Happy Easter

IMG_0080I was slow to marry. From an early age, my parents had told me to choose the person I would marry carefully. They said it was likely to be the most important decision I ever made and I took their advice to heart.

I was well into my forties before I found the girl who was to become my wife but she was definitely worth waiting for. The only downside was that by the time I found her both my parents had passed away. I often wish they had a chance to meet her and welcome her into our family.

Two years into our marriage, my wife surprised me with a portrait of my parents by the noted artist Simi Knox. Working from photographs my wife provided, Mr. Knox managed to capture their likeness as vividly as if they had been there to sit for the portrait. It was one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received.

This portrait has had a place of honor and prominence in every home we have owned. Our son, Will, born four years later, has grown up with it. It was always somewhere he could see it, making it easy for me to talk about them and try to describe who they were.

One morning when he was about four or five, Will surprised me by  turning away from the television and looking hard at the portrait above the sofa where we were sitting.

He said, “You know, I knew your mother before I knew you.”

His comment seemed to come out of nowhere. It caught me by surprise.

“What do you mean”? I asked.

“We used to play together in heaven,” Will said, “before she picked me out for you.”

Tears flowed. Tears flow even now as I remember what he said and think of the implications.

Happy Easter!

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What Do You Stand For?

imgresSenator Frank E. Moss brought me to Washington. He was the last Democrat elected to the Senate from Utah, serving from l959 to l977.

Moss was a liberal in the most conservative state in the union.  So when he announced his intention to run for the Senate he wasn’t given much of a chance. Even after he easily won his party’s nomination, no one took him seriously. The Democrats’ Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to write him off as a long shot. They saw no point in supporting his effort.

But Moss was resolute. He organized a grass roots campaign, making his case door–to–door, community by community, across the state. And, to everyone’s surprise, as the election approached Moss’ determination began to pay off. He closed the gap to the point where polls showed him within the margin of error.

At that point even his biggest doubters began to realize he might win and the DNC decided they had better reconsider. The possibility of capturing a seat in Utah was too tempting to resist. They dispatched representatives of their Senatorial Campaign Committee to offer their support.

They met Moss at the hotel where they were staying in Salt Lake City. They congratulated him on the quality of his campaign and told him they were prepared to give him whatever he would need for the media buys that would push him over the top and assure his success.

But they said there was one condition.

They said the money would come through Senator Long from the oil lobby. Moss had to promise that if he was elected they could have his vote any time they needed it.

Moss said, “No.”  He refused their support and decided to stand on his own.

Moss’ meeting with the DNC was never publicized but everyone knew what had happened by the time he arrived in Washington to be sworn in.  It earned him the respect of his colleagues and a reputation for integrity.

I can’t help wondering what he would think of the current crop of  Presidential candidates and their campaigns, the bitterness and bickering, and the charges of “liar, liar” flying back and forth.

My guess is he would say, “If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.”

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imagesWhat does hell look like?

Is it fiery and hot or dark and cold? Does it exist at all outside of our minds?

I visited hell in 1992. It was in an AIDS ward in an LA hospital. There I met a young black woman, clinging to life but already in purgatory.

She was in a gray place, neither dark nor light, hot nor cold, caught in transition between the best and worst of her life.  She was tormented by the demons of her past – years on the street and a dependence on drugs – but sustained by love.

The staff attending her was literally counting the days.  Most were surprised she had held on so long.  What kept her alive, I was told, was her fierce determination to make sure her six-year old daughter was taken care of after she was gone.

The word “hell” comes from the old English. Literally, it means “to separate” or “to build a wall around.” To be “helled” was to be shut off from.

All who love can relate to the torment this woman felt at the thought of being separated from the one she loved most deeply. It was truly Hell.

“Diabolic” comes from a word meaning “to divide.” Diabolic forces separate us from each other and God. In our lives they find expression in ego, anger, pride, nationalism, racism, envy, ignorance, and greed. These are the forces of darkness.

With the affluence of our society and the increasing polarization of resources, separating ourselves from others becomes easier and at times seems almost inevitable.  Increasingly, we are tempted to create boundaries of geography, blood, and race.  It is not difficult to become convinced of our preciousness, independence, and self-sufficiency.   It is not difficult to fell threatened by those who look or seem different.

But we cannot close others out without shutting ourselves in. When we do this we walk willingly into a prison of our own making.  The walls we put up for our protection serve only to isolate us, leaving us lonely and alone.

By contrast, “heaven” means “harmony.” If demonic forces divide, love unites.

Heaven on earth will not be possible until we are able to get beyond the superficial elements that divide us and realize that the only thing that separates us from each other and God is the belief that we are separate.

That’s where Hell is.  And it is now, not then.

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images-1I never thought I would be grateful for bingo.

My wife had just graduated from college and started her first job when her mother had a brain aneurysm.   She quit work and spent the next two years tending to her mother’s needs and seeing to her rehabilitation.

Once her mother stabilized and it became clear she would never fully recover, my wife assumed the responsibility of hiring, training, and supervising the aides and attendants necessary to support her mother, as well as, providing food and shelter. When we married, we carried on together until her mom’s caretaking became more than we could handle at home. Reluctantly, we decided to place her in a nursing home.

This was a difficult decision for all of us. My wife took our inability to continue caring for her mother as something of a personal failure. For me, the decision resurrected a lot of painful memories of nursing homes I had investigated for the U. S. Senate. After that experience, I swore I would never put a family member in a nursing home.

We knew it was the last place her mother wanted to be; but, happily, she settled in quickly. While there were indeed some unpleasant aspects to the transition, there were also some pleasant surprises.

Chief among these is the joy she takes in playing Bingo. Bingo sessions are organized twice a week. She always goes and, judging from her accounts, always wins.

I thought the pleasure she took in this was obvious and superficial until the first Christmas approached. Then on one of our visits, she asked my wife to pull a box out from under the bed. When we opened the box we found a strange assortment of things inside – a book, jewelry, toys, and toiletries.

Her mom explained she had purchased these things with the points she had won playing bingo.   With obvious pleasure, she said they were Christmas gifts she wanted us to wrap for her.

After years of being taken care of and continually being on the receiving end, she had finally found a way to give. Nothing I have ever experienced spoke more eloquently to the depth of this need than her excitement as she told us who each gift was for.

Being able to give is one of the great privileges in life. In fact, the ability to give can be said to define human development. If you think about it, infancy is a time of total dependence. Everything has to be given to us. The transition to adolescence begins when we start to become independent and learn to take care of ourselves. The mark of maturity is when we begin to care for others.


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Loving Your Neighbor

imgresArthur Flemming had the distinction of serving every President from Coolidge to Clinton. He was, among other things, a member of the Hoover Commission, Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower, and head of the Department of Aging under Nixon and Carter.

Before entering public service, Arthur briefly considered going to divinity school.  He remained devoutly religious all of his life.  For 65 of his 92 years, he attended Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, taught Sunday school during the first service and sat in the same place, at the end of the fourth pew from the back, for the second service, every Sunday he was in town.

During the week, Arthur had a standing reservation for lunch at Twigs, a restaurant near his office.   Arthur held court there, entertaining a revolving cast of regulars and a seemingly endless supply of new friends.

At least once a month while he lived, I found myself worked into the rotation.  I would receive a call from Arthur’s secretary inviting me to join him for lunch, sometimes that same day, sometimes a couple of weeks in advance. I rarely knew Arthur’s agenda, but I never turned down an invitation.

We talked about health care reform. We talked about aging. We talked politics. We talked religion. We talked about life.

On one of these occasions, Arthur began a discourse on applied Christianity.  He said the most difficult theological question for him to understand and apply was the notion of loving your neighbor.

With a wry smile, he said, “As you have undoubtedly noticed there are a lot of disagreeable people in the world.  Some of our neighbors are very difficult to like.”

Arthur found the solution to his dilemma in a sermon he heard in England during World War II – a time when the consequences of loving, as well as not loving, our neighbors were abundantly evident.

The answer, Arthur said, lies in the difference between loving and liking and the reason we do one or the other or both.

“There is no commandment to like our neighbors,” Arthur said.

In choosing to love the neighbors we do not like, we separate who we are from what we do. We can love the essence of an individual without liking the choices they have made or the way they live their lives.  We can love the sinner without approving of the sin.

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