding God in the Mountains

Despite my curiosity regarding spirituality, I did not consciously experience or explicitly acknowledge God’s existence or love for me until my mid-30s.  Prior to then, my approach had been intellectually oriented and very much third-person – I was interested in understanding the idea of God, how it had shaped cultures, and especially how it had shaped the lives and thinking of individuals who had experienced God directly.  But I had thought that experience was for others, not for me.

Later on, having moved to a first-person relationship with God, I have reflected on memories from my youth, looking for times or places where my experience was similar to what I experience today when I feel close to God.  What rises strongly for me, above all else, is being in the mountains.

My obsession with mountains began the summer I turned 7 when, growing up in Kansas City, I was old enough to join my siblings on the annual trip with my father to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was love at first sight, and going to the mountains became the best part of my year every year.  My love of mountains led me to the Benedictine camp in Colorado, and later to a wilderness school in SW Colorado.  The opportunity to live near mountains was a primary factor in choosing to come to Oregon for college, and the absence of mountains was a key source of unhappiness during six years in Chicago in my twenties.  The pull of mountains is unexplainable and inexorable for me – just like the pull of God.

Olympus from Appleton Pass - Small

From a backpacking trip in July to a high pass in Olympic National Park (Washington)

I feel a pure flame of bliss when I gaze at mountains, even if only in a picture: my eye is intoxicated by the sight of gradient, of undulation, of the thrust of uplift into the sky, by the lure to follow the ridgeline to the summit (if only in my eye). It consumes me, and in doing so it creates peace, quiet, and space in my center. If I am blessed to actually be in the mountains, all of my other senses join in this experience, and my spirit is transported to a place of unceasing gratitude. It felt like this when I was 7, and feels this way today.

Where is God in this? First, the mountains confront me with the genius of our natural world, and the concept of a Creator always made as much sense to me as any explanation for this. More importantly, though, I can think of no scientific or evolutionary reason why mountains should move me so deeply. But they do, and the best explanation I have for this is that my Creator wants to show me how much I am loved. I think I believed this intuitively by my teens, even if it took twenty more years before I could acknowledge it explicitly.

The Devout Agnostic

I met my wife on my first day at Reed College, forty years ago this September, as we lived in the same dormitory.  More importantly, we had also signed up for the same mountain climbing class for P.E., and by our second or third outing we had become an item.  Diane and I have many shared perspectives and beliefs that have seen us through hard times, but spirituality is not among them.  As I once summarized during our college years, “We are both agnostics, but I’m a devout agnostic and you are an apathetic agnostic:  I don’t know what I believe about God but I am working hard to figure it out, whereas you don’t know and don’t care.”  She did not disagree then, though she is listening and seeking more actively today.

My own thoughts about God were put to the test during the summer I turned 20, when my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.  She lasted only two months between diagnosis and death, but we used the time for another round of religious discussions.  After all, it is one thing to opine about “What happens when you die?” when 49 and healthy, as she was during our earlier debates, and quite another when she had only months to live. And yet her faith was unwavering – in fact, it became more tangible than ever.

I remember standing by her bedside just a couple of hours before she died, thinking to myself: “It is astounding to see how complete her faith is, and how comforted by that she is. I could never do that.”  All of my studies notwithstanding, I viewed myself as too intellectual to embrace Kierkegaard’s call to make a “leap of faith.”  I admired her faith, I longed for it, but I didn’t feel it and couldn’t believe it.

A few years later, having moved to Chicago for graduate school, my wife and I attended a performance of “The Gospel According to St. Mark” at a major theater downtown.  We had been attracted by the positive reviews it had received, with little consideration for content.  It was a one-man play, with just a table, chair, and water pitcher as props, and the script was nothing more or less than the Gospel of Mark, in its entirety.  Diane was captivated by the performance, as was I, but what grabbed me most strongly was the story and, especially, the sayings of Jesus.

It had been years since I had been in a Christian setting, which this was not intended to be – except that, stripped of all the distracting ornamentation of churches and their rituals, it became for me the ultimate setting for Christian experience – just me, Jesus, and his story.  I couldn’t say that on that day I began to believe, but I knew I was deeply moved, and that more attention needed to be paid.  It would be another decade before that came to pass …

Born Again

Despite the spiritual highlights discussed previously, my family of origin also included elements I later understood to be traumatic, including alcoholism, violence, drugs, incarceration, institutionalization, and, for me personally, shame, neglect, and more drugs.  In choosing a college 2000 miles from home, I was pursuing a vision of who I wanted to become, but I was also seeking to escape a world I didn’t want to be a part of, and to start over again.  But such a personal history is not easily left behind …

As the fifth child in this family, one of my greatest emotional challenges was a sense of insignificance.  Accordingly, in the fifteen years after leaving home I set out to remedy this by building a record of accomplishment in academics, professional work, and family life.  There were painful stumbles along the way (such as twice failing an oral exam that was critical for my Ph.D.), but I always found a way to move forward (in this case, by changing careers and landing a job with a prestigious consulting firm).

Over time, I built a “successful life,” but on the inside I increasingly felt like an imposter.  In seeking to enhance my own sense of significance, my behavior grew more destructive, especially toward my wife, fueling (and being fueled by) a growing sense of being irredeemable.  This came to a head when it became clear I might lose my marriage, and with it the family I had dreamed of all my life.

The night this came crashing down, I cried to God out of raw instinct, saying that I wanted to turn my life around but didn’t know how.  Expecting my cry to echo in the void, I instead received a clear response:  “I am here, and have always been here.  I love you, and want you to be healed.  If you follow me, I will lead you to a better place.”

My inner intellectual agnostic was overwhelmed by this mystical experience and could find no terms to explain it.  Indeed, I have never been able to describe my experience any better than this expression in Psalm 40:

“He bent down to me and listened to my cry.

He raised me out of the miry pit, out of the mud and clay;

He set my feet on rock and gave me a firm footing.

On my lips he put a new song, a song of praise to our God.”

My leading has always been equally clear that the “he” who bent down to me that night was the Spirit of Jesus, the same one who spoke to me through the gospels.  As in the story of the Good Shepherd, I recognized his voice that night, and knew then that I am significant and redeemable in God’s eyes.  Much remains a mystery to me about this experience, but I have tried to follow God’s leadings ever since, and he has always kept the promise made to me that night.

Life’s Work as Ministry

In the aftermath of the Spirit’s visit I made many changes in my life, but two stand out as having enduring impact: I began attending a Quaker meeting, finding others for whom chairs and a Bible constitute a well-equipped place of worship; and I developed a personal mission statement:

I will use the talents God has given me to learn things of importance and value,
and I will share the things that I have learned to enrich the lives of others.

Once written, I felt certain this would lead me to leave my consulting career. However, I also learned from my new Quaker friends that we are all ministers, and that our ministries can take many forms –one’s work does matter, but how one goes about it can matter even more. The following story was pivotal to understanding my work as ministry:

In 1993 the state of Washington passed legislation that included many Clinton-era healthcare reforms. The state issued several RFPs related to implementation, and I led my firm’s successful proposal on one. I quickly found myself in front of panels of business, legislative, and policy leaders, and felt completely over my head.

I had recently joined a small group at my meeting, and I brought my concern to the group. A friend asked “How can we support you in prayer?” I answered “I am excited by this opportunity, but I feel under-qualified to lead this project. I need clarity regarding whether this is a leading from God or a product of my own ambition. And if it is God’s leading, I need to know what I am to bring to it.”

After some silence a friend asked “What makes you think this might be a leading from God?” I answered “This legislation seeks to improve access to affordable health care, which is a cause I have long felt a calling toward.” Another friend asked “You were selected over several other firms to do this work?” I affirmed.

After additional silence, one friend said “I can’t speak for the group, and I know nothing of your world, but how you were selected means you are likely qualified. I do see access to affordable care as a concern God holds, and I would rather see this work led by someone with your heart for God’s concern than by someone for whom it is just another project.” Other friends murmured their assent, and I felt utterly convicted. Uncomfortable or not, I felt clarity that God had indeed led me to this place, and I had a fresh perspective on how to lead it forward.

This was the first time I experienced the power of a spiritual community to provide clarity and strength in walking a difficult path, but it has not been the last. With such insight, support, and inspiration from my Quaker community, and with the clarity provided by my mission statement, I continued my consulting career for twenty additional fulfilling years.

Ministry as Life’s Work

Much of my consulting career involved building and mobilizing teams of (mostly) young adults around a shared goal: solving a client’s problem, building new software, etc. The most fulfilling part, for me, was the opportunity this provided to help my teams and my clients to define and pursue their dreams and aspirations. For better or worse, most of these people already had a lot going in their favor: they had attended good schools, and had basic family and economic security. I felt satisfaction that my clients – hospitals and human services agencies – served the disadvantaged, but I always wanted to do more.

Fifteen years ago a pro bono project led me into youth mentoring, working directly with disadvantaged youth as well as strengthening the providers that serve them. I was matched with a fifth grader named Andrew, and served as his mentor for several years. I know I helped him through some tough times, but he also inspired me to give more, as illustrated in this encounter:

In sixth grade Andrew was living in a modest foster home after being removed from an unsafe and impoverished family setting. We had done a group activity that provided the children with simple prizes; Andrew chose a bumper sticker and said “Let’s put this on your car!” I said “OK, but you have to read it to me first.” He was then reading at the third grade level, so this was a challenge but also a learning opportunity.

Bumper Sticker

Having sounded his way through the word “poverty,” he said “What’s that mean?” I said it meant you didn’t have enough money for life’s most basic needs of food, clothing, and housing. We also talked about “1 in 5” – “so, if there are 25 kids in my class at school, 5 of them live in poverty?” I said “Yes, and at your school probably more than 5.” He replied “Wow, then we really need to help them.” I could only think “Yes, we do, Andrew. Yes, we do.”

Having fulfilled many commitments I had made to my family, I now feel released for full-time ministry, and this conversation has never been far from my mind. As I discern what comes next, my thoughts include: consulting with or working for non-profits; working in youth mentoring or at a school serving disadvantaged families; dedicating myself more fully to spiritual writing and speaking; providing spiritual mentorship to those seeking more authentic faith; and providing comfort to those facing end of life.

I have enough life experience with each of these to feel I have talents and leadings worth exploring, but my skills are largely self-taught or instinctive. My hopes for seminary are to bring more substance to my skill base in these areas, and to help me discern which among these I may be most strongly called to, or in what priority I should pursue them.

Quaker 101

My wife, Diane, and I were out for dinner with another couple last weekend when Ericka commented, “I haven’t read your latest blog post yet, but it had an intriguing lead-in about you making a decision. What was the title again?” and I replied “Midlife Seminary.” Mike jumped in: “What kind of seminary?” “Quaker,” I replied. With both of them now baffled, Mike continued “I know nothing about Quakers. Can you give me a quick summary?” “You mean like an elevator pitch?” “Exactly!”

“So … Imagine Ben Kingsley in ‘Gandhi,’ except dressed like Ben Franklin (same glasses!). He discovers a magic oatmeal in 17th Century England that turns anyone who eats it into a pacifist. It’s an overnight sensation, with 360,000 Quakers worldwide after only 350 years.” (OK, no “Book of Mormon” musical potential there …)

In reality, the explanation I gave at dinner took longer than an elevator ride, though I’m not sure any substantive spiritual tradition could be boiled down to a 30-second pitch. Still, I recognize that my friends, family, and readers might want to know a little more about what I will be studying over the next few years, though not enough to read a Wikipedia article on Quakers, much less to listen to me babble on at length. So, in this post, I have set myself to the “elevator pitch” challenge, mindful that the goal isn’t to tell the whole story, just to get invited back for a longer conversation.

As the Good Witch of the North says, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” The Quaker tradition – the Religious Society of Friends – originated with George Fox in England around 1650, and his story has long resonated for me. As portrayed by one biographer, “Fox as a youth had been repulsed by cold formalism and power politics in the church [my experience of Catholicism in the 1960/70s] and by empty pleasure-seeking outside the church [also my experience of that time] … He longed for authentic faith to match the Bible’s message,” especially the teachings of Jesus. Out of this Fox experienced a third way: a direct, unmediated connection with the Spirit of Christ – the “Inward Light,” the “Present Teacher.”

From the earliest days, Quakers have believed that the Spirit is there to teach if we are there to listen, and that the voice of God can best be discerned through three core spiritual practices, each reinforcing the other: silent individual prayer (“when you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door”); open worship as a gathered community of Friends (“where two or three meet together in my name, I am there”); and the study of scriptures and sacred writing (the source of these quotes, among countless others). Quaker worship does not make use of sacraments, liturgy, or ritual.

Many other Quaker distinctives arose from these core discernment practices. First and foremost, there are no clergy: each individual owns the work of having a relationship with God. Some meetings, including mine, hire pastoral staff to provide spiritual insight, guidance, and counsel, but all Friends are considered on equal footing as ministers. Consequently, Quakers also have no overarching governing hierarchy; indeed, Quakerism barely qualifies as “organized religion,” though there are groups and affiliations that facilitate broader community among Friends and support for Quaker traditions.

Lacking infrastructure, and with a core belief (implicit in the discernment practices) that God’s truth is continuously being revealed, it is no surprise that the theological orientation of various Quaker meetings has evolved to span a wide range of labels, including conservative, evangelical, liberal, universalist, and even non-theist (I’m still working to understand that last one). Despite this, however, Quakers have historically been in unity with some distinctive (and often unpopular) positions, including:

  • Equality and Justice – Some of the most important associates of George Fox (and of Jesus, for that matter) were women, and from the beginning most Quakers have accorded women full equality in recognizing spiritual gifts. More broadly, Friends believe that God works through people without regard for race, age, gender or (in my meeting and many others) sexual orientation. These beliefs have put Quakers on the forefront of many social justice movements, including universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, and, increasingly, marriage equality.
  • Witness for Peace – Quakers places great emphasis on Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels regarding peace, and on how he modeled non-violent confrontation in his life and death. Quaker youth commonly receive Conscientious Objector status, but they do not avoid serving in conflict zones – indeed, the Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for their service during wartime. These same teachings lead Friends to oppose the death penalty.
  • Commitment to Simplicity – As one evangelical site puts it, “As Friends we have a long tradition for adhering to scriptural injunctions for plain living. In this respect, we are encouraged to work toward transforming the values of our culture rather than conforming without question. We recognize our responsibility for the care and use of the earth and, therefore, our obligation to maintain a style of living that will conserve resources for future generations.” As a traditional Quaker saying has it, “that Friend speaks my mind.”

So what kind of tradition is this, you ask, where conservatives, evangelicals, and liberals are (mostly) in unity on such matters? I’m glad you asked, but time is up for this elevator pitch. Did I interest you in a longer conversation? If so, I’m good for breakfast, coffee, lunch, wine/beer, dinner, phone chats, or e-mails, and, of course, you can click the “Follow” button on the right side of this blog to follow Midlife Seminary.  I look forward to the conversation …