A Safe and Gentle Presence

D10C41D6-4875-479D-B4BC-40762C72FD3CIf you know me well, you will know that I have a love affair with trees. I always have, ever since I was a little girl playing among the protruding, gnarly roots of the enormous, beautiful magnolia tree in our yard. I would stay there for hours sometimes, finding under the tree’s canopy my own personal and private hiding place. Though it was ill advised, the tree endured carvings in its trunk without complaining even once. That tree had multiple carved hearts, each with an arrow and the names of boyfriends that came and went.

Today I was reminded how much I love trees when I received a mailing from the Arbor Day Foundation asking me to complete a survey, which I promptly did. As a token of appreciation for completing the survey, the Arbor Day Foundation will send me a calendar, a tree book and ten free trees.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, dreaming of having ten new trees in my yard, but of course, knowing that the free trees they send me will be five inches tall. No matter. I’ll plant them and nurse them and hope for the best.

I was also prompted by the Arbor Day Foundation to wonder about state trees. Fred and I tried to guess a few, but eventually resorted to Wikipedia for a list. Interesting list, ranging from common trees like the ubiquitous pine all the way to more exotic-sounding trees like Utah’s Quaking Aspen, Pennsylvania’s Eastern Hemlock and Arizona’s Blue Palo Verde.

23E0BDA9-6047-4A1B-AE2A-131CC85D8385Now that you’ve had a lesson on state trees that you did not ask for, I will tell you what’s up with me and trees. The lifelong connection happened when I was just a little girl. I lived with an abusive father who made my home a very unsafe place. Other forms of violence were prevalent as well: shouting and abusive language, threats of physical harm and a violent uncle that came with a gun and broke into our house by smashing the glass in our front door.

I was a child of fear, constant fear, and so I found hiding places under our trees, two huge magnolias, an even taller pecan tree, and even under the branches of Miss Martha Tebshereny’s plum tree. An occasional plum was a bonus!

Here’s the best truth: that it is incredibly powerful that out of a troubled childhood, I brought happy memories. I brought with me into my adult years images of safety; moments of playfulness; an appreciation of nature’s beauty; the taste of fresh figs, plums and pecans; a lovely collection of magnolia cones; the treasure of memories and an abiding love of trees.

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She wept a river of tears
holy water, sent to soften the sharp edges of sorrow
a gentle hollowing out, carving new chambers in her heart
a hallowed vessel . . . 
Kate Mullane Robertson

There was healing under the weeping branches of those trees. There was hope. I think it was Holy Ground.

That’s something for which I am very grateful. I am grateful to a loving and compassionate God, who, I am quite sure, met me a few times under one of those childhood trees. God, who knows how important it is to protect children,  and graced me with a safe and gentle presence. Because of that, I made it out of a home filled with violence to a better, safer world.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

Dangerous Contemplation

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This morning, I read a meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation as I often do to start my day. In it, Sister Joan Chittister explores the relationship between prophetic witness through compassion and contemplation. Sounds risky to me! And that’s very close to the point Sister Joan makes:

. . . contemplation is a very dangerous activity. It not only brings us face to face with God, it brings us, as well, face to face with the world, and then it brings us face to face with the self; and then, of course, something must be done. 

Something must be filled up, added to, freed from, begun again, ended at once, changed, or created or healed, because nothing stays the same once we have found the God within. . . . We become connected to everything, to everyone. We carry the whole world in our hearts, the oppression of all peoples, the suffering of our friends, the burdens of our enemies, the raping of the earth, the hunger of the starving, the joyous expectation every laughing child has a right to. Then, the zeal for justice consumes us. Then, action and prayer are one.

Bolder prophetic words were never written! Would that all of us who profess a relationship with God might rise from our knees and be ennobled by our prayers to do justice and love mercy! Largely, this is not the case for us. Our prayers feel empty, devoid of the compassion of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. After we have prayed, have we changed? Has our heart been softened by moments of communion with God? Does our heart move into a tragic world with the tenderness of a compassionate Christ?

As we are praying, children and families still languish at our borders, suffering in living conditions that seem impossible in America. And we hear the distant echo of Jesus asking for the children to come to him.

As we are praying, the ever-changing climate exacts its harm on oceans and rivers, having significant impact on ecosystems, economies and communities. Rising average temperatures mean balmier winters for some regions and extreme heat for others. Flooding, drought and violent storms take a dangerous toll on our beloved earth.

250ACCE1-377E-4980-9A7B-546C7B31A8FEAs we are praying, gun injuries cause the deaths of 18 children and young adults each day in the U.S. And every day, 100 Americans are killed with guns. Can we ignore the fact that nearly 1 million women alive today have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner?

 

 

All the while, we comfortably rest in our own kind of contemplation. Yet, contemplation must be redefined. We must learn to experience it as a change in consciousness that forces us to see the big picture, to see beyond our own boundaries, beyond our denominations, our churches. Sister Joan again says it best:

Contemplation brings us to see beyond even our own doctrines and dogmas and institutional self-interest, straight into the face of a mothering God from whose womb has come all the life that is.

Transformed from within then, the contemplative becomes a new kind of presence in the world who signals another way of being. . . . The contemplative can never again be a complacent, non-participant in an oppressive system. . . . From contemplation comes not only the consciousness of the universal connectedness of life, but the courage to model it as well.

Those who have no flame in their hearts for justice, no consciousness of personal responsibility for the reign of God, no raging commitment to human community may, indeed, be seeking God; but make no mistake, God is still, at best, only an idea to them, not a living reality.

So we struggle, Christ followers in a world of cruelty and insanity. Our struggle is about what exactly we can do when we face the world after our contemplative practice. Isn’t contemplation and compassion a pilgrimage to the heart, my own heart and God’s heart? When our moments of contemplation reveal a clear-eyed view of a suffering world, what does Christ’s love and the Holy Spirit’s prompting move us to do?

I often refer to the words Tikkun Olam, the Jewish teaching that means repair the world. Tikkun Olam is any activity that improves the world, bringing it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created. So how does our contemplation lead us to practice Tikkun Olam, to repair the world? What is it that “must be filled up, added to, freed from, begun again, ended at once, changed, or created or healed?”

It is a critical question for all of us and each of us. Indeed, each person must find her own answer and must follow her own path. The way ahead may lead to U.S. border towns. The way ahead may lead to phone calling or letter writing. It may lead to community activism or bearing witness in places where injustices occur. It may lead to protesting and marching or teaching and preaching. It may lead to deeper communion with God through even more time spent in prayer and contemplation.

It will, beyond any doubt, lead us to the places in our world where compassion touches pain. Dangerous contemplation will most definitely lead us to those places.

May God make it so!

 

 

Lenses

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Photo: The Power of Lenses, Wired

All of us see things through a lens. We get our lens from our life, and no one else sees things through that same lens. Just to make it clear: this is not a commentary on current politics and policies. This is simply a hodgepodge of musings that have emerged from what I am seeing through my lens.

Let me start, right off the bat, by pointing to something that doesn’t look so good through my lens, namely the unconscionable practice of separating children from their parents in the name of enhanced border security. We railed at that policy — for a while. But with the passing of time, our advocacy for these separated families has waned. These days, it is even hard to find a current news report that updates the status of the separated children.

I did find a report that quotes administration officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services saying that the number of beds available for migrant children increased from 6,500 last fall to 16,000 today (CNBC; 19 Dec 2018). Apparently, the crisis we have all but forgotten is still real.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who heads Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, has called our current immigration policy “a moral disaster.” Dr. Shonkoff provided this emphatic rebuke:

There has to be some way to communicate, in unequivocal terms, that we are inflicting punishments on innocent children that will have lifelong consequences. No matter how a person feels about immigration policy, very few people hate children — and yet we are passively allowing bad things to happen to them.

According to The New York Times, population levels at federal shelters for migrant children have quietly shot up more than fivefold since last summer, reaching a total of 12,800 as of September 2018. There were 2,400 such children in custody in May.

Are we choosing to ignore the huge increases of children in custody that have placed the federal shelter system near capacity? Are we listening to the the employees who work in the migrant shelter network telling us that the bottleneck is straining both the children and the system that cares for them? Do we care that the administration announced that it will triple the size of a temporary “tent city” in Tornillo, Tex., to house up to 3,800 children?

Reports are that immigrant advocates and members of Congress reacted to this status report with distress. As well they should! 

Leader or citizen — each of us should react to this report with great distress! My lens sees that with our current immigration practices, we are participating in a sin against humanity by placing children and teens at great risk of long-term trauma and irreparable harm.

With that realization, I find myself in a place that is antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. My silence, passivity and failure to act is complicity. Have I signed enough petitions, made enough phone calls and written enough emails? There is no right answer to that question. 

I heard a discussion this morning on National Public Radio that revealed a troubling trend. The information shared is that not as many males are crossing the border into the U.S. right now. Instead, record numbers of women and children fleeing domestic violence and violence in general are coming to seek asylum, protection from horrific circumstances and safe shelter.  

For example, Guatemala has one of the most prevalent rates of violence against women in the world. Instances of gender violence in Guatemala include domestic violence, sexual violence, human trafficking, incest, and femicide (the deliberate killing of women).

Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to Guatemala. The neighboring countries of El Salvador and Honduras, for example, also face epidemic levels of femicide as well as impunity for the perpetrators. (https://www.amnestyusa.org/why-does-guatemala-have-one-of-the-highest-rates-of-femicide-in-the-world/)

For many years, I have been a vocal advocate for women and child victims of violence. For at least fifteen years, that advocacy was my life’s work. I am angered by the abuse of women and children. But today, in our current circumstance, my advocacy feels like a tempest in a teacup. While my heart may be overflowing with anger, my acts of protest against our nation’s immigration policy are relatively insignificant.

Advocacy always begins with understanding? We understand that immigration and border security is one thing; illegal immigration is another. But the desperate need for asylum is on a significantly higher level in the quest for human rights and protection from oppression!

And so this presents a dilemma for any follower of Christ living in a relatively uncaring world. How does the Gospel motivate us? How do we follow Christ into the situations that are causing women and children such harm? How do we act in ways that offer asylum for those in the midst of violence? Wouldn’t God desire safe shelter for persons in danger? What can we do to effect real, in-the-moment, significant change? Knowing that many people look at the state of immigration and security through “America first” lenses, what lens am I using to look at this abysmal situation?

Lenses are important. They guide our thoughts and actions. They develop our sense of right and wrong, good and evil. As I contemplate lenses, I am reminded of Victor Hugo’s description of the very kind Bishop Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, in Les Misérables: 

He had a strange, idiosyncratic way of looking at things.
I suspect he got it from the Gospel.

I could only hope that a description of my idiosyncratic ways would point to the Gospel. In the meantime, I intend to challenge myself to find ways to be a change agent for the way our nation is dealing with asylum seekers — women and children — who take the dangerous risk of crossing our borders to what they desperately hope is a place of safety and refuge.

May it be said of America that her doors were forever wide open to receive persons in need of refuge.

God would will such a compassionate, caring welcome.

Jesus would have embodied that kind of compassion, a compassion that rescues, shelters and protects. As followers of Jesus, should we not live out his example?