Forty-eight Letters

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When was the last time you got an actual letter in the mail? A hand-written, personal letter?  When I was younger, and there was no such thing as e-mail, I used to be very good at writing to people, and as a result, I got a fair number of letters in return.  There were the summer camp letters.  I know from personal experience that children still eagerly await mail call at summer camp — but now it’s possible to send e-mails to your children at summer camp (these are still generally delivered at mail call). But I used to write to people even when I wasn’t away at summer camp.  And I kept this up through college.  But at some point, this art seemed to give way to modern technology.

So I decided to reclaim it.  For Lent this year, I took up the spiritual practice of letter writing.  I wrote a letter every day — forty-six letters (and then two more) to all sorts of people, and it was a wonderful gift — to myself.

I wrote to family. I wrote a letter to my mother. And to my brother.  I wrote to friends.  Close friends whom I talk to all the time, but who are far away.  Friends whom I haven’t talked to in a while. I wrote a fan letter or two.  And then I got bolder.

I started searching out people I hadn’t seen or heard from in years.  Like, 40 years.  In the Bible, 40 is code for “a really long time.” I know I wrote to at least two people I hadn’t seen in 40 years or more.  I wrote to a girl I remembered from the second grade.  We met in the second grade, but to be fair, I knew her through elementary school. I’ve wondered about her since then.  And I found her.  And she wrote back!

I wrote to a cousin I haven’t seen since my teens.  Not only did she write back, but when I was in New York in May, we got together.  Catching up on 40 years is hard to do over brunch, but now we’re connected on social media, and connected in real life.

I wrote to someone I know who’s in jail.  This was a hard letter to write, because I’m angry at this person.  But sometimes it’s important to say that.  They wrote back.  It was a difficult letter to get, too.  But if I’m to be true to my faith, true to the idea of God’s universal love, then I can’t shy away from the difficult spiritual work.

I found that, as I continued to write, it became easier to write, even to people who seemed more distant to me.  I started with the closer people, but I got braver.  I wrote with no expectations.  But I did get letters in return, and that was wonderful.  What a gift to catch up with people, to go the slow path, and dig in a bit.

One letter was returned as undeliverable.  Many went out with no word back at all.  But I said what I need to or wanted to say.

Since Lent, I have continued to write letters, albeit not daily.  But once awakened, it’s been easier to keep the practice fresh.  And I’ve found that it’s enriched the way I write to people in more formal e-mails, as well.

I like technology. I do.  I feel almost lost without my cell phone.  But I also think it’s important to unplug from time to time.  Nothing can be a replacement for face-to-face interactions,  and there is still something special about the slow route of hand-written snail mail.

That’s my mite.  It’s all I’ve got.

Dust to Dust

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.  On Ash Wednesday, today, Christians are reminded of this as the ashes of palms are imposed upon our foreheads.  You are dust, and to dust you shall return.  And thus begins the season of Lent.

We’re encouraged to sit with this on Ash Wednesday as we prepare for the journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, and ultimately to Easter.  We are dust – this is far deeper than just being about our mortality.  To be sure, we are mortal.  We will return to dust.  I find this comforting.

Dust is ordinary. We’re ordinary.  We’re of the earth. Of course we are. Adam – remember Adam? Adam – literally “Earth Creature” – is named from adama – earth.  We are ordinary, and yet we do extraordinary things.  We are ordinary and yet we are made in God’s image.

Ultimately, we will return to dust.  It’s the great equalizer.  We will all be the same in the end.  As a Unitarian Universalist, I find this fits in beautifully with the Unitarian Universalist principles of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice equity, and compassion in human relations; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  It’s like Aunt Eller sings in “Oklahoma!” – “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”

Ash Wednesday gives us permission to be imperfect.  It’s not an excuse to give up, but it reminds us that we just aren’t all that. And that’s fine. Ash Wednesday helps to keep us grounded. We may reach for the stars, but we remain anchored on earth.  We belong to the earth, and that binds us to each other.

On this Ash Wednesday, I invite you to consider what it means to be made of dust and to know that we will ultimately return to dust.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. And may your Lenten journey  bear spiritual fruit.

That’s my mite. That’s all I’ve got.

Martyrs on the Road to Jerusalem

I assassinated an archbishop today. As it happens, I assassinated this same archbishop, Thomas a Becket, five years ago, too. And it got me thinking.

Oh – this might be a good time to explain that this was a play. I didn’t actually travel back in time to 1170. But some things are timeless. I had the opportunity to reprise a role that I played five years ago. I was the fourth tempter/fourth knight in “Rejoice and Mourn: The Death of Martyrs” an adaptation of “Murder in the Cathedral” that incorporates words of and about Archbishop Oscar Romero throughout the play in key spots. It’s very effective, and today is the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Oscar Romero. So it’s a fitting tribute.

As it happens, both Archbishops were assassinated at the altar. Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights who thought they were doing King Henry II’s bidding. Romero was murdered at the altar in the chapel of a hospital as he was celebrating the eucharist.

Both men were appointed to their positions because the establishment thought that they would be staunch and conservative supporters of the status-quo. Both men became radical churchmen. Romero became a liberation theologian. Both took their oath seriously and walked boldly into Jerusalem. Both paid with their lives.

So why am I writing about this today? Well, it’s been an interesting journey for me, too. I first read “Murder in the Cathedral” by T.S. Eliot when I was a senior in high school. At that time, I was totally taken in by the arguments of the fourth knight (as it happens, the character I played both times I’ve been in this production). At the end of the play, the four knights speak directly to the audience and explain why they did what they did. The fourth knight tells the audience that Becket had done this to himself – that he had determined upon a death by martyrdom, that he could have easily saved himself had he wished, and that this was, in the end, a suicide.

I was 17 or 18 years old. I couldn’t conceive of Becket sacrificing himself for something larger. Not unless there were people standing right there whom he was protecting from imminent danger. I just couldn’t see it. So he came across as arrogant and foolish to me. And, frankly, I didn’t care for Eliot all that much then, either.

But then, five years ago, I had the opportunity to play the fourth tempter/fourth knight for the first time. I could see what my character was trying to do to Becket – to throw Becket’s own words back at him – to tempt him with his own desires. This character truly torments Becket. Much then, rests on Becket’s response. In the production five years ago, Becket was terrified at the end. That didn’t stop him from going forward to his death. But he was shaking in his boots.

In the current production, with a different director and a different actor, Becket went in a different direction. This Becket was emboldened after his first encounter with the knights. He showed no fear and instead seemed to be daring us to kill him.

None of us were present in 1170 to see what the actual Becket was like. I have my suspicions, but I can’t say for sure. What I found interesting was that in the current production, Becket’s boldness engendered much less sympathy. Some people said that they thought the fourth knight was right (as I believed in high school) – that Becket was arrogant and had determined upon a death by martyrdom.

Becket himself is tortured by this thought in the play. He says as much when he says, “the last temptation is the greatest treason/ to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”  Of course, being arrogant, if Becket was (and I have no idea, really) isn’t a reason to assassinate someone. Regardless of his reasons, he was standing up for what he believed in. He still walked boldly into Jerusalem, and he still paid the ultimate price.

Becket was killed just after Christmas.  Romero was killed during Lent – shortly before Palm Sunday. This coming Sunday it will be Palm Sunday again. We will recall Jesus’ bold entry into Jerusalem. The walk is not easy.

History judges us again and again. There are many ways to look critically at what we do, and how and why we do it. It’s very easy to analyze and second-guess. That makes it tempting to make it all about the personality of the individual – to judge the qualities and imperfections of someone and to ignore the deed itself. The fourth tempter says as much to Becket – “and later is worse – when men will not hate you enough to defame or to execrate you/but, pondering the qualities that you lack/will only try to find the historical fact. When men shall declare that there was no mystery/about this man who played a certain part in history.”

In the end, Becket and Romero were only human. They were men. And that’s why they are saints. They were men, with all the flaws of men. We know that Romero was afraid because he admitted as much. Was Becket? Quite likely. Today, actors portray him how they will – it’s a matter of interpretation. But arrogant or not, he knew he was facing death. And so many others have taken that walk.

Walking into Jerusalem is bold and scary. Jesus was also scared. Yet he continued on. Let us remember that these men were human. We are all human. Being brave means doing the right thing — standing up for what is right — in spite of our fear.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

Ash Wednesday, Doctor Who, and The Work of Grieving

This morning I was watching Doctor Who – “Gridlock” – the episode where the Doctor and Martha go to New New York and Martha gets kidnapped and taken to the motorway. There’s a scene in this episode in which the recorded news is signing off the air and the broadcast signs off with The Old Rugged Cross.  The scene shifts among the different cars on the motorway. Everyone is singing except for the Doctor, and tears are running down cheeks. This scene had never made me tear up before. But it did today.

Today is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. So I’m in a contemplative mood anyway. And suddenly I hear The Old Rugged Cross. When the healing choir at my home congregation went to the hospital to sing for Don, this is the hymn that he requested specifically. Now, if you know anything at all about Unitarian Universalists, you might find this a bit unusual. Well, it probably is. But Don was seeking at the end of his life. He was doing the hard work of religion and spirituality. And this was his favorite hymn.

So the pastoral healing choir came, and regardless of the theologies in the mix, they all sang The Old Rugged Cross for Don. And when he died, not very long after that, I had the choir and the congregation sing it at his memorial service. The choir also sang an anthem, Precious Lord, by Thomas Dorsey. They got through it beautifully, and then I could see that many of them were weeping. And so was I.

So when I suddenly heard The Old Rugged Cross this morning, I suddenly began to tear up. I thought of Don. He was a big Doctor Who fan. I thought how nice it would be if he were here with me. But this is not to be.

Lent is a wilderness time. We recall Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, and his journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  We abstain from things. And I realize that I am in my own grief wilderness.  And sometimes in the wilderness, things can sneak up on us. The Old Rugged Cross snuck up on me today.

Grieving takes time. It can’t be rushed. Lent takes time. The Doctor, who travels through time, often skips things he doesn’t have the patience for. However sometimes he gets stuck sitting it out with everyone else. In “Vincent and the Doctor” he has to sit with Amy and Vincent van Gogh waiting for an alien to appear in a church. He’s terribly frustrated and says, “Is this how time normally passes? Really slowly, in the right order?”  Yes. Yes it is, Doctor. And this is how we have to work through it.

At the end of “Gridlock” Abide With Me is playing. Another hymn Don liked, and I like it, too. It’s a reminder that, although we grieve, although we are in the wilderness, God is with us. We may wonder why God remains silent. We might plea, as the psalmist often does, for God to show God’s self so that we don’t feel abandoned. But in the end, we are not abandoned.

God has never led me into the wilderness without leading me back out again. So Lord, I am trusting in you. I miss Don. Hold him gently. I feel lost sometimes. Shine your light on the path ahead. And Abide With Me.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

Laissez Les Bontemps Roulez!

Twenty-one years ago today (well, tonight), I gave birth to Twenty-one-year-old at George Washington University Hospital. It was raining. I had been in induced labor for about 16 hours. I was exhausted and thrilled to be a mom. Some things just don’t change.

Today, Mardi Gras, Twenty-one-year-old turned 21.  Holy cow. So much has changed in the last 21 years.

The big thing, of course, is that this is her first birthday without her father.  I know she’s missing him, and I know he would have very much enjoyed the celebration.

Tonight she ordered her fist legal drink. It’s a rite of passage. She would have had a big Mardi Gras birthday party, but most of her friends are away at college, and none of her local friends were available. She’d be away, too, but last year was rough. It’s hard to be a freshman in college when your dad is so sick. Taking a leave-of-absence was a good move, but it did remove her from her college friends. That’s hard.

It’s been an unusual year. But we take care of each other, and her older brothers and sisters are nearby.

So we celebrate tonight. Lent begins tomorrow. The circle of life condensed into 48 hours. And that seems somehow appropriate.

Laissez les bontemps roulez! Let the good times roll!  It’s the motto of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  Let the good times roll – because tomorrow begins a time of abstinence. Because nothing is certain. Because we don’t know what the future will bring. That’s certainly been true for the last 21 years.

So we did go out to celebrate. In between her classes. We’re having a good time – because we should. We’ll face tomorrow…tomorrow. It might be great.

The lsat 21 years have been pretty darn good. Yes, there have been tragedies, but also plenty of comedies and other wonderful moments. I’m so impressed with the young woman she has become. Is still becoming.

I hope she gets the baby in the king cake.

That’s it. That’s my mite.