Even before reading any articles recounting Senator Kennedy’s life and accomplishments I was able to paint the smallest picture from my own memories. My thoughts show gaping holes, and could not begin to serve as a eulogy for the man, but, they rose quickly to the surface when he died.

During the Camelot years, when Jack was President, and Robert Attorney General, I thought of Ted as the ‘other brother.’ Ted was the one who didn’t make it all the way to the top of the ladder. And, then he was the only brother alive to carry on the political aspirations of the Kennedy clan.

The bridge at Chappaquiddick came to mind. I remembered the lingering questions: Was Ted Kennedy driving drunk? Did Kennedy family money influence the findings? I also remembered the name of the young woman who died that night forty years ago: Mary Jo Kopechne.

Living and voting in Massachusetts for many years, I was one of the people who returned Ted Kennedy to the Senate time and time again. The Senator was a proponent of health care reform decades before the current debate. Sitting alone, a sadness swept into me, and I felt the loss of a Senator who held a true course in liberal, democratic action. It seemed doubly sad to know Senator Kennedy wouldn’t see how this year’s attempt at reform will end.

Sketchy as my recollections are they led me to reflect that we all carry our past actions with us, in some form or other. Some have lives troubled by scandal and doubt. Yet, the past doesn’t fully determine the present; and all of us can take up the work of justice together.

I erroneously reported that the woman who called 911 reporting a break in at the home of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identified two black men. This was not the case, even though the police officer on the scene recorded that mistake in his report.  One never likes to be the bearer of bad news, and even worse the bearer of the wrong news.  With apologies to all who were concerned by the spread of this misinformation, I stand corrected by a thoughtful reader.

Francis Bacon opined that imagination was given to humanity to
compensate us for what we are not; and a sense of humor to
console us for what we are. Humor might be that which gives us
solace for the limitations of our human condition. It compensates
for our inability to soar the heavens, to create perfect lives, to make
of our talents an inexhaustible resource for good works. Humor
allows us to laugh at ourselves as human beings.

It also allows us to laugh at other human beings whether their
actions were intended to provoke mirth or not. Consider the antics
of any comic actor at the height of his or her slapstick prowess.
Jerry Lewis stumbling and rubber-legged. Chevy Chase falling flat
on his face. Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates in every available
orifice and pocket. Jim Carey doing all of the above all at the same
time. All of their actions provoke laughter not just because we
know it’s an ‘act’, but, because we would laugh at the very same
action – if only for a shocked instant – were it a real-life event.

Laughter can sneak up on us, and though we are not callous or
cold, it may give away our mirth in a spurt of loud guffaws before. If you’ve ever laughed at the wrong time…when a pratfall really hurt, or a friend ended up in a tangle on ice skates…you are not alone.

Seeing humor in an unexpected situation might provide a moment
of social embarrassment now and then. But, the same laughter, applied to one’s own difficulties can be a saving grace. You may have had this kind of
experience, too. An argument turns to shared laughter when you
realize the spat is too silly to be taken seriously. A low moment
becomes uproariously funny as you realize it could have been
much worse. Joyful laughter bubbles up as you realize a fall left
you unmarked and unhurt.

Here we come to another perspective on humor…that offered by
Arland Ussher, who saw humor (as)…’despair refusing to take
itself seriously.’ The ability to laugh at ourselves, and others, to take playful
mirth from play-acting, to revise serious and sad moments
with chuckles and hearty ha-ha’s — this is the serious
business of laughter.

When I was a child I was aware of different kinds of stories. There were stories that ended ‘happily ever after’ and the stories told by the Brothers Grimm where characters didn’t always land on their feet. Then, there were the stories my mother told. They told the story of her life.

My mother was raised in an orphanage. She told me she was put in a line with other children to have her tonsils removed without anesthesia. She told the story of being rescued at the age of seven to live with George and Marie. George was kind in the stories, but ineffectual against the indignities Marie imparted. Marie didn’t like my mother’s nose and she spend hours rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger to change its shape. Their home was a boarding house and my mother the household help. Her life included labor too hard for a child which she blamed for the arthritis she suffered as an adult.

My mother never lived ‘happily ever after.’ Yes, she married, had a child and escaped the harsh treatment that shadowed her growing years. But, the stories haunted her. There are other stories she told that contradicted each other or were illogical. She became the heroine of her own life and styled herself gifted with a sixth sense at times.

I learned a lot from my mother’s stories. I learned that there are worse things than having a mother whose tales were sad and confusing. Somehow the stories gave her strength to protect me a new generation of abuse.   My mother  would have given me a life of ‘happy ever afters’ if she could.

I learned to treat the stories I tell about my own life with a healthy dose of skepticism. Shaping the past to suit our own needs, to bring comfort in times of stress, to enlarge ourselves in our own eyes, is simply human and a gift I share.

I learned that the past changes with the stories we tell. I know that each time I recount my mother’s stories I change history with my words, and the facts will ever elude me. Even this time.

Perhaps it is a knitter’s disease, or something stirred up by the breeze of shuttled needles, but, like every knitter I know I have three or more unfinished projects at all times. These past few weeks I’ve been making a concerted effort to put the final stitches on the incomplete socks, coat, pillow covers and sweaters spilling out of the basket. Despite such industry, I suspect I will never get ahead of the future projects waiting on an overstuffed shelf. Balls of yarn beckon, and I yearn to start something new.

What is it that makes me turn from one project to another leaving dangling threads? It might be some deep-seated wish to deny the possibility that life itself will ever end. All those partial projects waiting for an uncertain completion date might also indicate a temperament inclined to boredom, or alternately a short attention span. Or, they might indicate that I’m inclined to take on more than I can accomplish.  Women, they say, tend to multi-task, and I confess to finding a certain satisfaction in moving from sock to sweater and back again in just one evening.

My knitting habits might willfully be exchanged for a more linear approach. But, I don’t think I’ll ever make the switch. Each project holds dozens of tomorrows woven into its fabric. Tomorrows linked not by a failure to finish, but, by the promise of accomplishments yet to come.

When Henry Louis Gates was arrested at his home for disorderly conduct, I wasn’t surprised.  More than twenty years ago, in a suburb south of Boston, a black man was arrested as an intruder while sitting in his car in his own driveway.  Last week, the ‘profiling’ that made national news began when someone called the police to report black men breaking into a house. Separated by twenty years, the incidents reveal something about harbored fear and prejudice that extend into the heart of American thinking.

I had a friend who called a medical hotline to discuss his emotional state. Al was at times diagnosed as bipolar or schizophrenic, and on this day he felt the need of some advice. Deciding that this man was a ‘danger to himself or others’ the responder called in the police without informing him. Al’s agitation increased when the police arrived at his door. At one point an officer drew his gun, and despite this man’s efforts to assure the police that he was going to be okay, they took him off to a psychiatric institution.

My friend is white, but, his emotional issues presented the police with a problem they couldn’t resolve. When police officers don’t know how to de-escalate a situation they arrest someone or drag them off to a treatment facility. Sometimes, what should be the last resort becomes a knee-jerk response when an officer lacks the right training or temperament.  And, yes, police officers are just as likely to act out of prejudice as the rest of us.  Angry black men, and ‘mentally unbalanced’ white men raise specters of fear they don’t deserve and haven’t earned.

Traveling through a small town in Massachusetts, I was stopped and issued a speeding ticket.  I tried to reason with the officer, but, my entreaties met with the response, “Officer’s discretion.”  What an arresting thought, that police officers should use discretion, not to invoke their power to arrest, but, to gain sufficient distance from an unarmed man who is using only enflaming words to express his anger and shame to choose between arrest and quiet resolution.

This week is the fortieth anniversary of  the lunar landing.  The blast off was in 1969, but the mission took off in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy challenged the legislature and the people to put a person on the moon before the end of the decade.

The President spoke, and it was done. Of course the fact that Americans saw themselves competing in a race for space prominence with the Soviet Union helped to spur the project. It was also a challenge that met the self-perception of Americans as a ‘can-do’ people who could outstrip the technological abilities of anyone, anywhere, anytime.

When will that ‘can-do’ attitude bring health-enchancing, preventative, chronic and acute medical care to every citizen?  Picture the outcome. No more families brought to their knees by medical bills.  No more young adults refusing to buy health insurance so they can pay the rent or meet school bills. No more elders paying for health insurance instead of eating.   No more maladies unexamined because it costs too much to even visit the  ‘doc in a box.’  Imagine earlier intervention for diabetes, chronic heart problems and cancer.

Repeated attempts to  reform health care have failed. The recent move toward reform is being opposed by many. Where’s that ‘can do’ spirit of the ’60’s?  Why aren’t we eager to outstrip countries that have national health care with a bigger and better program?  Where are the dreamers? 

Calling all dreamers and doers.  It’s time for us to speak out, to help our country to take a giant leap into the brave new world of health care rights for all Americans.

At General Assembly a minister confessed she hadn’t written anything to her blog since February, and that her spouse often remarked to her that she should write something.  Both statements fit my situation; so, I hereby resolve to post to this blog once a week, whether I have anything to say or not.

I’ve been away from the pulpit for four Sundays. What a delicious break from the routine of mining topics, developing themes, and trying to craft words that carry a message.  The struggle that accompanies sermon development brings me to the blogging screen with some trepidation.  I want to offer cogent arguments, compelling stories and complete thoughts. I tend to see the post as a mini-sermon; every word reflecting something of what I hold most dear.

Of course, my sermons don’t always hold to that high standard.  Once in a while I sit down to write the announced sermon having forgotten what inspiration seized me weeks before.  Wondering why I didn’t write copious notes the very moment a brilliant idea arose in my fertile mind, I bend to the task of making new sense out of old topics.  Sometimes even a thoroughly mulled, completely comprehensible theme defies mastery at the keyboard.

If I’m to keep this new resolve, I will have to dislodge the goal of creating a mini-sermon. I will have to just write. What emerges may be epic or profoundly personal, it may reflect confusion or inspiration. At worst it will be half-formed thoughts shared in the heat of the moment. At best it might help me to order my experiences of the world, and to express myself in immediacy of thought, without aiming for the ‘perfect presentation.’

The Freethinkers Forum meets once a week, and although I rarely have a free night to attend, I’m glad when I can be there. The Freethinkers live up to their name, they always set me to thinking.  Last evening the presenter was a young man who was addressing the question of whether the Bible can be used as moral guide. He did a very good job sharing his thoughts on the topic, as evidenced by the fact that I’m still mulling over my perceptions of the Bible and morality.  

First, I wonder what Bible are we addressing, and in whose hands is it being used as a moral tool?  The Hebrew Bible?  The Catholic version which adds both the apochrypha and the New Testament?  Or, the stripped down Protestant version?  The presenter took his examples of immoral behavior from the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament.  But, he discovered in conversations with conservative Christians that they hold the ‘moral truths’ of the Old Testament as equal to those in the New Testament.  At least one person commented that he’d been taught that the teachings of Jesus supplanted the Old Testament, reflecting my own experience. Choosing to elevate to Old Testament as a moral guide allows conservative Christians to lend the moral weight of the Bible to God-approved wars and laws that deny civil rights to gays. 

The Freethinkers agreed that war, rape, and homophobia were sanctioned by the Old Testament.  We agreed that those three were immoral. But, we didn’t address the question of Judaism. Jews, of course, rely only on the Hebrew Bible for their religious formation.  Yet, Judaism is in many ways a religion of ethical behavior.   I was left wanting to discover how the Hebrew Bible interacts with the moral development of believing Jews. That led me to wonder how any version of the Bible affects the behaviors of Christians whose actions for peace, freedom and justice inspire my own hopes for moral behavior. 

My acquaintance with the Protestant version of the Bible leads me to believe that it is almost infinitely malleable — that I can bend it’s words and stories to my whim and will.  Yet, I’m still intrigued to know what happens when people go to that source and find there inspiration for moral behaviors of the highest order. 

The Freethinkers offered something to think about, and an impetus to further research.  A rare ‘free evening’ well spent.

Though this question might well be confused with a inquiry after the state of your loss of height or even girth, it is an inquiry after the state of your spiritual health.  The ancient meaning of ‘shrive’ is to hear someone’s sins and to respond with an assurance of grace and spiritual advice as required.  It is the action that lies behind Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins. 

 

Next Tuesday, February 25th, could be a good day to ask yourself where you have fallen short in your striving to be a person who gives no offense.  For those who experience a divine presence in their lives their desire not to offend includes both deity and humanity.  For those whose sole focus is in the human realm, there still remains a need to own up to offenses one may have given.  The range of offenses we can offer are almost too numerous to mention.  A short list would include: unwarranted anger, intentional slights, corners cut too sharply, offering cold legalism where warm empathy was needed, pursuing desires to own or possess beyond need or reason, choosing the easy out when forgiving self, and choosing harsh standards when called upon to forgive others. 

 

Before you even begin to catalogue the offenses you have given, I can offer one piece of advice good for both your spiritual health and your relationships on the mortal plane.  It is not enough to catalogue those faults, or even to share the fact of your failings with counselors. You will need to take the next step and work at making amends with those you have offended.  Sometimes apologies can suffice, at other times reparations will need to be offered.  Occasionally you may find your offense went unnoticed and your contrition seems unnecessary.  From time to time you will learn that apologies and reparations cannot undo the damage done.  In that instance, in particular, you will find this spiritual advice more than cumbersome.  Yet, it is for those times when forgiveness may not be readily forthcoming that we need an extra measure of grace.  The grace that allows us to keep on reviewing our offenses, even though we might never be fully ‘shriven’  — heard, given the grace of forgiveness, and readmitted to a relationship unmarred by memories that bring pain.