“They” – It’s a Bad Word: My Thoughts After the Shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue

“They” – It’s a Bad Word: My Thoughts After the Shootings at Tree of Life Synagogue
Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

The tiniest phrase in a recent article about the latest massacre – the one at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh – infuriated me.

It said the shooter “raged against Jews.”

Who are these “Jews”?

I’ll tell you who “they” are. Over the course of my life, people – who happen to have Jewish heritage and espouse a time-treasured faith – have been to me one or more of the following: family members, neighbors, classmates, teachers, doctors….friends.

They are people I love, respect, and deeply admire – just as I would anyone of integrity and goodness who seeks to do unto others as he or she would do unto himself or herself.

And over this week, as I cried for the beautiful people who lost their lives while worshiping God, I considered the state of things…a nation where “raged against Jews” still seems an apt phrase.

Our world repeats many lies to its constantly thrumming drum, but the biggest one is this…

There is a “they” – separate from us – that we can treat as “other.”

The list of self-identifying groups and sub-groups is endless….Christian (i.e., Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical and hundreds of denominations in-between), Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic, Democrat, Republican, Men, Women, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Straight, LGBTQIA+, Graduate of Such-and-Such College, Having X Degree, No-Degree, Hard Worker, Slacker, Pro-this, Anti-that – you follow?

Add on your own tags – the ones you apply to yourself – as many as you can think of – and stand in your circle to see how many fellow humans are left there with you. One? Two? None?

When we push outward we discover we are all alone.

There is NO “they.”

They are us.

And we are them.

Mother Teresa said it best when she declared, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another.”

I don’t know much about the shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue, but I do know this: his hatred was homegrown and it started as a seed in his heart.

The call to action for us as citizens of the world is to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

There are no caveats in that.

No exclusions if we think the person has strange ideas, smells, does her hair in a funny way, or is infringing on our space.

And whether you happen to agree with me when I say that God created each person – and in His own image – formed to be imperishable for all eternity, unique and sacred as an individual – I would venture this…

Deep down you know that freedom from self-absorption and egotism – those inclinations that isolate us and proliferate fear by pushing others away – means reaching out and extending the thing we all want most. Love.

We all play a role in making this world the place we want it to be.

Call out the darkness and bring it to light.

The darkness within each of us is where the battle is waged.

There is no THEY.

There is only US.

And LOVE that surpasses us all.

Lighten Up!

Lighten Up!
Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Do you need to lighten up?

I do.

And I’m not talking about weight here.

I’m talking about attitude.

This is a recurrent theme in my life.

I try hard.

A LOT.

To get things right.

And sometimes I overdo it.

I lose perspective.

I miss what’s really important.

Recently I was remembering one particular time when my earnestness billowed up comically.
When my husband and I were awaiting the birth of our first child, I took seriously the advice that I interview pediatricians. I was convinced the doctor-patient relationship may prove significant in the years ahead.

And so, one very cold, windy December day about a month before my son arrived, I rolled my round self through the doors of a doctor’s office.

I was a vision, to be sure. Breathless from having climbed two flights of stairs, my shoulder-length blond hair was whipped around my head, and I struggled to free myself from my coat – a cherry-red, ankle-length woolen shroud that had once been my mother’s. Back in Philadelphia circa 1988 it had been striking, chic, and regal. On me – 8 months pregnant in 2002 – minus Mom’s 3-inch heels, manicured nails, and expertly coiffed hair – it was somewhat less fantastic. I resembled a squat strawberry past its peak.

Looks aside, I was on a mission.

I had my notes and my questions ready.

I was going to make sure my baby would have the best provider I could find.

When the doctor entered the room, I was slightly surprised that he was no more than 5 years older than me. But no matter. I proceeded through my questions about diet, weekly and monthly visits, developmental expectations, office hours, etc. and he answered dutifully, thoroughly, and patiently until I finally thought, “Good grief. He’s the professional. And I’m exhausted.”

Having crossed just about everything off my list, I looked up at him and asked, ”How am I doing?”

He smiled.

“Fine,” he said. “There are really just a few things we want to make sure all new parents know about.”

“Ok,” I said.

“First, is that we believe in immunizations.”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up and my body start to tremble.

“Umm…” he stammered, “There is a debate right now. And for some people this is an issue.”

I covered my mouth and then burst out laughing.

“Hahaha! I know! I know! Oh gosh! I’m so sorry! I was so uptight about this. About meeting you… I…I…forgot to ask about the most basic, essential things! You don’t have to convince me of this. I’m fine with immunizations.”

He looked relieved.

“Oh. Ok, great!”

I nodded.

“Another thing,” he continued, “Do you have a car seat?”

I laughed harder.

“For real!?! Yes!”

“Make sure it’s installed properly. Seriously. Do that and you’re golden. Everything else we’ll take as it comes.”

I beamed at him.

I deeply appreciated that doctor that day, and every day we’ve visited him since, because he has consistently focused on the NOW. Today’s right thing.

So here’s the rub…

Do you catastrophize?

Do you envision all the ways the future could go wrong before the next hour has even happened?

If so, lighten up.

Our biggest burdens are often the ones we put on ourselves. So toss your heaviest loads aside, look UP for guidance, and trust that you have – and will be given – the appropriate wisdom and strength required to handle whatever comes next.

All the kings of the earth sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.

(2 Chronicles 9:23)

My Own Glimpse of Heaven

Do you know you are seen?

Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that God is watching over you?

Do you believe God hears your cries of weariness, your frustration, and your desperation of silent dreams unfulfilled? The whispers of your soul?

I didn’t. Not really. I mean, I was trying….to believe. But I’d been through enough of life to know that true faith is a leap off a ledge. And God only knew what would happen if I actually took that step, instead of inching along the crumbling path of so-called certainty.

My mother-in-law was just trying to make happy plans when she said, “Then there will be Gretchen’s confirmation. We’ll have to celebrate that.”

It was sometime in the fall of 2006 and she was looking ahead to Easter. I was going through RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – the process by which adults enter the Catholic Church.

“No,” I said, perhaps too forcefully, and looked at my husband.

“No,” he affirmed, “We’re not going to have a party for that.”

Because I didn’t want one. I wasn’t ready. The journey to get to this point in my life had already been so difficult that I sort of wanted the day to be just about…. me. And God.

As I’ve explained to many, many women in my Bible study groups over the years, I truly believe that discord and division among Christians must break the Lord’s heart. And my feelings on this subject stem from having been raised in a variety of churches, combined with the fact that my parents divorced when I was eleven, and subsequently pursued divergent paths in Christian denominations. Because we had also moved around frequently, we had never had a ‘church home’ to help guide me, and as my parents’ marriage deteriorated, my ability to understand God’s unfailing love, did as well.

As a child, the only message I retained from many homilies I heard was the “hellfire and brimstone” picture of life without Christ. My fear of God was deep and real. And it wasn’t  the “fear” mentioned in Scripture, which is respectful – the kind one should have for a loving father whom you don’t want to disappoint. No – this was abject fear. How could I love this God?

For years, I couldn’t sit through any church service, of any denomination, without crying. In a way I couldn’t explain, my soul seemed drawn to be there, but hearing the Word brought tears my eyes and terror to my heart. My family was torn apart and it seemed that God was at the center of it all. I just couldn’t make sense of how I felt, of how my story was being written. So much healing was needed.

So when I began RCIA, I truly embarked upon it as a period of discernment. Bless the heart of Deacon Moore, who led our program, because a tiny part of him probably wanted to get rid of me by the end. Every time we met, I asked more questions than a six-year old boy watching his father work on a car.

As I’ve written in other blog pieces, RCIA was one of the greatest experiences of my life. By Holy Week, we had reached the end, and I was to be confirmed at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.

Holy Week was full of exciting opportunities to prepare our hearts for the sacrament we would soon receive. Sunday – The last time our RCIA group would leave Mass together before the Eucharist to discuss the day’s Scripture readings. Monday – Mass at the Basilica in Baltimore, when the parish’s Chrism oil for the year would be blessed and brought back to our church. Thursday – The Maundy Thursday service – where priests would wash the feet of RCIA candidates, as Jesus did for his disciples at the Last Supper. Friday – The Good Friday Service – where the deacon would carry a full-size cross to the front of the church for us to touch….and remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of pure, selfless love.

I missed every single event.

During stressful times I get migraine headaches, and that week I had one of the worst migraines of my entire life. I spent every day in bed, silently crying about what I knew I was missing. On Saturday afternoon, my husband came into our darkened room. He said, “Try to tell me what it is.”

“I feel like I’m turning my back on my upbringing and my family. And I’m still not ready to tell them,” (It would be awhile before I did.)

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I know. But I want to. I really want to.”

That’s when he gave me a beautiful cross necklace – St. Brigid’s cross – and I was so surprised. It never occurred to me he might give me a gift for this occasion.

I got myself dressed, put on my new necklace, and popped one more of the useless precription pills I’d been taking all week. The sitter came. And my husband (who was also my sponsor for the sacrament) and I left for the church.

Brigid's Cross

In the narthex to the large sanctuary, the deacon approached me. “I’m glad to see you here,” he said gently. “I was worried about you.” I told him I just hadn’t been well, and I smiled through the incessant pounding in my head. Our group processed in and took our seats.

At a special point in the ceremony, I was asked to stand and profess my faith. I stared with glassy eyes at the altar as the priest spoke these words to me and the others.

Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried,
rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Candidate: I do.

In the millisecond after I said the last “I do” the splitting pain in my head vanished.

Vanished.

I felt as good as I’d ever felt on an absolutely perfect day. No worries. No concerns. Nothing but an absence of pain and a clear, refreshed mind.

A few moments later, I moved to the front of the church and stood, with my husband behind me, his hand on my shoulder, as our pastor, Father Kingsbury, stretched out his hand and prayed for me and the others:

All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.

Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide.

Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

In my hand was an index card with my confirmation name: Gretchen Elaine. Some people take a saint’s name. I hadn’t settled on one and figured my own was sufficient.

I handed the card to Father Kingsbury when he stopped directly in front of me, with Deacon Moore on his left, and another of my teachers, Father Harrison, on his right.

“Gretchen Elaine,”I heard Father Kingsbury say as I closed my eyes and he anointed my forehead with the Chrism oil, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

I opened my eyes.

It is very difficult to explain what I saw – but it just may be my first glimpse of heaven.

Brilliant, white, and golden light surrounded the three men. The space seemed positively filled with it. And I was filled with, and surrounded, and bathed, in this radiant light. All my fear was gone. Head to toe, I was flush in a spirit of wonder and awe, and I knew I was smiling broadly into the glowing faces before me. I was warm and comfortable all over. It was pure bliss.

I didn’t want to leave that spot before the altar, but it was time to return to our seats.

As we settled in, I said to my husband, “Did you see that light?”

“What light?”

“Up on the altar. All around them.”

He looked in the direction where my eyes were searching – the spot where the second miracle of my night had occurred.

“The lights are on,” he said quizzically.

And then I knew – the light had been for me. And the healing had been for me. Me alone. Because He sees me. He knows my story. He knows every last bit of it, and no matter what has happened or just might happen yet, He is in control. And He loves me. 

In time, I would tell my parents about my faith journey, and their responses would be more grace-filled than I ever could have dreamed. Both of them are fellow travelers on the road to eternal life with the Lord, and we have wonderful discussions about how He works in our lives. Christian unity is at the heart of my relationships with them.

If you seek Him with your whole heart, you will find Him. He sees you. And He loves you. Regardless of whether you know Him, feel Him….whether you doubt His existence or not. He’s real. He is listening to the whispers of your soul.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom

a light has shone.” 

-Isaiah 9:1

Liturgical Text for the Easter Vigil Service was copied from this document, provided by the Diocese of Owensboro.

Holy Moments – Day 25 – Meg Turns 40

From my vantage point – about 36 inches above the ground – I could see a mass of blankets preceding Mom through the back door and into the kitchen of our little Cape Cod home in Gales Ferry, Connecticut. I was two weeks shy of 3-years old, and I knew there was a treasure inside those warm white fuzzy folds. Her name was Meghan. And she was my baby sister.

I pawed at Mom’s arms, trying to see, but was gently led into the family room and seated far back on the olive green sofa with my right arm supported by a pillow so that…. I could meet her.

I wish I could remember her face on that day. But I do remember holding her. Holding her. Feeling for the first time that emotion that is privilege to older siblings (and the bane of youngers!) – ‘I will look out for you.’

She was my only sibling, and my protective instincts were sometimes appreciated – like when Meg was falsely accused of slashing mattresses at Girl Scout camp and I knew this wasn’t possible. She didn’t even own a pocket knife, for goodness sake. I was more than happy to go to the troop leaders and tell them what was what.

But more often than not – my compulsion to force on her my 3 years’ worth of advanced wisdom was met with resistance or outright rejection. Go figure.

To her credit, at a young age she understood how to use my bossiness to her advantage. For example, Mom asked me to help Meg learn to make her own bed. I got so frustrated by Meg’s ‘inability’ to straighten her green Sears ripcord bedspread, that I pushed her out of the way and declared that I would “just do it myself.” I ended up making lots of beds.

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Meghan and me, 1983.

Like so many sisters, we’re perhaps more different than alike. But it’s funny how every time Meg’s birthday rolls around, I feel our kinship reconnected in a special way, and in the last day or so, perhaps I’ve found the reason.

Meg and I were both born during Advent – a word which means “coming.” It is, by its’ very definition, a season of anticipation in which we keep a look out for the greatest gift – Christ, the Light of the World.

So many of my fondest memories with Meg are centered around moments of waiting for something.

Sitting on packed boxes in various houses, waiting for the moving van to arrive for our military move to another state.

Holding our bags in our laps (before the stewardess told us to put them down), waiting for the plane to land in Seattle, home of our beloved grandparents.

And my favorite – waiting side by side at the foot of the tree on Christmas morning for our parents to wake up. My sister and I never dared proceed with opening (or shaking!) gifts before ‘it was time.’ We didn’t even run into Mom and Dad’s room to jostle them awake. Why? I don’t know. I’m just so thankful now that, for whatever reason, Meg and I had this quiet special time together every Christmas.

In my childhood mind, the month of December – marked by her birthday, then mine, and ending in Christmas – was magical because for most of it, we were looking forward together to the largest celebration still ahead. Intuitively, we recognized this month for what it is – The season of Hope. The season of anticipation which rejoices in the fact that the best is still to come. And to think – that this is when we were blessed to be born.

My beautiful sister is a searcher. She digs deep and asks thoughtful questions. She looks for the Light.

So, today I celebrate Meg on her 40th birthday. As much as I’d like to think I could still ‘look out’ for her, I know she’s in the very best of hands and loved beyond measure. And though she’s doing well in life, I still believe her best season is up ahead. I’m eagerly waiting to see what’s in store for her.

The Heart of the Matter

I saw something this morning that made me want to vomit. Two investigators from the Center for Medical Progress went undercover and interviewed a director of Planned Parenthood who discusses on video – over wine and salad – the systematic harvesting and selling of body parts from babies she and others abort. Apparently, livers and hearts are in especially large demand. And she’s careful not to crush these valuable commodities during the “extraction” process from each mother’s womb, which she describes, in detail. By dinnertime today, this story was all over the national news, and media outlets were reporting that the director “allegedly” sold these baby body parts. But I watched the video. I’m taking her at her word.

People have all sorts of arguments for the slaughter of the innocents. But as I said when I shared this story with Facebook Friends, evil cannot grow where there is Light. For me, before today, the selling of body parts of aborted children fell into that category of: “I guess I knew that could happen, theoretically speaking, but who would actually do it?” Now, my idealistic ignorance has abruptly ended and nausea has given way to a rising, righteous anger.

Righteous anger. Yes. I’m going to claim the moral high ground on this one and say I am righteously angry. I’m not just plain-old ‘mad,’ because someone holds a different point of view. Killing and dismembering an infant shocks the senses because it violates the natural law – that inborn sense of right and wrong that we were all given. And from which we all go astray through sin. But allowing sin of this magnitude to continue without rising up to point out that it is grievous and heinous is a communal sin against God, is it not?

Am I called to love my neighbor as myself? Yes. And aren’t you too?

Is the unborn child our neighbor? I think so.

I’ve been wondering all day where to go with this…What to say or do next. I think it comes down to a basic statement and a few questions for our nation.

Fellow Americans, and Christians especially:

The hearts of unwanted, unborn children are literally, up for sale.

Is yours?

Will you sell out to the public opinion, which says that the unborn aren’t worth protecting?

To Whom does your heart belong?

And how will you show your love?

My heart belongs to the Lord, maker of Heaven and Earth. Maker of me. And so I sing His praises. And cry out with righteous anger on behalf of the Voiceless, who are also created in His image.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

— Matthew 22: 36-39

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Take Me Praying

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So we’ve all seen the news reports. We know a few details. A man full of evil entered a House of God in Charleston during a Bible study and killed nine people. Once arrested, he reportedly told police he had wanted to start a race war.

Even before I heard Charleston’s mayor say that a race war will not happen….that the community is coming together in a beautiful way….Yes, back before I’d heard that the victims were well-known, cherished members of the community, I’d had this one thought running through my mind:

Take me praying.

Thinking about your own death is uncomfortable. And certainly, the idea of dying at the hands of a murderer is among the most disconcerting thoughts possible. But when I heard this story from Charleston, my mind went here:

Sometimes, we may wonder whether we are doing God’s will. But I’m sure of one thing. If I’m praying – talking to my Lord – I know I’m doing exactly what He’d like me to do.

So, when my time comes, Lord, take me praying. Please. 

Take me praying.

The nine people for whom thousands mourn tonight were walking in the Light at the moment they met their Father. And despite the horror of the scene, those with faith to see can look past the carnage to what lies beyond. Hope. Eternal Truth.

Darkness came into a place of Light. But the Light will not be overcome.

And what is the response to Evil in the heart of a murderer? 

Light. Accessed through prayer.  

Join with me and millions nationwide who pray for the city of Charleston.

Lord God. Adonai. Emmanuel. You are with us.
We know it is right to give you thanks always and everywhere.
So Lord, we thank you for hearing us, for being present in our suffering.
We lift up our hurting hearts and pray that Your peace will comfort the families and friends of those lost in the tragedy in Charleston.
May they be lavished with Your love.
May they know the strength of Your arms.
While grieving, may they see your Light in every direction they turn.
And may the Good that comes from this terrible event be attributed to You – the One from whom All good things come.
In Jesus name we pray,
Amen
.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

– John 1:5

Day 3 – Good from Darkness

I’ve been thinking more about good coming out of darkness today, because God can and will use any situation to bless His people. As I’ve reminded others since my stepsister died, St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:28 that “[W]e know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It’s nearly impossible right now to see or imagine how that might happen when a baby stays and his mother goes on, so we must make the difficult choice to trust – sometimes one tiny moment to the next.

Just a couple years ago, when two events linked up in a timely way, I saw them as nifty “coincidences.” I’ll never forget that powerful moment in my Bible study when I told a story and called it a “coincidence,” and my group leader, a woman of great and gentle faith looked me straight in the eye and said in the most tender way, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”  I felt convicted, and it changed my point of view from that very moment on.

So – goodness and darkness. Timely events. How does this fit into my life today?  How does death fit into the wild cacophony of my blessed life? A husband I deeply love. A marriage that has endured enough to let us know that we CAN endure – together.  Three healthy, happy kids. Good relationships with our families. Deep, abiding, heart friendships I can count on. It’s not a perfect life, but it’s definitely, abundantly, overwhelmingly blessed. We have scheduling problems because of the blessings.

Our beagle barks upstairs. Kids play loudly, laughing outside my door. Why now, Lord? What do you want me to learn in sadness? In darkness? Is there beauty in this tragedy, even now?  Right now?

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb…

How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!

— Psalm 139: 11-13, 17

I consider again the bats of yesterday.  Many fly about in the darkness not seeing at all. Yet their needs are met with resources provided for them through the infinite beauty of God’s design. They have both instinctual and natural assistance which create opportunities for their nourishment and growth every night.  In literal darkness, God has a plan for them, and complete control of their lives. There is nothing hidden from God.

Therefore, in my life, I can trust that God has nothing malevolent hidden for me in my current darkness. He only allows it. He could turn on the lights anytime He wants. And he wants me to draw closer to him, to trust Him more in the midst of it.  My Creator knows my innermost being down to a sub-molecular level. And as I have read and understood as Truth: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)  Let this be retraced again and again onto my bruised heart.