Pondering Regrets in the New Year

I do not have many regrets in my life, at least in regard to the big decisions: getting married, getting unmarried, having children, attending various schools, working first as a teacher, then as a psychotherapist, and most recently as a minister. These decisions have been to the good, more or less. But I do have some regrets that stick in my memory, as I move into this New Year. I tell myself these are little things, but they are not, for they have taught me how I should live.

I have been retired from the parish ministry for over two years now, but I remember so many of my congregants vividly. I have been thinking about Margo, an elderly woman of refinement and wealth, but totally unpretentious and simple in her living, and uncommonly generous to the church. I had visited her over the years, as she went into an inevitable decline. Because of a lack of oxygen to her brain, she began to drift away from time to time. When I visited her, I wondered if she knew who I was. I busied myself with the various tasks of my ministry, and I realized that months had gone by without my seeing Margo. One day as I left the church, I had a strong inclination to visit her. I should’ve known to follow my intuitive sense and drive directly to her home, but I did not. I was tired. I could always go another day, I reasoned. But of course I could not. The next day I got the call saying that she had died. I regret not saying goodbye to someone I loved. Sometimes “now” is not just the best time, but the only time.

Another memory. I had been in a relationship with a man during most of my time in graduate school. He was good for me in many ways. But the relationship was star-crossed and fated to end, so I had decided to break off the relationship. I still cared for this man, of course, but all logic worked against us, and I knew I was doing the right thing by leaving him. A few months into our separation, he called to tell me that his father had just died. He asked me to cancel my plans for the weekend and come to him. I was torn. I considered his request and decided not to go. I wanted to break the bond between us, and I thought it would be unwise for me to be with him during this tender time. I left him alone with his great sadness. I regret not going to be with my friend.

A third memory. This incident happened many years ago, when I was a young mother, but I remember it keenly. I had gotten a puppy for my two little boys — an adorable black and white soft, fluffy kind of puppy — but as it turned out, they did not want a puppy. When I ask my older son why, he said, “I’d rather have a goldfish. You don’t have to take a goldfish for walk.” So I had to find a new home for the puppy. I put an ad in the local paper, and soon someone called saying they had a good home for the dog. When I got to the house, however, I noted that it was cluttered and dirty, that the children were half clothed, and a couple of skinny dogs were already there. I should have scooped up my puppy and made my exit. But I was raised to be polite, and I did not have the courage to tell this family I felt their home was unfit, so I left our beautiful little puppy with them. I regret not protecting an innocent creature that was dependent upon me.

In each case, my heart was telling me what I needed to do. And in each case, I allowed other considerations to overrule my intuitive sense of what was right. I have learned over and over again in this world that the heart knows a deeper truth than reason can reach. Connection matters. Caring and kindness trump every rationale.

The Meaning of Occupy Wall Street

I am weary of hearing well-meaning friends question the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. They ask, “What do they want? They don’t have any clear goals — how can they hope to bring about change?”

I want to ask:

“What was the meaning of Gandhi’s fasts? ”

“What was the meaning of the Watts riots?”

“What is the meaning of the young Syrian who set himself on fire because he could find no job, and started the Arab Spring?”

In other words, what is the meaning of a human cry? There comes a moment from time to time in history when a system is so patently unjust and cruel that people rise up against it and say, “No more!” Sometimes the people have not worked out a clear political agenda. Perhaps in their anger and pain, they have not sorted out the issues, or chosen leaders, or created a movement. Perhaps they never will. But this does not mean that their cry was in vain.

Occupy Wall Street has had great significance. If nothing else, OWS has changed the national conversation and shifted the civic discourse. They have made space for the voice of the people.
Since the country’s founding, our national myth has been the promise of equal opportunity for all. Of course, that opportunity has never been there for everyone: we have never been truly egalitarian. However, the ideal was there, calling to us as individuals and as a nation to broaden the umbrella, including more people in that promise. And so we have recognized our theft of Native American lands and destruction of native culture; we have set a course for civil rights for those whose heritage was slavery; we have said that women should be considered equal to men and should be rewarded equally for equal work.

But somewhere during the last 30 years, we got lost on the way to the bank. We came to believe that “greed is good.” The best and the brightest of our university students concluded that making a lot of money and garnering many possessions is the great goal of living. A country that understood neighborliness and compassion as positive goods began to look past the hungry, the homeless, the afflicted, as if they were in no way connected with those of us who are strong and able. We began to stop making things and began to spend our working days shuffling paper and making bets on the vagaries of the stock market. We refused to believe that the earth had limits, and we kept sucking up resources as though there were no tomorrow. In other words, we have been living in sin.

As so often happens when change is needed, we left it to our young people, to those strong enough in body and spirit, to wake us up. Occupy Wall Street is calling out the devastating results of corporate greed. The occupiers are saying this must stop. They’re saying we must make human need and the care of the planet our central concerns.

At my age I am not healthy and vital enough to go downtown and lived in a tent for weeks, so I have been on the periphery of the movement. But I realize that I’m in debt to those who have been willing to shake the bars of the cage. They are serving as prophets- they have asked us to look at nothing less than the soul of this country. My only response is a deep sense of gratitude. With this new consciousness, there is at least the possibility that we can move to a new place.

Interviewing Portland Mayoral Candidates

I am interviewing all Portland mayoral candidates in regard to their history and the development of their values. I’m asking questions like, “Can you remember a teacher who influenced you in some important way?” “If you could meet anyone in history, now deceased, who would that person be, and what one question would you ask?” “What is one book you have read recently that has touched you deeply, and why?” These 30 min. interviews will not concern politics or issues, but rather will help the listener know the candidate better as a human being. If you want more than a soundbite, go to Raw Faith Radio.

Was Christopher Hitchens Religious?

Less than a year before his death, I interviewed Christopher Hitchens for Portland Monthly magazine. I didn’t want to do the interview. As I told editor Randy Gragg, “I don’t like Christopher Hitchens. He is rude. He is a bully. So why should I help get his work before more people?” But Randy prevailed upon me. After all, Hitchens would be giving a lecture — about God, of course — in my hometown of Portland soon, and people would be passionately interested. I agreed to do the interview, and I’m so glad I did.

I knew that my job in approaching the interview was to not get hooked by Hitchens’ jabs at Christianity, or at me, for that matter. I had my list of questions all ready to go. During the interview, I had the feeling that I was encountering a “bad boy,” a playful persona honed to perfection, one that he was totally conscious of and used brilliantly for PR purposes. I also sensed underneath the persona a deeply wounded, angry child. I don’t know where that anger came from, but it was a given from which he moved, and then used his brilliant intellect to focus, parse and dissect. No one could encounter that extraordinary mind without marveling. That day Hitchens simply spoke in whole paragraphs of perfectly constructed concepts, consistently, for more than an hour.

After his lecture on Jan. 5, a small group of us were invited to have dinner with Hitchens. There were several of us clergy present, including Marcus Borg, the internationally known Jesus scholar; plus Andrew Proctor, the head of Portland Arts and Lectures; Emily Harris, local radio personality; and of course Randy Gragg. Hitchens was known for his ability to drink great quantities of alcohol and never lose his sharp edge, a capacity in full flower that evening. He downed one glass of red wine after the next, hardly pausing except to ramble on, and managed to insult, in particular, the clergy. An African-American minister mentioned how much gospel music meant to him, and in response Hitchens quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley, and then told the minister that the words of Shelley were much more meaningful than “that gospel stuff.” Marcus Borg attempted to speak of his devotional life, but Hitchens would have none of it. Borg left the dinner early, with a kind but oblique remark to Hitchens: “Whatever you are doing, you do it quite well.”

I tried to encourage Hitchens to pause from time to time and listen to what others around the table were saying, but I was largely unsuccessful, as you might imagine: He charged on ahead, totally dominating the conversation. I was one of the last ones to leave the dinner, and found myself on the sidewalk in the dark night, still talking with Christopher, who still held a glass of red wine in his hand. Unaccountably, I felt a clean, clear sense of affection for him. I know in my own life the anger that is always there, waiting to be tapped. I know that this rage has its uses, to counter ignorance and injustice, and I know it sometimes bullies and hurts.

The interview itself revealed a surprisingly religious Christopher Hitchens. He ended up using words like numinous and transcendent and soul. He said, “I can write and I can talk, and sometimes when I’m doing either of these things, I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. There is a sense that it wasn’t all done by my hand.” A bit later he added, “Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.” At the end of the interview, I told Hitchens, “I would love to have you in my church because you’re so eloquent, and, I believe some of your impulses — excuse me for saying so — are religious in the way I am religious.” And Hitchens responded, “I’m touched that you say, as others have that I’ve missed my vocation. But I would not be able to be this way if I were wearing robes or claiming authority that was other than human. That’s a distinction that matters to me very much.”

Hitchens did not miss his vocation. He has done more than most anyone to focus popular attention on the egregious dimensions of religion. He just wanted the world, and all its people, to be pure. Unfortunately, we are not. Hence, the impulse for religion.

Read the printed interview, or hear the entire audio interview: Questions of Faith