Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Could Be...

I've posted this before during Advent, but I always think of it these early days. It captures so well that sense of excitement and anticipation.

Could it be? Yes it could...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waiting (Advent and Otherwise)

I'm excited that we're entering Advent.  Which is funny, because this is such a busy time of year, usually I don't get to enjoy it until pretty close to Christmas. I'm lucky if I manage a single evening sitting under a lit-up Christmas tree, taking it all in.

But I look forward to this season every year, more than any other, I think because the ideas I associate with it speak to me all year round: Hope.  Darkness.  And more than any other, Waiting.

When I was living in Australia, I spent 30 days on a long retreat.  Jesuits do that twice in our lifetimes, generally, when we first enter and before we take final vows.  30 days of silence might sound like a prison sentence for some, but it can be a very privileged time of walking with the Lord.

I came away from my first retreat with a hundred stories of biblical passages that had come alive on my retreat. To be clear, this wasn't unique to me. One of Ignatius' essential retreat ideas is to imagine stories of Scripture unfolding before you, like a movie, and even to place yourself in the story in some role, and let it unfold as it will.

My second time around, I expected something similar, although I was also nervous about the possibility of that. Age had made me more wary of how much meddling I was capable of doing within meditations. (It's remarkable how much Jesus seemed to tell me at times exactly what I wanted to hear!) My fundamental prayer had become a quiet centering, and for the most part that felt like enough.

Still, as I said, I did expect something akin to my first long retreat.  And instead, what I got was many, many days of nothing.  Emptiness, and not of the Zen kind. Desolation, for days upon days, until I was pulling my hair out, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, what I must be holding back.  I would go to my spiritual director and confess things, just to see if that would loosen anything up, assuming it must be.  Still nothing.

My director, an incredibly capable man, was obviously perplexed himself.  But at one point he just threw up his hands and said, we're just going to have to wait.  And rather than urging me to push harder, he asked me to step back and be gentle with himself, give it ten minutes here and there and trust that something good would come of it.

Now, by the end of the retreat I realized that there had been a lot going on all along, just not in the places I was used to looking.  But honestly, that didn't become clear to me until the very last days of the retreat.

Even so, I look back now on the many days of absence in between as a great blessing.  Somehow the waiting for God became a sort of experience of God, a way of being with him even though paradoxically he didn't seem to be there.

I don't know if that makes any sense, but it's something I return to a lot.  It's nice to have consolation, the wedding banquet, etc. etc. etc.  But I can get by with a lot less. In fact, waiting can be absolutely wonderful.

I can forget all that in my hunger for answers and certainty and all sorts of other things.  It's nice to get to Advent and let it reassure me once again that it's okay not to have all the answers, and that in fact trying to dwell in that place of mystery is often a great blessing.


In one of his great little books of Advent and Christmas reflections, Bishop Robert Morneau, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, asks the question, "What words are in my Advent dictionary?"

If you're looking for a way to enter into the season, might be worth asking yourself that same question.  What words speak to me as I enter into this season?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Poem for Thanksgiving

Why I Wake Early

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety—

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Mary Oliver

WKRP in Cincinnati Turkey Drop

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How To Be Grateful On Thanksgiving

In the movies, the holidays goes one of two ways.  It's either "I Never Realized How Good I Had It" --slow mo shots that capture each and every family member at their very best. Or it's "ARGH!" -- total chaos, complicated by lots of family conflicts and competing desires, which in the beginning of the film is awful but by the end has come back to "I Never Realized How Good I Had It."

Ok, this isn't what I was imagining, but you get the point.

But in life, there's at least one more option, "NOOOOOOOO"/'WHOOSH." That's where the holiday churns back and forth between going way too slow (my God, can we stop talking about what's in the gravy and what's wrong with the Democratic party) and going way too fast (Can we say grace mmm, that was delicious see you next year).  It's basically God-as-infant messing with the playing speed.

Is there any way to seize back the controls and appreciate the holiday/your family/your life while it's actually happening? A pretty tall order.

But not impossible (says the priest who basically shows up and eats). What if dinner began with a little bit of silence, in which people were asked to just settle in and get in touch with what they're grateful for this year. That might seem a hard thing to sell, but you know what, if you tell people to do something well intentioned, they'll try to do it. Believe me, I've taken that risk, and it works, if it's clear, simple and not nutty.  I was once at a religious seminar where we were asked to stand and imagine we were trees. That constituted a full head o' crazy.  A little silence, not so much.

I googled "People Trees" and got Hermione Granger. Huh?

That might be enough to change the tone of an evening from "Pass the spinach" and "What's up with the White Sox? Robin Ventura, really??" to something a little more personal.

Another thing to do is break up the courses somehow.  Have courses, even if all that means is have a salad separate from the meat and potatoes. If you throw all the food out on the table right from the top, it makes the whole meal move a lot faster. That might sound appealing, but after spending days preparing the food, it shouldn't be gone in 30 minutes. I know, I know, I'm shoulding on you now, but it's true. There's a lot of love in the cooking of a Thanksgiving dinner, and it should be savored.  So break it up into courses, and you might find the evening breathes more easily for everyone.  It's less a road race and more a stroll.

For those who want to venture further, why not ask people to share something that they're grateful for, or that has been big for them this year?

I know, it sounds awful. Forced sharing. It tends to give men hives. (So if you're looking for a way to punish a spouse -- tell me the turkey is dry, will you! -- this is it.) But if you model it by going first, keeping it clear, simple and not too intense, it can work. Really! People have a lot more going on than they reveal, and letting them share even just a very little of that can go a really long way to deepening everyone's appreciation for one another.

The other thing I think about sometimes is doing something fun after dinner. Breaking it up from the meal somehow -- go to a different room, or have a big breather before dessert. And maybe doing something a little more group-oriented. A game (I highly recommend Mafia!), a movie together, maybe little entertainments by different folks, if you're that kind of group.

If you're looking for a Thanksgiving movie, 
You can't do better than Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Or even just the moving into another room.  It's amazing how much can shift and change just by getting up and moving over 20 feet into another room. It's like the things that settled inside get loose.

Ok, that's probably too loose.

Many years I have the luxury of taking some time on Thanksgiving to just sit and ask God, where were you this year? What blessings have you given me? Who are the people who have been good to me? Maybe you have time for that, too, but maybe not.

But that's not to say you can't actually have that sense of gratitude in the living of the day.  It just takes some experimentation.

Well, maybe not test tube experimentation.

Yeah, definitely not that either. 

Do you have special practices you do with your family, or that you've seen elsewhere?  Share them in the comments, please!

And have a very blessed Thanksgiving.  As we say in the McDermott household, Gobble gobble.

It's actually a little underwhelming, isn't it?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Violent Occupations

New York cop attacks an Occupy Wall Street protestor.

Yesterday I was skimming Twitter. There was a report about rubber bullets and tear gas being fired. And at first it didn't really register, I think because there seems to be a lot going on with the Occupy movement.

But then I realized I misread the tweet; this wasn't a report on an U.S. event, but on the protests in Cairo.

Another tweet had the President calling for the police to let protestors peaceably protest.  But again, his comments were not about the United States, but about Cairo.

What is going on in our country where by and large peaceful protestors -- college students, old people, mothers -- are experiencing the same sorts of violence perpetrated by military authorities upon their people in third world countries? Why isn't it being reported more? And why isn't our President demanding an end to the outbursts of violence here?

Maybe I sound like a bleeding lefty here, blindly ignoring the provocations of the protestors. But then again, recently in the New York Times Robert Hass, the former poet laureate of the United States, described appalling violence by the police which came out of nowhere, without warning or demands to disperse, and which included his wife being shoved in the chest and pushed to the ground. He also reports another member of his faculty dragged by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

Sometimes on Saturdays I search for #ows on Twitter, and just watch the reports from the marches around the country (which often come with photos or videos). And it's pretty crazy stuff, very very troubling for the accounts of sudden and unexplained violence, mostly by police. I've read tweets from parents terrified because they're at a protest with their kids and the cops have suddenly surrounded them and are pushing everyone in, until they're nearly walking over one another.  There's accounts almost daily of pepper spray and billy club beatings.  

We're talking about people occupying parks and calling for an end to social inequality, for God's sake.  A challenging message, but also being undertaken more or less peacefully.

Martin Luther King, Jr., believed non-violent protests helped reveal the brutality of those who opposed them. Because the civil rights protestors did not fight back, the men with their water cannons and billy clubs could not rationalize their actions as in any way justified. And as a result they were forced to see themselves in the harsh light of truth.

May our police have similar epiphanies today. And soon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Penn State

Seems like I've heard more about college football this week than I have in the last decade.  Well, not college football in general; Penn State. What an incredibly horrible and shocking story.  SNL did a sketch on Saturday in which Satan himself was portrayed as so horrified by the situation that he quit his job as prince of darkness and went back to his old life as a customer service agent at Time Warner Cable.  (Apparently if you have Time Warner, you know how true this seems).

And while sordid details are emotionally devastating enough, a major part of the story in the last week has been the revelation that revered long time coach Joe Paterno knew about incidents but took the matter only to the school authorities. To be fair to him, he did do something (and it's not entirely clear how much he knew); but he didn't pursue it beyond school administration. And more children were harmed as a result.

It seems like everyone that's ever worked with Paterno views him as one of the most decent and competent individuals they've ever met, akin to UCLA's longtime coach John Wooden.  But today much of that knowledge of Paterno is getting lost in the rage fog of the situation.  How could he possibly not done more?

I don't have any answer to that question. But I do find the situation instructive. Some people will believe from now on that Paterno was never what we thought he was, that his character was deeply flawed in a subtle way. But what sounds more likely is that he was the man of character we thought him to be, a man deeply concerned with ethics and decency. And he also had clay feet.

It's the mystery of evil.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Down with the Family Bible

Last week just came and went! Sorry for not posting more.  We're getting into the crunch time of the quarter and the assignments, they are a'pilin' up.

As I was preparing for Sunday Mass this week I kept thinking about family bibles.  Do you have one of these? You know the style I'm talking about, that massive tome of a Bible people buy you when you get married.  The kind that creaks when you open it, because it's so enormous it might as well be a door than a cover; and it has gold plating or big frilly letters (which are extraordinarily hard to read).

Seriously, I think this one was carved out of oak.  

Aren't those bibles just ridiculous? I mean, who's ever going to read a Bible like that? You could burst blood vessels just putting it on your lap.  You're likely to fall over when you try to lift it. It's the version you're "supposed to have", but honestly, I'm going to weigh in and say these family bibles actually keep people from reading the Bible.  They're way too big and too heavy for regular use.  And we'd all be a lot better off throwing ours and getting a fit-in-your-backpack handheld version.

And since we're on the subject, you know the other thing we need? We need a version of the Bible that is accessible to people who don't have degrees in Scripture.  And I don't mean a kind translation, although that's a fine place to start. I mean a version that isn't so overwhelming to jump into.  The Bible has literally dozens of books. And if you wander into the wrong one (and yeah, Leviticus, that means you)  it's like walking into a foreign film without the subtitles. Or walking into an accounting lecture when you thought you were going to see a movie. Or walking into the movie J. Edgar when you thought you were going to see something entertaining. Which it is most definitely not.

Point being: you're not going to like the experience. You're going to get up and walk out.  

How do we fix this? Some Bibles put a little "This is what this book is about" introduction on each new book.  That's not bad.  If written well it gives you some useful context.

Maybe we could attach tabs to certain books, ones that are a great place for a non-Scripture scholar to start. Books like Ruth and Jonah and Samuel and Kings and Genesis and Exodus. Short books, with a clear story, or books like the Psalms that are broken into really distinct chunks that can be absorbed individually (or skipped without hurting anything).  

Or maybe in the sections that are just impossible to appreciate, we insert an editorial comment telling us, this is what this section is about, and here's how long it goes, feel free to skip it.  I hate to say that, but the thing is, if you're not an academic, the Bible is first and foremost a place you go to for inspiration and direction. It's a place to meet God.  Hearing about how many freaking cubits the temple was long and wide is just not that.

Maybe in addition to the "complete works" we should sell the books of the Bible separately, the way we do the works of Shakespeare. That alone might go a long way to making it all more manageable for readers.  You could keep the first 5 books together (they are one unit); Luke and Acts; maybe Samuel and Kings.  But otherwise you split it all up, so that people can just pick up one book at a time, and not be overwhelmed by having them all there together -- or get frustrated just trying to find the book they want.  (It can be a real pain, can't it?)

We call the Bible the Good Book. And boy, it is.  Now what do we do to help people to use it?

PS And hey -- how about some visual aids?? Sometimes I think the children's bibles are the only ones that get it right.

Tells the story all by itself, doesn't it? 
(Although if you didn't know better, you might think
the baby Jesus was radioactive.)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Listening to Jesus (Hint: Get Over Yourself)

So I was with my spiritual director the other day.  And we were talking about -- well, in some ways direction is lot like therapy.  You keep circling back to the same old issues.  Which maybe sounds depressing, or sitcom depressing if you're looking for a more upbeat spin -- the humor being predicated on the very fact that these people, despite all their effort, never really change (or not until the series finale, anyway).  (As funny as they are, if you ever really stop to think about sitcoms, you discover most might as well have been written by a French existentialist. They've got a pretty grim take on people's capacity to change.)

But another way to think about it is like you're drilling down -- so yes, it's circular, because that's what a drill does.  But you are getting somewhere.

Or so I hope.

Anyway, a frequent suggestion that I get, which is by far the most basic thing, and therefore I rarely do it (of course) is this: have you brought this issue/subject/event/thing-that's-bugging-you-and-you-won't-stop talking-about-it to prayer? That is, have you taken the time to ask the question, Jesus, what do you think of this? Where are you in this?

Like I said, it's really a no brainer.  Of course you should bring your struggles to the Lord. And yet...we forget to do that. In my case, I tend to sit before the Lord fretting/talking to myself about what I should do.  And I never turn my eyes (or ears) up to get his perspective. As though I'm really supposed to have this figured out before I actually bring it to God. Which is like saying I'm supposed to already have worked out my problems before I go see a therapist, or I'm supposed to have pretty much written my dissertation before I start grad school.  (Ever studied with someone who feels confident they already know everything about the topic they're studying? Lecturing teachers, dropping citations -- these are not the people you invite to your Halloween party.)

So anyway, this suggestion to turn to God is not new to me, and it always makes me laugh at myself.  But last week, my director put it in a different way:

What is Jesus' prayer for you?

It's nice, right? It's still all about listening, all about giving God a chance to talk.  But it makes the relationship piece really clear, too. Jesus is your friend, and he's hoping and wishing some things for you, just like our friends do. We ask him what do you hope for me right now to help us get ourselves out of  our selves and yet still connect to the life of the heart and all the important stuff stirring there.

Might be a nice question to take into the week.  Jesus, I've got a lot going on.  What is your prayer for me?  

Cool Native take on Jesus and the beloved disciple. 
Note how John has his head against Jesus' chest. 
He's listening to Jesus' heart.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Morning Vignettes

Day before yesterday, I'm sitting quietly in the morning, praying.  And the thing that comes forward is to notice how unrealistically high my expectations had been of people the previous day.  And the invitation seemed pretty clear -- let it go.  You're not perfect, neither are they.

I was very pleased with myself to have realized this without any serious incident or confrontation to cause it.  Went into yesterday quite happy.

Then this morning I went back to prayer.  And the very first thing I realized is, yesterday, as I basked in my oh so proud of myself glow, I did the same thing damn thing again.  And didn't even notice it.

Isn't that just the way of things?


Tonight in one of my classes we had executives from some of the major television production studios in to hear 15 of us pitch ideas for hour long pilots.  We've been working on our ideas for six or seven weeks now, and today was the first time we did them for professionals. 10 minutes, give me the nugget of your idea and your main characters.  Everyone performed really well; it's a really stellar group, and I can only hope that someday you and I will have the chance to see some of these shows on the air.

But as I was driving home tonight what really struck me was, how incredible it is to be in a setting where I have the opportunity to pitch an idea to executives, accomplished people who have put together many many shows on networks and cable, and to get their honest feedback and suggestions.

Some days I just want to pinch myself.


A little video I found on Youtube this week -- it was made using 288,000 jelly beans.  And it's a pretty song, too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Lily's Disneyland Surprise!

Wow, the days have just flown by without me posting. And I had something fun all ready to go, too! This old brain, she needs oiling!

This viral video was written up in the New York Times last Thursday.  It's so sweet and believable, you've got to check it out.  You'll love it.