Don’t Forget About Me

A couple of weeks ago, I had to get to the St. Paul campus of St. Thomas University to speak at an evening program. As I knew my friend and colleague Mark Osler also had an evening event on that campus, I asked him for a ride. His response was “Sure, so long as I don’t forget.” To ensure that he didn’t, I grabbed a post-it, wrote a note on it, and stuck it on the outside of his door. When I pointed it out to Mark, he promptly moved it to the inside of the door, reasoning he was more likely to see it there.

Here is the note I wrote:

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I was able to photograph it because two weeks later and the note is still on the inside of Mark’s office door. And he has decided to leave it there. It is a good reminder he says, and he is right.

Not a reminder to give me a ride – although it did serve that purpose the evening I wrote it. In the larger scheme of things, however, that was pretty unimportant; if Mark had forgotten me, I would have taken a shuttle door-to-door and been no worse for it (save losing some good conversation with Mark on the ride to St. Paul).

But a reminder that it is cold out there. And that there are many people who are homeless and lack a place to sleep at night. Or who lack warm enough clothing to keep out the cold winds. Or who have a place to sleep, but no heat in their building.

It is all too easy to forget about them. It is good to be reminded not to.

It is cold out there. Don’t forget about the people who need our help.

Protecting Widows and Orphans

This is an appeal for support for one of my students, Teri Guhl, who has a legal internship through the International Justice Mission (IJM) to work in Uganda this summer to end violence against widows and orphans.  As Teri explains,

When I came back to the U.S. [after visiting Uganda last summer], I began researching property grabbing and other international violence against women issues. This year, I have been a part of my law school’s Legal Services Immigration Clinic. I am representing a young girl who fled gang violence in Central America and is struggling to make a new life in the United States. The impunity for violent crime committed against young girls in her home country is so widespread; she is convinced she will be killed if she returns home. As I have worked on her case, I have thought many times that we need to not only assist people who come to the U.S., we need to empower local people to make communities, like hers, safer, so kids do not have to travel across the world just to survive. The impunity of violent men hurting vulnerable women must end. This year I have thought of this verse many times. “Learn to do right. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” -Isaiah 1:17 I want to go to Uganda to impact systems that allow for impunity, and to learn how to empower local leaders to create safe communities.

She gives as an example of the hardship she would like to help remedy this one:

When a male head of household dies, many families face violence through property grabbing. Since most rural widows’ livelihood depends on the food they grow in their garden, this violent crime not only costs the victim’s home and possessions, but their food and income as well. Now, I have been given the opportunity to be on the IJM team in Kampala who works to end this!

Those working with IJM must raise their own funds to cover travel and other expenses.  Teri has set up a gofund me site, which you can find here, to raise some of those funds.

I have already made a contribution and I hope you will also.

As regular readers of this blog know, I never have (and never will) ask for any compensation for myself in connection with this blog.  But I have (and will continue t0) occasionally bring opportunities dear to my heart to you.  Many of you read this blog regularly, hundreds receive it in their e-mail each day.  If even a significant number of regular readers made a small contribution (really, any amount helps, no matter how small), it would make an enormous difference to Teri’s ability to make a difference in Uganda this summer.

I would be grateful if you would prayerfully consider making a donation.

If you are looking for other worthwhile donation recipients, consider supporting City House (which I wrote about here) or the work of my friend Fr. Aidan Rooney in Bolivia (which you can support here).

Justice and Growing in Love

Yesterday I posted a piece suggesting that charity alone is not enough; we must be concerned with breaking down the unjust structures that lead to suffering.

This morning the Inward/Outward post that appeared in my e-mail, written by K. Killian Noe, was a good follow-up to that post.  Noe writes

If we truly are growing in love with our neighbors who are suffering at the hands of unjust systems—if that love is deep enough and authentic enough—then finding ourselves opposing those unjust systems will follow as naturally as the morning follows the night…. I don’t think we go out looking for oppressive systems to confront, like Don Quixote went out looking for windmills to attack. Our doing must flow naturally out of our being. Our doing for justice must flow naturally out of our being in love with those for whom there is no justice.

That reflection was a perfect accompanying reflection for today’s Gospel reading from John: Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “love one another a I love you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Love God.  Love One Another.  Everything else flows from that.

Sorry for the late posting; I’m in Cambridge where I’m speaking at a conference at Harvard Law School, and we started at 8:00 this morning and I just got back to my room a little while ago. You can see the several blog posts I wrote today on Mirror of Justice about the conference here.

A Double-Header (and Then Some)

Yesterday I attended the first day of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, whose theme this year is Crossing Boundaries to Create Common Ground. The keynote speakers for the day were two of my heroes: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Sr. Helen Prejean. I went with great excitement, as I knew I would be part of a small group who would get to personally meet the Dalai Lama after his public address.

Almost the first person I saw after getting through security was Sr. Helen, who I had the good fortune to sit next to for the Dalai Lama’s morning keynote. She and I had time to converse before the program began; as interested as I was in talking about her work, she seemed equally interested in hearing my own story. Talking with her about our ministries was a great way to start the day.

The Dalai Lama’s address was, as always, powerful. Although I could write an entire post just on what he said, let me share only one of his opening remarks. He said that when he was young, he thought of himself as first Tibetan, then Buddhist, then Dalai Lama, but that now, he sees himself first as a human being. His earlier way of thinking was one that emphasized difference, and created an attitude that leads to anxiety and pretension. The more we emphasize difference, the more we create a we/they mentality that excludes and makes universal compassion more difficult. Seeing oneself first as a human being – as one of seven billion other human beings – reminds us that we are, first and foremost, related to each other. And that was his emphasis in his talk – our interdependence and relatedness, and our need to approach each other that way.

It was a powerful experience to get to meet the Dalai Lama after his talk. During my years as a Buddhist, when I ordained as a Buddhist nun, it was he who ordained me. I felt privileged to be able to give him a copy of my book adapting Tibetan Buddhist meditations for Christians (Growing in Love and Wisdom) and to share some words with him about it and my journey.

In between the two keynotes were two break-out sessions. It says something about the strength of the program that I waffled in indecision about which ones to attend – it was an embarrassment of riches. In the end, I settled on a program on forgiveness for the first session and one titled Religious Communities: Bending the Moral Arc of the Universe Toward Justice for the second. Both were worthwhile and offered me much I will reflect on in the coming days.

As good as the were, the break-outs were warm-ups for a woman who inspires me each time I hear her speak. Starting with the observation that “waking up is everything,” Sr. Helen described her own journey to “awakening” – from her realization that charity alone (without justice) is not enough to her determination to tell the story of the death penalty and those on death row. She was eloquent and powerful in her condemnation of a system that fails to respect human dignity, one that is detrimental to all who participate in it.

A powerful day. As I think back on my last three weekends: the Seattle Search for Meaning Book Festival two weekend ago, the weekend retreat on the Beatitudes I gave last weekend, and yesterday’s event, I am filled with gratitude.

Remembering Frederic Ozanam

Today the Vincentian Family celebrates the feast of Blessed Frederis Ozanam and the bicentennial of his birth. Ozanam modeled himself after one of my great heroes, St. Vincent de Paul, and founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic lay organization dedicated to assisting those in need.

Ozanam understood the dual virtues of justice and charity, once observing that “[c]harity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. It is justice’s role to prevent the attack.” That understanding is reflected in his work. He put tremendous energy in to directly and personally serving the needs of the poor. And he was also a passionate supporter of workers and his ideas ultimately helped shape the first labor encyclical on the rights of workers, Rerum Novarum.

On the Vincentian charism is seeing Christ in the face of the poor, Ozanam wrote:

It we do not know how to love God as the saints did, it is because we see God with the eyes of faith alone, and faith is so weak. But the poor we see with the eyes of flesh. They are present. We can put our fingers and our hands into their wounds, the marks of the crown of thorns are plainly visible on their heads. There is no place for unbelief here … You poor are the visible image of the God whom we do not see, but whom we love in loving you.

Blessings to all of my friends in the worldwide Vincentian family on this feast day.

P.S. You can find a treasure trove of information about Ozanam on the famvin website here.

Humility, Gratitude, Kindness

For the plane ride to and from Washington this weekend, I brought along a book I picked up at the Christian Legal Society annual meeting this past October, a book that was being distributed for free by the Center for Public Justice. The book is titled A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice. The book consists of five essays about different aspect of justice as taught in Scripture, the themes of which are further developed in a set of meditations.

One of the chapters addresses three Proverbs. It opens with “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth,” a proverb that, standing alone, can be easily misunderstood. It tempts one to assume those who lack are lazy and if they just worked harder all their problems would go away.

The author suggests it is dangerous to think a single proverb reveals God’s message in full and reminds us of two other proverbs as a way of gaining a fuller understanding God’s message. They are: “A poor man’s field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away,” and “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

Reflecting on these proverbs, the author writes

If we put these three proverbs together, we come up with a remarkable storehouse of wisdom. That wisdom begins with honoring God in true humility; those who live with abundant wealth should not revel in their own achievements. They should give and receive with hearts of thankfulness. That, in turn, will lead them to see others, including the poor, in the same light – as people called to be thankful stewards of God, their maker. Proper acts of kindness will then follow.

A simple, yet profound wisdom. Humility. Gratitude. Kindness. If we can remember our dependence on God, remembering that all we have is gift, we will have hearts filled with gratitude. And gratitude leads us naturally to sharing the gifts we have received with others.

Casting Down the Mighty and Lifting Up the Lowly

The Gospel for today’s Mass is the beautiful and poetic Magnificat of Mary contained in St.Luke’s Gospel. As I once heard a priest say in a homily, however, don’t be fooled by the poetry or the sweet melodic music to which the verses are often set.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis, described the Magnificat this way in a sermon during Advent 1933:

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.

Mary lived in a world of tremendous income inequality. A world in which a significant percentage of the population lived in a a cycle of exploitation and poverty. A world in which the people longed for justice and fairness.

Mary’s Magnificat offered a message of hope then, expressing solidarity with the marginalized. It also offers a message of hope today…a message we need to hear in our world today: the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of poverty, war, suffering and heartache. The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation; a song that promises that changes can and will happen through the grace of God.

Outrage, but with Hope

I have no recollection of how Stephane Hessel’s Time for Outrage: Indinez-vous! got on my birthday list, but I picked up the short piece (more essay than book, although it is nicely bound in a 3×5 red hardcover) this morning to read while on the exercise bicycle. Written by Hessel, a Resistance leader, concentration camp survivor and former UN speechwriter, at the age of 93, it has sold millions of copies since it was published in France a little over a year ago.

As the title of his piece suggests, Hessel believes we all should be outraged because we live in a world where there are things to be outraged about and because it takes outrage for us to fight for greater justice and freedom. He talks about many things that might outrage us, and discusses his own outrage over the situation in Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank. (His criticism of the behavior of the Israeli government has earned him much criticism.)

Hessel adds something that is incredibly important for us to keep in mind. Outrage can be accompanied by exasperation or by hope – and which of those accompanies outrage makes an enormous difference. He writes

Violence inspired by exasperation is too often the outcome of unacceptable situations. In this light, one can see terrorism itself as a form of exasperation – and, as such, “exasperation” becomes a negative term. Instead of exasperation, there should be aspiration. Exasperation negates hope. As an emotion, it is understandable. I might even go so far as to say it is natural. But it is nonetheless unacceptable, because it will never accomplish what hope could.

The temptation to resort to violence can sometimes be strong, but violence always “turns its back on hope.” We should be outraged and we should right for justice. But Hessel is right that the message of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela remain relevant to us in those struggles. “They are messages of hope, of faith in a society’s ability to overcome conflict through mutual understanding and watchful patience.”

Nonviolence vs. Love

I attended a talk the other night by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, the opening of a Peace Studies Conference held at the College of St. Benedict. One of first points the speaker made had to do with what nonviolence meant to Gandhi.

Someone once asked Gandhi why he spoke in terms of nonviolence rather than love. Why use a negative, speaking simply of “not” being something, rather than affirmatively speaking of love. Love, the questioner implied carried with it something greater and more positive than merely nonviolence.

Gandhi’s replied that he was all in favor of love, but that he thought nonviolence was a better and fuller term to use for his purposes, a term that he believed conveyed something much more than “not” being violent. Love, Gandhi explained, was a word that has many meanings. The risk he saw was that one might infer from love a passivitity, a passive acceptance of the situation. Just take what is meted out to you and love in response.

Gandhi, however, believed that struggle is necessary. One must struggle against injustice. One must struggle for peace. In Gandhi’s mind, nonviolence includes love, but also carries with it an understanding of the need to struggle. Far from being passive, nonviolence is an active, loving struggle.

The lesson is perhaps a simple one, but one worth being reminded of. Love is not passive. Love does not excuse us from fighting (albeit nonviolently) for peace and for justice in this world.

An Affront to Justice

Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew presents a parable that challenges our sense of justice. Jesus likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard. Some get hired at dawn, others at mid-morning, others at noon, others at mid-afternoon and still more near the end of the work day. When it comes time for the workers to get paid, everyone get paid a full day’s wages. Not surprisingly, those hired at dawn find this unacceptable and complain that they deserve more than those who worked far fewer hours. They can’t dispute that they are not being cheated in a legal sense: they were promised the usual daily wage for their work and were paid what they were promised. But it just doesn’t seem right to them. It offends their sense of justice.

Parable are effective precisely because they speak a truth that extends beyond the details of the story itself. While none of us has been toiling in the vineyards since dawn, if we are honest we will admit that we’ve all experienced something of the reaction of those workers. Where we haven’t been deprived of anything to which we have an actual entitlement, but where we feel cheated because someone else got more than we think they deserved. It is what we get in relation to what someone else gets that creates our unhappiness. We know exactly what those workers hired at dawn felt like and we feel their pain.

We have a tendency to have this reaction in matters of religion as well. We think people should have to pay for their sins. And I suspect that a lot of the discomfort people express about late or deathbed conversions is a lot less about concern over the sincerity of the one who repents at the eleventh hour than it is about being offended at the idea that their repentence gets them off the hook for not working as hard as we did in their earlier days.

But God’s ways are not our ways. And we make the same mistake that the early morning laborers made, which is the same mistake the older brother in the Prodigal Son story made – not understanding that God’s love is limitless and freely offered to all. God always offers us the whole shebang – endless love. Whether we accept it early or late…whatever the circumstances…when we turn to God we get it all. It may not seem just in human terms. But (to use phrasing my daughter might use) that’s the way God rolls.