Sabbatical for “Reflections” (and other news)

I’m taking a sabbatical from writing “Reflections” for several months until my arms heal from a rotator cuff injury. I injured the left arm from weight lifting (don’t know why, I’ve been doing the same routine for 10 years) and then the right arm from overuse. I will Tweet as I am able, and will let you know how the healing goes and what my plans for writing will be.

The other issue is that our film, “Raw Faith,” has been picked up by a distributor, Kino Lorber, and they are laying out plans for film festivals and theatrical screenings all over the country, some of which I will attend. So my travel schedule is beginning to heat up, and I make a habit of not hauling around a computer with me when I am out of town. I take this time to read and to think and to rest.

In the works at the present moment is a new book, to be published by my own press, Fuller Press, within the next three or four months. It will be called “A Little Book of Reflections” and will be composed of quotations from sermons. I will let you know when it is available.

My “retirement” has hardly been a leavetaking from my work, but rather a refocusing of it. The film has moved into first place, as it seems to be garnering more and more attention. It is my hope that it will prove helpful to others–really, a kind of extension of my ministry. As always, I ask the question, “What next?” I’m available to my call, in whatever way I might be most useful.

Vatican Cover-up of Sexual Abuse

A recently recovered 1997 letter from the Vatican to Ireland’s Catholic priests documents beyond a doubt the Vatican’s cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy. The late Archbishop Luciano Storero, Pope John Paul II’s diplomat to Ireland, informs Irish bishops that their new policy of mandatory reporting of suspected crimes “gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and canonical nature.”  In other words, such allegations must be handled within the church only, and that any bishops who tried to go outside church authority would face the “highly embarrassing” probability of having their actions overturned by Rome.

The Catholic Church’s response to sexual abuse by priests is the “good ole boy system” writ large.  The Catholic Church is not the only place the “system” operates, of course–it is endemic.  A doctor is reluctant to call out the errors of his colleague.  A policeman is unwilling to rat on his partner.  A coach is all too familiar with the girls on his high school team, but no one really wants to call him on it.  Until about 25 years ago, many male ministers had sex with vulnerable female congregants. Then more women entered the profession of ministry, and the professional ethics started to shift.

It is one thing for individuals to go along with destructive societal norms–that is, to keep silence when they should speak out.  That is wrong, yes.  But it is a far graver crime for an institution to knowingly and consciously lie in a systematic fashion, covering up the misdeeds of generations of priests and passing the offenders on from one parish to the next, to continue their evil ways.

Sexual abuse has the power to destroy lives–that is, to destroy a sense of self-worth, confidence, and power in the individual who is abused.  When the perpetrator is clergy, the abuse also takes away the God of the abused child, because clergy, for better or for worse, are God’s respresentatives, the very symbols of the Holy, for their parishioners.  And make no mistake–it was not just this one letter from this one Vatican official: the corruption has been consistent and persistent, through the years of many Popes and many bishops and many priests.  In other words, the sexual abuse of children has been part of the culture of the Catholic Church.

Only one response is appropriate in such a situation: a complete and total confession of what has been done, accompanied by repentance, including monetary compensation whenever possible for the suffering of the victims–followed by reform that is institutionalized and unequivocally supported throughout the hierarchy of the Church.

I was raised Roman Catholic, and even though I left the Church at age 14 because of theological reasons, I have come to value much about the church.  I am drawn to the aesthetics of the church–the beauty of the vast cathedrals, the statuary, the smells and bells.  It is the church of Dorothy Day and Archbishop Romero.  Nuns and priests still give their lives freely in the service of others, and some die, speaking truth to power, as in South and Central America, in recent years.  This is the Church of Liberation Theology.  This is the Church that speaks out, when others have been silent, about poverty and economic inequity.

It is tragic that such an institution has been so drastically sullied by those who have been called to protect and to serve.  May God have mercy on her institutional soul and bring her round right.

Where Is Our Country Headed?

Now the nation is in mourning for the tragic shooting in Arizona, in which six people died and which left Representative Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, a bullet having passed through her brain. I find myself grieving deeply, and terribly disheartened. I keep thinking, “How could this happen? Where is our country headed?” The answers that come back to me are unnerving–because the causes are multiple, and there is no easy fix:

  • guns are legal and easy enough to obtain
  • mentally ill people are not adequately provided for
  • our broken educational system is turning out citizens who are gullible and ill-informed
  • economic suffering is widespread, and fear is rampant

But the immediate cause and concern of the violence in Arizona is the violent political rhetoric from the right, both from right-wing media figures such as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly and from some of the leading political figures, one being Sarah Palin. Palin put a map online during the midterm elections which used cross hairs to indicate which Democrats she wanted defeated. We cannot talk about “targeting” the opposition, “taking them out,” “killing them,” etc., and think that these words don’t make a difference.

Jesse Kelly, the Republican who ran against Congresswoman Giffords in this last Congressional race, and almost defeated her, had a campaign event in which voters were invited to come to a shooting range and “shoot a fully automatic M-16.” Really? This is somehow something I never aspired to do.

The individual who did the shooting was by all accounts mentally ill, but my experience as a clinical social worker convinced me that the mentally ill end up acting out the extremes of the societal psychosis. When admired political pundits and elected officials pepper their speech with violent rhetoric, they should expect the result to be exactly what they are getting: a 300% increase in threats to members of Congress ( The windows of Rep. Giffords’ Tucson office were shot out or broken after Congress passed the health care law, and similar acts recently happened to other members of Congress. Our Congressional leaders may become unwilling to go to public meetings and speak directly to the people.

The saddest and most disappointing thing of all is those in power who will not speak out against this rhetoric of violence, who support it when it suits their purposes. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said so eloquently, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” It was true then, during the struggle for racial justice, and it’s true now.

When will we learn that language has power? That words support action? That suggestion is significant? Let each one of us notice and mention–let’s don’t allow the rhetoric of violence become the status quo. As we think and speak, so we will act. What kind of country are we becoming?

“Freedom,” by Jonathan Franzen: a Book Review

I know Jonathan Franzen chiefly by his being the only author on the planet to have stiffed Oprah Winfrey.  Not very smart, I thought, whatever his reasons.  But that didn’t seem to have hurt his sales on that book, Corrections, or his excellent reviews.  And now comes another really fat book from the same author.  “Can he do it again?” the critics wondered.  I mean, once you write one fine book, the creativity needed to produce the next one often seems to get stuck in the flotsam and jetsam of the first.

The answer is, yes, he did it again.  Though I didn’t read Corrections, and I hesitate these days to read anything over 350 pages, I read all 562 pages of Freedom and found it fascinating.  It is about our crazy, life-denying culture.  It is about people I know.  Ultimately, it is about me (sigh).

The title Freedom is perfect, for all the characters are floating loose in a sea of freedom, awash in freedom–but with little notion of how to handle it to their advantage.  In a culture with no controlling narrative, no compelling story to guide us, we have to discover the meaning of our lives by trial and error.  And for all of the characters in Freedom, there’s plenty of experimentation and plenty of error and all the suffering that goes with it.  Patty is free to have an affair with her husband Walter’s best friend, Richard; Walter is free to fall in love and mate with his much younger assistant, Lalitha; their son Homer is free at age 16 to move in with the girl next door; the people next door are free to build a very, very ugly addition onto their home; and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

We watch in wry amusement as these characters stumble through their lives; nevertheless, we come to love them in their helpless thrashings about.  Like us, they can’t see their way so clearly.  Like us, they are moved by forces they hardly understand.  Like us, they have some honor, they try to do what is right, and often fail.  They suffer mightily.  Like us.

Each of the three main characters was fascinating to me, because I know people like them: Patty, the perfect mom, who is making cookies for all the neighbors, and dying inside; Walter, the liberal do-gooder who naively sells out to the corporation; Richard, the gifted musician who speaks clearly, with great integrity, but is supremely cynical about his fans and the world in general.  Not only do I know people like them, but there is a part of each one of them in me.  In the end, they seem to learn and grow from their suffering.  Sometimes, yes, that happens.

Questions emerge about marriage and relationship.  What is love, anyway?  Patty wonders what sexual chemistry has to do with it–she wants to desire someone more than she desires her husband, Walter.  Does “the movement in his pants” define love, as Richard believes?  Are Walter and Lalitha true “soul mates,” because sex and work blend into a life for them?  How do kids fit in?  When Patty finds she misses Walter and wants him back, does that mean she loves him?  Is love just the history they share?  Does she lose her concern with desire as she ages?  How does Walter come to forgive Patty and love her once again?  How does Richard reconcile his anger with the world as it is, and settle into a relationship?

One of the encouraging aspects of the book is the author’s perspective on young people.  The Berglund children, Homer and Jessica, seem to have their heads on straight, more or less.  And Lalitha, the young Indian woman who works with Walter, is all business when she needs to be, and yet loves deeply and well.  Is Franzen hopeful about the next generation?  Have they learned from our folly?  I guess the question for me is whether or not our young people can be sustained, with parenting as uneven and values as shaky as those received from their elders.

I want to speak to the style of the book.  It’s all plot-driven.  You simply read about what people do, by themselves and with one another.  Descriptions are cut to the bone, and the reader does not have to languish in paragraphs of self-conscious purple prose–or even clever phrases that draw attention to themselves.  Franzen allows us to just be there with the characters and forget about him and his craft–as of course, the best writers are able to do.

This is a book that makes me want to talk about it.  It is rich not so much with answers, but rich with the most pertinent questions of our time.  What makes a good life?  What gives meaning, ultimately?  How do men and women choose one another, and partner well?  What is our responsibility to the larger culture, as the powers that be ravage the environment and misuse people?  How do we know when we are doing the right thing, and not just more of the wrong?  Read it, and get a group of your friends to read it, and let us consider our lives.

Will Purple Light Bulbs Stop Gang Warfare?

Last week Debbra Wallace asked members of our community to place purple light bulbs on our front porch, as a symbol of peace and reconcilation–purple, as the mixture of red (the color of the Bloods) and blue (the color of the Crips).  Her great-nephew is being threatened by a gang, and Debbra herself was confronted by four gang members in the middle of the night last week.  They called for “the purple lady” to come out of her niece’s house, and when she did, they fired four shots in the air and told her that this was another warning to her niece’s son.  (Read the full story at

The Oregonian ran a story on Christmas Eve about Debbra’s courageous stand,as so many of us, ironically, were preparing to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.  Even as the lights on Christmas trees twinkled, and houses sparkled with the season’s cheer, Debbra was asking us to put up one more light, that the violence terrorizing the African American community might stop, and young lives might be saved.  “We are losing our children!” she told me, in anguish.  The daughter of a former minister, she believes that God is calling her to spread the light of hope and change in what often seems a hopeless, intransigent path of violence and death for young black men in her community.

Will purple light bulbs stop gang violence?  Some say it’s foolish to think so.  Note the following statistics:

  • 56% of black males were working, as of October 2010
  • 38% of the prison population is black, although blacks make up only 12.4% of the population
  • nearly 1 in 3 African Americans aged 20-29 are either in prison, jailed, on parole, or on probation
  • a black male born in 1991 has 29% chance of spending some time in prison
  • the leading cause of incarceration for African American males is non-criminal drug offense
  • only 47% of black males graduate from high school

It’s clear that we as a nation have a problem that’s not going to go away quickly or easily.  It has to do with an underclass that has no way of being integrated into the larger society, and so takes the only way that is offered–the drug culture, a culture of violence, crime, and early death.

What the purple light bulb does do, however, is to call our attention to the problem as it is manifested–very personally and concretely–in our specific community.  Sad to say, the white majority and the white political establishment really don’t want to concern ourselves with black on black violence.  If white boys were being shot on a regular basis, families threatened by gangs shooting up white homes, how do you think citizens would respond?  How do you think the mayor and the police department would respond?  I think this city would be shaken to its roots, and resources would be focused on change and prevention.

We have to shift the way we are viewing gang violence: it is not “their problem,” not “those people” on “that side of town.”  These are children killing children, and all children are our children. Until we see ourselves as one, accept our common humanity, the violence will only grow.  Don’t think it will stay “over there.”  It’s a huge and growing rip in the social fabric that will make us continue to pay more and more taxes to fill larger and larger prisons, trying fruitlessly to contain what we have neglected to heal.

Symbols are important.  The flag is a symbol.  So is the cross. So is the stand that Rosa Parks took when she decided to sit in the front of the bus.  She had had enough.  When will we have enough black on black violence, to make the changes in our educational system, our “justice” system, and the terrible economic inequity in this country that leaves so many desperate and hopeless?

So yes, light your purple light bulb.  Wake up, Portland.  The first step in healing a wound is knowing where it is and how much it hurts.

To write Debbra, to order a light bulb, or to donate, e-mail her at