We Must Not Forget

I went to church and there was a table filled with little white cards on which names were printed in a lovely black font. I had no idea why they sat quietly in the entryway, but they caught my attention enough to wonder about them until the commencement of the mass shifted my thoughts back to the reason why I was there. It was not until the service had almost ended that I learned the secret of those lovely little name plates. All of them represented someone who had died in the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton and we were asked to take one name and then pray for that person.

I randomly chose both a female and a male without really knowing who they were other than someone whose life had ended in tragedy. I carefully placed the cards inside my purse and went about my very busy day until I found a moment to remember them. That’s when I Googled each name hoping to find out a bit more about the persons that I had promised to recall in my conversations with God.

One of my souls was Logan Turner who had been killed in Dayton, Ohio. According to his mom he had turned thirty only days before his death and was out celebrating with friends. His grieving mother spoke of her boy with high regard insisting that he was indeed “the world’s best son.” She noted that he was both sweet and smart, the kind of person who worked hard and lived life well. He had earned a degree in engineering and had a good job and a promising future but for fatefully encountering a madman on the Saturday night which was supposed to just be fun times. Now his mother has been robbed of her pride and joy, and his wonderful life has been cut short.

Without knowing Logan I somehow felt that I understood the kind of person that he was. I have known young men like Logan in my career as a teacher. They are kind and bright and full of dreams. They love their friends and their moms. They work hard but like to have fun. I felt Logan’s spirit moving inside my soul, and I knew that I would indeed think of him and pray for him and those who lost him in the coming days. I felt a great sadness that he was taken from our world all too soon. I promised not to forget him even though we had never met.

The other card that I had chosen bore the name of Teresa Sanchez who I learned was an eighty two year woman who lived with one of her sisters. She and two family members were innocently shopping in the Walmart when the shooter began his assault.  I have found very little information about her or her life. Only one source that I found had a photo that I was unable to copy. It was a black and white print that showed her lined face with a serious expression. As I gazed at her countenance I imagined that she was perhaps someone’s grandmother, a feisty woman who still maintained her independence. I thought of her routinely visiting the Walmart to accomplish her errands which reminded me of my own mother.

I remembered what joy my Mama found when we were shopping together on so many Saturdays. One of her favorite things to do with me was to spend literally hours perusing the aisles in the Walmart near her home. It never occurred to either of us that we might be in danger simply by pursuing a rather commonplace experience. As I recalled my own sweet mother I felt a wave of grief thinking that what should have been a fun time for Teresa and her sisters had turned into such a tragic loss. There were no doubt people waiting for her return who would never get to see her alive again. 

We each go about our daily lives with little thought that the unthinkable might happen. We follow our routines or take little vacations or sojourns from our work. It is so incongruous that we might be struck down without warning in the midst of doing something that is supposed to be fun. There is a double kind of insult when such things happen without warning. There is no time to say goodbye or to remind our family and our friends how much we love them. Instead those who knew Logan and Teresa are left forever with a sense that there is something unfinished in their lives.

I have been praying for Logan and Teresa just as I promised that I would. I find them coming into my thoughts in different moments of the day. They have somehow burrowed into my heart. I see them as martyrs cut down by ignorance and hate and I believe that they are now resting peacefully with God, but we should not be complacent about what has happened to them. They have left behind people who knew them and loved them and will never again be quite the same. I feel compelled to offer prayers for them as well. I want them to somehow find a semblance of comfort amid all of the rancorous debates that somehow miss the humanity of the loss that they feel. While we argue about guns and immigration and who is right and who is wrong, they are suffering and a part of them always will regardless of how we as a society finally decide how to address the issues that have brought them so much grief. 

I pray for you, Logan and Teresa. I pray for those whom you loved. I pray that we will have the fortitude to set things right in our country. I pray that we might still the voices of anger and hate. I pray that we will not forget you or the hurt that your loved ones feel. May we all learn and grow and take positive measures to better insure the safety of anyone who leaves home to have an enjoyable time. May you rest in peace with the angels and may we work hard in your name to stop the kind of terror that you had to endure. 

 

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First Do No Harm

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I live in Texas along the Gulf coast. My father spent his teenage years in Corpus Christi, Texas, a place where he met his best friends and from hence he learned his love of fishing. He longed to return there to live one day, but he was never able to find a job, so Houston was the next best thing for him.

I grew up visiting Corpus Christi often and hearing my dad’s stories of how wonderful the place was. On top of having it’s own unique culture and feel, it is only a hop, a skip, and a jump from Laredo, a border town with Mexico. As a kid and then as a young adult a trip to Corpus Christi sometimes was the gateway to a quick jaunt to the other side of the Rio Grande. Things were quieter and safer then, so families traveled back and forth between the United States and Mexico with little or no fanfare.

I was raised in a Catholic family which meant attending Catholic school. Back in the day our Catholic parents believed that it was their duty to send us to the nuns and priests for our education. We not only learned the three Rs, but also studied the foundations of our faith, which included discussions of the Ten Commandments and sin.

I sat in classrooms with many of the same kids for years. We became like brothers and sisters. I never noticed that our last names read like a roll call of the United Nations. I did not even think to classify my classmates as Italians, Hispanics, Czechs, Germans or such. We were all just peers seeing each other at school Monday through Friday and then again at church on Sunday. I was probably in my sixties before it fully occurred to me that names like Luna and Villagomez indicated Hispanic heritage of some sort. I seriously just saw people as people because of my upbringing.

My mom and her siblings were first generation Americans who were often taunted not just for their ancestry from Slovakia, but also for their religious beliefs. Nonetheless they eventually melted into the great big pot known as the United States of America, and followed both the customs of both their country and their religion quite earnestly. My brothers, and cousins and I were taught to love our nation and our church as well. Mostly we were cautioned to view life as beautiful and sacred. My mom always asserted that people are people and our differences are usually only skin deep. She believed that inside our hearts we are all pining for the same things.

I’ve been rocking along for my seventy years living the way I was raised with a devotion and gratitude for my country, my state, my church, my family, my friends, and all people. For most of my life I enjoyed a career as a teacher, and many of my students were recent immigrants just as my mother had been. Most of them had come from countries in Central and South America. They struggled with many of the same issues that my mom had faced, and so I felt a particular impetus to help them to feel welcome and beloved in their new home. I also realized that some faced the additional challenge of being so called illegals. They had been brought to Texas as children without any of  the proper papers. They grew up in a state of fear that they might one day be forced to return to a place that had become foreign to them. They were the “Dreamers.”

Of late politics have pushed two issues to front and center, namely immigration and abortion. Ironically those topics are at odds with the way I was taught to think, which is to value human life above all else. On the one hand, I worry about the people fleeing to our borders in attempts to escape hopeless lives, and on the other hand I am increasingly appalled by the almost blasé attitude of the murder of unborn children. The irony for me is that quite often those who are concerned about the immigrant issues think of abortion as simply a matter of choice rather than violence, while those who are adamantly opposed to the influx of immigrants without limits are often deeply saddened by abortion. Somehow I see the two has having much in common, and find it difficult to understand the inconsistencies in current thinking.

I was therefore rather excited to learn that there is a group of pro-life women known as the New Wave Feminists who are demonstrating their genuine concerns for all people and all life by raising funds to bring the immigrants now being held at the border the kind of supplies that they so desperately need. In other words, they are putting their beliefs into action rather than simply complaining about the situations. Their spokesperson, Herndon De la Rosa has expressed their thinking quite beautifully, “We are pro-life because we care about the inherit human dignity of every living person, inside the womb and out,” Herndon-De La Rosa says. She feels a heightened responsibility to not look away from people at the border because “as a Texan . . . it’s happening in my backyard,” she notes. “All are vulnerable and all are human beings.” (National Review, July 8, 2019)

We have too many politicians these days who seem to believe that being bipartisan or using consensus to solve problems is a sign of weakness. They think that there is only one possible way of seeing issues, and anything less than total victory for their causes is unacceptable. As  a result, much of the humanity that I was taught to treasure is being hurt while the fights between ideas rage on. We are indeed all human beings and all vulnerable. Our instinct should be to first do no harm, and then find a way to hammer out a way of dealing with our differences in a manner that considers the value of all humans.

I am not so naive as to think that any of our problems will be easily solved or that our solutions will be perfect, but the reality is that both the living and the unborn are suffering even as we rant and rave with one another. Surely it is time to consider that we will ultimately be stronger by remembering to love while we determine how to honor the inherent dignity of all persons both living and unborn. Long ago we got it wrong when we allowed slavery to continue as we began our country. Perhaps it’s time that we learn from our mistakes of the past and move forward together. 

Finding Beauty In Life and Death

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I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.

I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

Forgiveness

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When I was twenty years old I became the caretaker for my mother when her bipolar disorder sent her into a psychotic state. At the time I was sorely ignorant of mental illness and lacking confidence in my own abilities to assess the situation and advocate for the very best care for her. I would make a decision regarding her therapy that would haunt me for well over forty years. I allowed my own instincts to fold under pressure from her doctor mostly due to my ignorance and non confrontational nature. I agreed to a treatment for her that I knew she would hate. I did not have the courage to stand my ground and insist that the doctor try something else. Nonetheless I learned from this incident and grew exponentially into a person who would never again be influenced to act against my own sense of right and wrong. Sadly, even though I changed I was never quite able to forgive myself and whenever my mother’s illness reared its most profound ugliness she would remind me again and again of what she saw as my betrayal of her. It took a great deal of internal reflection and wise counseling for me to finally accept that I was worthy of mercy.

Each of us has a story of something that we handled badly, something that we replay in our minds over and over again as though we might somehow change the outcome or at least assuage our guilt. On a rational level we know that we just need to genuinely apologize to anyone whom we have hurt, and then demonstrate through our actions that we have genuinely learned and changed. If we are willing to become better then there is little reason to continue to berate ourselves or to be reminded by others of our transgressions. Forgiveness should mean that our faults will never be mentioned again, and yet we all know of situations in which an offender is never allowed to fully transform because someone continually thinks of them as the incarnation of their sins rather than their contrition.

In the gospel of a few Sundays ago Jesus had died, risen from the dead and was with some of his apostles once again. Lovingly he chose not to remind them of how some of them had denied him when he most needed their support. He did not focus on the moments when their human frailties caused them to react badly. Instead he loved them for coming back to him and demonstrating their belated faith in him. It did not matter what had happened in the past because he knew that they loved him at that moment.

The Christian message is one of forgiveness, and yet so many of us pridefully hold grudges against people whom we believe have hurt us. Particularly in today’s society once an individual has displayed egregious behavior we tend to forever hold that person in infamy even when he/she makes attempts to repent. It is a prideful thing that we do forgetting that each of us has fallen from grace at one time or another. We want understanding for ourselves without granting it for those whom we have stereotyped with a broad brush of negative judgement.

Certainly there are acts that seem unforgivable and make it almost impossible to associate with any kind of absolution. When we think of the Holocaust we sense a special kind of evil that only God himself might unravel and pass judgement upon, but for the most part the hurts that we inflict on ourselves and others can be reversed. When people truly attempt to become better it is important that like Jesus we embrace them as they have become rather than what they used to be. Continually reminding them of the past is as cruel and hurtful as any wrong that they may have done.

I’ve always been impressed by stories of forgiveness and the people who demonstrated great love and compassion to those who had wronged them. They abound in our history, but of late they are the exception rather than the rule. Abraham Lincoln understood that if our country was to survive as a union we would have to have to embrace the people who had attempted to rebel against the nation, forgiving them for what they had done and moving forward without continually chastising them. Of course he was tragically assassinated and the resulting tendency to punish has bled over into the current political environment. As a society we focus on missteps rather than the evolution of character. It is not what a man or woman may have once done in a moment of thoughtlessness that should matter, but rather what kind of person he or she has ultimately become. 

I am a huge fan of Robert Downey Jr. not just because he is a highly entertaining actor but because I believe him to be a good man. There was a time when his addictions were so severe that he almost lost himself and his career. He was slowly dying in a haze of drugs and alcohol that made him unreliable. Nobody trusted him even after he had done much work to rehabilitate himself. He could not get the insurance necessary to land even a minor part in a motion picture. It was Mel Gibson who was fighting demons of his own who came to the rescue, offering his own money as faith in Robert Downey, Jr. Ultimately Downey’s career was resurrected, but the loveliest thing about him is that he never forgot the kindness form Gibson who also became a pariah because of an outburst when he was drunk and under the influence of his own mental illness. Downey has appealed to the motion picture industry and one time fans to demonstrate some compassion for Mel Gibson just as he was given. He understands as well as anyone that life is a continuum, a journey in which we struggle to become better versions of ourselves. He knows how important it is to cherish those who make great efforts to change.

We seem to forget that Jesus modeled forgiveness again and again. The stories of his mercy resound in the Bible, and yet even many who profess to believe in his words turn their backs on those who fall. It sometimes feels as though our society has become a judgmental nag when what we really need is more absolution. The strongest people in our world are not the ones who are unwilling to see the goodness emerging in a fallen soul, but those who embrace those who change with love and clemency.