“No Mon, No Fun, No Hon”—what if “No Gun?”

“Our vows require poverty, chastity and obedience,” a Franciscan father explained to me, “We call it a vow of ‘no mon, no hon, no fun.”

As a celibate Mennonite, undergoing divorce at the time, I had no problem understanding or affirming all three, but I asked, “Can I add a fourth?

“A fourth vow? Like what?”

“No gun.”

This late night conversation happened a few years ago, when the Order of Conventional Franciscans invited me to lead workshops at all their centers on counseling and creating understanding between cultures.

For six weeks, every Thursday, I flew to one of the various centers in New Mexico, Ohio, Chicago, Texas, Pennsylvania, etc. lived with the brothers and taught, then returned to the Mennonite Seminary for my regular Monday through Wednesday class schedule. They called me their Franciscan-Menno-brother.

Late one night, cubicle room, hard bed, rock pillow, sleep impossible, I reviewed their vows, and began to pray, on Franciscan turf, the prayer of St Francis. Then it came out twisted, as Christians have lived it without my pacifist fourth vow.

Lord, make me the instrument of MY peace;
Where there is hatred, arm me with my gun;
Where there is injury, hand me my Glock;
Where there is doubt, steady my Smith and Wesson;
Where there is despair, my rapid fire assault weapon;
Where there is darkness, my night vision scope;
Where there is sadness, rapid response, sure aim, clean shot.

O Divine Master,
Grant that we may not so much seek
To be controlled as to be in control;
To be forewarned as to be fore-armed;
To be respected as to be feared;
For it is in threatening that we are not threatened;
It is in victimizing that we will not become victims;
It is taking the lives of the bad guys
that we good guys preserve good guy’s lives.

To whom do I offer this prayer? To the god of Joshua and Judges perhaps, but not to the God of Jesus Christ. At least not the Jesus of the Gospels, or the Epistles, or of the church until it struck a deal with the Emperor Constantine (272-337).

On October 28, 312 AD the Emperor needed more support for the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and he enlisted Jesus, claimed His cross as army insignia, and made Him an instrument of military (Pax Romana) peace.

However, check it out, when Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” he was not volunteering, not enlisting, not rendering all to Caesar. Check it out.

To whom do I offer this impertinent prayer? To you.

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“Here you go, buddy,” Hal to Co-Human.

We pull up at the White Lane exit from the 99 in Bakersfield, a sunburned young man, thirty-ish, is holding a cardboard sign. I dig for my wallet as the light holds back the rush, I toss it to Leann, she fishes out paper.

We pull up to him, he looks up, more surprised by our red Smart car than by the gift. We grin, he grins, we buzz off.

“Did you do that in memory of Hal?” Leann asks.

Consciously, no.

Unconsciously, yes.

It has been little more than a week since Hal met us at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, then after a quick stop at Starbucks, hurried us to Trinity Mennonite Church to prepare for the morning service. At an interchange enroute, a man stood waving a cardboard sign. Hal pulls over, reaches to a ready kitty, hands the man some cash saying,

“Here you go, buddy.”

Warm, equal, like passing grub at a camp-out, no condescension of charitable giving, no strings in moral or religious attachment, it is the tone of passing the food down a breadline. I recall that he spent years working on the streets, I admire his modeling a flattened playing field.

A week later Hal is gone. His life dashed in a motorcycle crash. And we are in Phoenix for Hal again, this time for the memorial service for Hal Leigh Shrader. 1967-2015.

It is hard. Hard like Hal defined hard times. (Once when helping his daughters do math homework, he answered the complaint, “But Daddy, it’s hard,” with one of his classic one-liners—“Hard things are hard.”)

As we drive to the church, the man is still waiting by the exit lane. Same man? We cannot tell. We hand him the bill with Hal’s words, “Here you go, Buddy,” and he replies, “Gotcha.”

“Gotcha?” We will think about that. What did he get? A tone of voice that breathed level respect, and he gave it back. Gotcha.

At the service there are dozens of little reminders of why we loved this man so much, but for the thousand people gathered, the opening line said what needed to be said.

“Welcome to this service of remembrance . . .you are all here because Hal welcomed you, welcomed you into his life, into the circle of loving acceptance.”

In his life, theologian, pastor, prophet, agitator, peacemaker, reconciler, father, spouse, friend, Hal said a lot of very insightful and wise things.

But perhaps none better than, “Here you go, buddy.”

Holy Curiosity.

Two thanatologists, Australian John and American David, are in conversation about end of life issues.

“Hope is not the answer everyone claims it to be,” John says in his colorful Aussie accent, “I have lost hope in hope—is there not a time for honest despair?”

“Hmmm . . .’A time for hope, a time for despair’, let me pencil that in the margins of the text in Ecclesiastes as a gloss, OK?”

“It should be there. Facing reality, no matter how hard, and giving up protective pretenses, is more what I see with my patients.”

“I think of hope as a verb or an adjective more than a noun—of hoping or being hopeful—as something inside us not a promise outside, as inner push more than outer pull.”

“Perhaps. I see that sometimes, but more often it is a final sense of contentment, a realization that all is well and all will be well.”

“Resignation?”

“Or facing and embracing what is.”

“You’re discarding false hopes, discovering true hope? False hopes must die before true hope is born, not so? Clinging to false hope blocks discovery of the hope beneath hope?”

“That is what I am questioning. I just came from an International Conference on Spirituality and Aging,” John says, “where the word ‘hope’ was bandied about like a cure-all, a panacea, a superficial salve, a balm for all ills. When I walk with people in the end stage of life, I more often experience not hope, but a peace, a readiness for death and an absence of fear.”

“A sense of deep comfort?”

“Yes, for some the comfort is harmony with their families, for others it is with God, for still others it is an acceptance that we live and we die.”

“Hope is too narrow a word to cover this sense of completion?”

“It does not describe this emotional readiness that comes. Nowhere in the literature I read does the emotional element get the attention it deserves. It is active coping not passive hoping.”

“The word ‘hope’ has become a ‘weasel word’, twisting one way or another, an empty word that people fill with many different meanings, or needs, or wishes, like the word ‘love’.”

“Yes, it is not that I am hopeless, but I don’t use it.”

I lift a questioning eyebrow. I’ve seen too much helplessness and hopelessness to not hold on to hope and the hope we hope against hope.

“Let’s try a few alternate words, It may be that the old word is so encumbered that we don’t find the sweet nut at the center? Let’s agree on what hope is not.”

“Not positive thinking.”

“Not optimism.”

“Not sweet pious denial.”

“Not claiming special entitlement above all others.”

“Not narcissistic super confidence in spite of trouble.”

“So what’s left?”

“Well, all healthy development is grounded in basic trust that balances our mistrust.”

“You are quoting Erik Erikson again.”

“Yes, because he sees hope as the virtue that emerges when there is a balance between basic trust and mistrust—it is born from the bonding and bracing of the two sides.”

I’m scratching my head, he is rubbing his hands together. We are both quiet. I am remembering my daughter’s words—she is a professor in China—as she finds herself hosting visitors whose brief tourist honeymoon with the East wears off, they can’t go home immediately, they seem to see only things that remind them of home, they stare blankly, blindly at all the fascinating beauty around them as if it were not there.

“They lack curiosity,” Kate had said, “Curiosity is the quality of intelligent, intuitive, empathic seeing and responding—of being alive.”

“Curiosity,” I say to my Australian friend. “Perhaps that is the quality of interest, awareness, aliveness that keeps us moving forward? Curiosity is the essence of hope . . . “

“Curiosity just may be a key . . . an inquiring openness to the future. What a curious idea. I must explore it, think through how one invites or stimulates curiosity, even to the very end.”

“Perhaps for the truly curious, there is no end to curiosity?”

Some conversations do not really end. As John promised, it is still unreeling in his memory; as I am revealing here, it is ongoing for me. Curiosity has many forms—wonder, awe, desire to know, idle curiosity that searches with no goal, and “holy curiosity. It was Albert Einstein who instructed us, “Never lose a holy curiosity. An unholy curiosity has a blend of control, invasion of the other, it is a ‘closed’ question of deduction and judgment rather than an open question of wonder, awe, veneration and at times, worship.

I like the idea of a “holy curiosity.”

Einstein describes this quality beautifully: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. One to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead—her/his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion.”

Holy hopeful curiosity—curious holy hope, perhaps it is getting close to the essence of living?

With appreciation to Dr. John Cox, Sydney, Australia, for late night musings.

My cell—my mobile, my handy, no, my self-phone

“I lost my phone last summer, and I didn’t replace it for six weeks, I took a vacation from myself—from my self,” comedian-philosopher Bill Murray said this week in an NPR interview. “I only needed to borrow a phone three times to make a call. It was a true vacation—I was free to do what I want.”

“A vacation from my self,” he called it. Profound observation. He is humorously, but pointedly, naming how the cell-phone becomes a self-phone, and extension of self, an expansion of ego, a medium for constant management of one’s world, a means of warning of the foreseen, of warding off the unforeseen events of life.

“A self-phone , texting, calling, accepting calls, alerting one to news, providing time, weather, traffic, directions, email, maps, photos, video records, aps of all sorts, offers a small taste of being God-like, It offers me my tiny taste of omniscience (I am in the know, now, instant knowledge) and omnipotence (I can control, confront, counteract whatever comes). My self extends its boundaries to embrace my personal and a significant part of the larger world.

And at the center, there, in my hand, my remote control. Like Chauncey Gardener in Peter Sellers’ Being There, are you old enough to remember the movie?

At dinner out a few nights ago, other, indeed every other, table has people on their phones. Dating couples texting the person they would rather talk with right now, senior citizens smiling into their separate horizons—alias verizons—while their fish and chips grow cold.

Yesterday I witnessed the panic of a grown man when he has misplaced his self-phone—everything stops, the mad search begins, others are enlisted to dial his number to provide a tell-tail ring, then we retrace the last stops and make calls for him, at last it is located and the world is back in control.

“That phone has my whole life in it,” people explain. “My whole life.”

Calling Bill Murray. Come in Bill Murray.

Help us with laughter—laughter may be the only thing that can set us free from  obsession with our selves.

“I never, not ever, turn away, I get even.”

Nanjing, China

Unfinished situations run on in the mind, like a program on the computer that will not shut down, or the little wheel in the corner of the screen, turning, turning.

Writing a brief synopsis of an unsatisfying encounter sometimes helps one reboot. So, here is the replay.

The unsettling interchange popped up near the end of a Friday evening seminar on counseling at a key counseling center in Nanjing, an intellectually stimulating environment down the street from Nanjing University.

The room is packed with counselors and trainees sitting around a long central table. Other community people, coming late, pull up a second row, then a third, then stand along the wall. Two hours into the conversation, new participants are entering and jumping into the dialogue. Insights, observations, questions, discoveries, what an exciting group of therapists. We have strayed far from the original topic, “The formation of the counselor as person” and have moved to “helping people reconcile.”

Then a lanky young man, interrupting with a touch of belligerence, brandishing a notepad of crib notes in good English—takes the floor.

“Someone just asked when to forgive—I want to talk about when to retaliate.”

He looks around challenging the group. “You counselors advise others to forgive so they will find relief from their anger at being hurt. No! Real relief comes from getting back. There is a deeper, a far more satisfying relief to injury that comes from getting even. When I strike back and even the score, I feel a deep warmth inside, a feeling of power, and . . . and a great sense of relief. Don’t you agree that there is a time and a place for that?”

Oh my, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” What a moment to offer an alternative, to point out that returning injury for injury makes the reactor mirror the offender, perhaps worse. The offender may have acted out of pain that needs understanding but striking back is little more than pouring anger on anger.

Earlier we have talked about Jesus’ teaching—was he here when the group explored that—clearly that is not the page he is reading from so I answer question with question to get more insight into him.

“How does it help to do the same in return?”

“It helps me feel even.”

“How does it help to make yourself like the person who offended you? How will that help the other and does it truly help you?”

“Oh yes, it helps me, it gives me a wonderful sense of relief from all the feelings boiling up in my gut,” his gesture circles his midriff. Release, indeed relief, is what I need at that moment.

Thinking that he is a counselor in training, I try another tack, using the language that the group had been using comparing the inner parent and inner adult.

“As counselors, we find that responding to an angry person who is out of control by becoming a judging parent—a scolding father, a punishing mother—is a mistake. It does not touch the real thinking feeling-deciding part of the person. It is better to stay in a level adult-adult way of talking.”

“That is counselor talk. I talk from the feelings in my gut that are churning around. If I don’t, I lose. I want to win. I want justice.”

Ah, common ground, justice, perhaps that is a meeting point?

“Yes, justice is necessary, we seem to be talking about two different kinds of justice—“pay back justice, an eye for an eye.” What about a “fairness justice” that works toward mutual respect that honors both of us.”

“Yes, I suspect that we both want justice, and we do not agree on justice, what I want is plain and simple justice of getting even.”

We are back to the starting point and I am not connecting. Perhaps a story would work?

“Do you know of Martin Luther King?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Let me tell a story. During the American Civil Rights struggle for equal opportunity for all persons, races and classes, Martin Luther King was walking across a lobby of a large “whites only Southern Hotel when a young well-dressed white man stepped up to him and said, “Reverend King, I’ve always wanted to meet you.” Then instead of shaking King’s hand he hit him a hard blow in the face.

Martin looked his attacker in the eyes and asked: “Did it help you to hurt me?”

The young man is shaking his head back and forth, “That’s not my way.” He says. “Hitting back helps me.” Seizing the opportunity, he launches further into defense of payback in historical, political, and social situations. He is losing his audience—they sit with downcast eyes, His gospel of retaliation is not communicating. Is the gospel of reconciliation doing any better? He ends in praise of the American Revolution.

“You admire the American Revolution more than I do,” I respond, Everyone laughs.

“You are an American, why do you say that?”

“I look at Canada and ask if America really needed to revolt and kill thousands, then create a culture of violence that led to a civil war, and much more. I ask if there is not a better way?”

“What better way?”

“My friend, you matter more than any insult or hurt that may happen. You are more important than any injury. You and I can act in ways that end the chain of hurt and hitting back and more hurt and hitting back that goes on and on and on.”

He is clearly not convinced. But we have tried to dialogue, and dialogue does not mean we arrive at agreement. It can mean that we heard each other, respected each other, and said goodbye warmly, as we did when the meeting broke up.

And it may be the most important dialogue took place in all the listeners who entered the debate as we conversed.

But sometimes an unfinished conversation continues, I mull it over, all the way—the long train ride—home.

Bless? Did He Say What I Thought He Said?

I just heard something amazing.

At the end of an address to the U.S. congress, the speaker concluded with the required words, “God bless America,” and for the first time, to my dissident ears, the phrase meant something believable, it sounded right, honest, humble, like the prayer that it is, not a claim of entitlement, nor the pretense of being the chosen-special-unique-privileged-divinely illuminated nation, the city on the hill casting a glow down upon the lesser lights of the unblessed world.

This was a blessing, a real blessing.

The speaker, of course, was Pope Francis.

The words, when spoken by an outsider, an observer, a co-traveler, who is also a friendly critic, now became a good word (a bene-diction) spoken not in self-interest but in the humility that seeks good for the neighbor.

I caught my breath, or my breath was caught away from me for a moment.

“Did he really say that? “

Yes, yes he did.

“What was he thinking?”

Wouldn’t we like to know?

“Did he mean what that usually means?” Or not?

In asking that final question, the familiar becomes strangely fresh. “God bless America,” the requisite refrain for any “pontificating politician” becomes an honest to God supplication by a pontiff. Trite turns true, old morphs to new.

Each time a president, senator, representative, general, admiral, or whatever official addresses the nation, it is obligatory that he or she conclude with this ritual cliche of civil religion. It is such a given, it flits by without eliciting a great deal of thought. It rarely occurs to most that the benediction repeats the practices of many ancient theocracies or recalls the holy empires of the past. One might see again the great sweep of iconic symbols from the cross fixed on Roman Emperor Constantine’s spears or emblazoned on his shields. Or (Achtung! ) look again at the inscriptions on German helmets and belt buckles claiming “Gott mit uns.” Jawohl! Or hum a few bars from our American The Battle Hymn of the Republic that makes the death on the battlefield equivalent with that of the Galilean on Golgotha. Or really listen to the lyrics of national anthems, our hymns of nationalism, offering the piety of patriotic hyperbole.

“God Bless America” echoes many texts from the Old Testament —“The Lord of Hosts” is a military designation, the commands for genocide in the name of G__D, are in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel; the Psalms provide imprecatory prayers for the enemy’s annihilation. All these empower the current conviction that Some One Up There is on our side, or validate the request that Some One Bless Us, the U. S. above all.

But when one of the greatest detractors of greed, one of the keenest critics of the exploitation of the powerless, one of the world leaders who is calling the rich to question their right to riches, when such a person prays that God bless the American nation , we must stop and ask what it might mean. Is it asking a blessing on policies that often reward greed, on practices that exploit masses, on propaganda celebrating both violent success and excess?

We should remember that Francis was praying to the God of Jesus Christ, so we might suspect that his three word prayer was only the introduction to some very intriguing sentences.

Bless? How? Bless with what? Bless with unlimited prosperity–or– with a commitment to the welfare of the planet? Bless with military omnipotence–or– with a passion for making peace? Bless with international dominance–or –with a a new spirit of cooperation and collaboration that works with other peoples to inspire hope?

“God bless us everyone,” said Dicken’s Tiny Tim. Maybe that is all he meant, but wait . . . . .

. . . did you see a flash of light? This particular “God Bless America” is like an odd laser of truth—blink, protect your eyes; or like an unexplained jolt of electricity—breathe deeply, your irregular heartbeat may go away.

. . . did you see a flash of light? This particular “God Bless America” is like an odd laser of truth—blink, protect your eyes; or like an unexplained jolt of electricity—breathe deeply, your irregular heartbeat will go away.

Curiosity, an Undeniable Sign of Life.

Breakfast at a Paso Robles, California B and B.

A long table stretches down through a kitchen with a cathedral ceiling, six places are set, we wait for the other four guests as the hostess makes us welcome with a dark roast coffee and pleasant morning chatter.

Two young couples appear. We are seated, and then introduce our selves by telling where we live. They come from four different cities, singles on a weekend of partying in California wine country. We are the only couple with a shared address.

Do you like Paso Robles? It’s O.K.

Did you see anything in the area that we should not miss? Dunno.

“Well, we drove somewhere, saw some stuff, don’t remember, can’t say. It was nice, I guess.”

We look at each other with a slight twitch of eyebrow—we seem to be in the presence of people devoid of that special human quality called “curiosity.” Curiosity is what makes people interesting, aware, awake beyond “Duh.”

Conversation progresses slowly.

Weather? Balmy.

Central coast landscape? Beautiful.

French toast with Bananas Foster and Greek yogurt? Excellent.

Last night? A concert at the pub. Good but drank too much 805.

Yesterday? A wedding of friends.

And for us, a workshop on marriage at a local Mennonite church. A church? Quaint. Workshop on marriage? Uncomfortable. Marriage is what we do not talk about.

“What kind of things did you do?” the hostess asks encouragingly.

I tell of sculpting the stages of maturing relationship using four couples—the first married two years, the second, nine, the third 19, the fourth, 45.

“Sculpting?”

Yes, we sculpt by arranging people like a living tableau–the first couple was placed picturesquely to model bonding in complementary adjustment to each other’s needs as couples tend to do during the first three years. No conflict, much sameness, sweet closeness. The second was placed back to back in apposition—the symmetrical competitiveness for attention and fairness that happens from year 7 to 10 or thereabouts. Conflict and struggle to work out all the differences. The third couple stands parallel, the struggle is over and they have two parallel lives—careers, roles, interests, work, and both watch out for the space between that keeps them safe and separate yet secure and together. The fourth are doing a waltz, freely close and distant, moving to the same music with freedom and fulfillment.

“Did the couples agree with this?”

Yes, and each told their own stories of going through similar stages and working out the problems to grow into the next period of life. Good stories, great dialogue. Two told of being stuck in that exact stage facing those challenges.

The assorted singles, wide-eyed, say nothing. Marriage seems a foreign land. People getting together at a church to “make good marriages better,” a language needing translation. The hostess and her husband, are curious, wanting to ask more, but we stop, wait for others to speak. Silence.

“Did you see Stephen Colbert’s new show this week?” Leann finally asks.

“Who? Oh him. No.”

“He was terrific with Joe Biden talking of grief and loss,” the hostess says.

No response from anyone else. Atmosphere of “Duh.”

Curiosity.

Come curious personality.

“The absence of curiosity is the absence of real creativity; its presence is the most basic sign of intelligent life on earth,” our daughter who teaches in Nanjing, China said to us a few weeks ago.

We must tell her about breakfast, the great French toast and the failure of all our other toasts.