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Gratitude

Friday, April 5th, 2013

I’ve been asked to write about gratitude, but I’m not feeling mellow or happy or grateful. And it is because I CANNOT ABIDE TIME-WARNER CABLE. I just got home and went to turn on the BBC and PBS News Hour, but my TV is responding with a screen telling me that my cable box is not authorized (a new message that doesn’t make sense since it was working yesterday) Sadly, Times-Warner has the monopoly here for TV/Internet access, so I’m helpless.

I call the number on the screen and get a message said that the wait for customer support will be “slightly more than 10 minutes.”

I can manage that, I think, putting the phone on speaker. Feeding the new puppy and making dinner for myself, I listen to ads promoting various Time-Warner services punctuated with the constant (if insincere) refrain: “Thank you for your patience: an operator will be with you shortly.”

But now it’s been 47 minutes and 17 seconds and still no operator. And I’m supposed to be thinking about gratitude? The fact is that I’m thoroughly p*ssed! I’d hang up except then I would have to wait even longer.

In my frustration and impatience, I remember to breathe deeply and consider: what am I grateful for? I realize that my anger is heightened because of my sense of entitlement. Assumptions of instant TV, a free press, and local and international news come with privilege. For me, they come with a free (and good) public education, from being born into a white, middle/upper-class family, and from living in the greatest democracy in the history of the world.

Reflecting on my nephew who had served in Afghanistan (and the Afghan people that we are trying to help), I am reminded of the poverty and injustice common to the American natives in Utah and Alaska with whom I had worked many years ago. I am reminded of friends and colleagues living in squalid townships in South Africa and barrios in Mexico. I am reminded of friends living in the hollers of Kentucky. I am reminded of friends and family struggling with life-threatening diseases.

Gabriel, my now-well-fed puppy, charges around the house. Celebrating life and freedom with wild abandon, he interrupts my self-indulgent reflections, calling me back to thoughts of life and joy and connection.

In the process, he puts my life in perspective and I realize that I am grateful that:

  • I have a telephone to call (and wait) from.
  • I live in a country that honors a free press; I can get PBS, BBC, local news, and numerous other TV stations most of the time.
  • I have friends and family who are working to make this a better world and trying to improve the lot of those who have less.
  • My puppy reminds me that life is joy.
  • My friend thinks well enough of me to ask me to write about gratitude.

Hallelujah.

 

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Spirit Strikes Again

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and we celebrate the reality of love – or, better, of joys of connection.  Most of us yearn not just for love – which is rare and fairly private – but equally for connection. We need to know that we are living lives of synchronicity and right relationship with the world. We want to connect – to live in harmony – with both spirit and substance.

Surely it is suggestive that we share the same air – the same molecules of nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen that swirl through time and history from the earliest life forms through the great people of history to those we love and us.  It is the same air that connects us with the people of Asia and Africa, with saints and sinners, with apes and zebras.  We are all unified and blessed by the gift of air.

It is no wonder, then, that God breathed over the cosmos on the first day of creation and brought it to life.  It is no wonder that breath/air/wind is the same in Hebrew (ruach), Greek (pneuma), and Latin (spiritus).  It is no wonder that when we breathe this air, we are inspired.  All life and all creation begins with breath.

…including grand dreams and silly songs.

Yesterday, I was privileged to give the invocation of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. Until last year, it was The Very Reverend Alan Jones, the retired dean of Grace Cathedral, who had the honor.  But, beginning last year, he was traveling or otherwise unavailable. So Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada, organizers of the conference, asked me. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I “discovered” a long-lost version of Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer composed especially for writers.  (See http://felicitywright.com/blog/2009/02/16/a-prayer-for-writers-the-invocation-at-the-sf-writers-conference.) It was well received – which only added to the pressure when I was expected to ferret out another long-lost gem.

But, with prayer and supplication, Spirit came once again to my aid. So here is the invocation, for your amusement:

Good afternoon. We have come together in this, the seventh convening of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, to learn, create, and connect.  And whatever our religious beliefs, we are woven together in a sacred web of art and creativity as we pray for “Spirit,” holy or otherwise.  So let’s pause and breathe deeply of the same air that inspired writers from Aeschylus to Zola. As we exhale, we share Spirit’s blessings with one another.

And then we sing:

O beautiful for spacious sighs

That soar o’er the mundane,

For purple patches’ majesties

Above the phrases plain.

O poetry and prose sublime! Muse shed her charms on thee

And crown our arts with happy hearts

From A through M to Z.

O beautiful for writers’ dreams

That see beyond the shame

Of impoverished oblivion

To works of great acclaim

O poetry and prose sublime! God shed His charms on thee

And crown Thy good with authorhood

From A through You to Z.

As we give thanks for the sun, rain, and earth that grew this food, the hands that planted and prepared this feast, and the friends who brought us together, we also honor the Holy Inspiration that lies at the core of the cosmos.  And we say:

I pledge allegiance to the Word

Of the creative force of the cosmos

And to the connection for which we strive

One yearning with the Spirit

Indivisible,

With inspiration and success for all.

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The Beloved Community of Avatar, Invictus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Last week was a great one for going to movies – I managed to get to Avatar and Invictus. Watching them, I considered the differences: one is fiction, the other fact; one set in the future, the other in history; one swimming with color and art, the other mired in darkness and racism. Yet they share the same message – that of connectedness with the world and each other. And since we are also honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, I like to think that Dr. King’s courageous life and non-violent message was a common thread in the minds of Mandela, James Cameron, and Clint Eastwood.

Pondering the connection, I remembered one of Dr. King’s most powerful (but too infrequently quoted) speeches. Delivered in December 1956, the message of “The Challenge of a New Age” is as important today as it was back then. In it, he sets before us three challenges:

“First, we are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The new world is a world of geographical togetherness. This means that no individual or nation can live alone. We must all learn to live together, or we will be forced to die together….

A second challenge that the new age brings to each of us is that of achieving excellency in our various fields of endeavor. In the new age doors will be opening to us that were not opened in the past, and the great challenge which we confront is to be prepared to enter these doors as they open….

A third challenge that stands before us is that of entering the new age with understanding good will. This simply means that the Christian virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness should stand at the center of our lives…. This love might well be the salvation of our civilization…[for] the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends….It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Is that not also the message of Invictus and Avatar? Is not the “beloved community” what we all yearn for?

It was the philosopher Josiah Royce*, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term “beloved community” in the early twentieth century, but it was Dr. King who made it a byword for hope, self-restraint, justice, and love. And while Dr. King certainly knew the writings of Dr. Royce, most of us believe that he got his vision, his courage, and his words from the Bible. The “beloved community” is an idea often associated with Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John.

But what is the “beloved community”? Is it something that might happen in heaven after we die? Is it the same as the “kingdom of God”? Can we learn the message of tolerance and care from Avatar before we try to bomb our way to conquest, or is the “beloved community” just a placebo for hope without action, for feeling good without doing anything? In short, is it for real?

I truly hope so and certainly believe so! And I have been blessed to witness it on at least three different occasions in the last decade.

The most recent were the weeks in the two different orphanages in Nepal, where I was privileged to witness courage and kindness woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of new possibility. Since I have already written about that trip in this blog, I will leave that image to go back to 9/11. I was one of a team of trainers who spent the previous summer working for New York Port Authority in the World Trade Center, but I was fortuitously called away to help another client during the first two weeks of September. Thus, I was just west of Newark Airport on the morning of 9/11, when six of my colleagues and thirty of my Port Authority friends lived through the horror that has changed our world forever.

But what does 9/11 have to do with the “beloved community”?

– Statistics tell the story: of almost 25,000 people working in the World Trade Center that day, only 3,000 were killed. Seven out of every eight managed to get out safely. Seven out of every eight people walked down forty, sixty, almost eighty flights of stairs, and made it out. Seven out of every eight people groped their way down crowded stairwells that, for the last twenty or so minutes before the tower fell, were pitch black and filling with smoke.

How did they do it? Some of my friends made it down by holding hands and singing (until the smoke got too bad) and then by sharing handkerchiefs and words of encouragement. Three men worked together to carry down a young woman and her special motorized wheelchair from the 69th floor. Another nine took turns carrying down a quadriplegic from the 75th floor. There was very little screaming, except when a tremendous explosion – and the sudden loss of the emergency lights – sent many people tumbling. (This was the crash of the other building, although no one knew it at the time.) Throughout the ninety minute ordeal from the time the plane hit until the building fell, yells of “fireman coming up” and “make way, victim coming down,” meant that everyone squeezed to the sides to let others through. Of all of the dozens of people I spoke with and the hundreds of pages of newspaper stories that I read, there was not one report of anyone bullying his or her way through. People walked deliberately, but orderly, quick to make way for those in greater need.

The person I most remember was a woman named Victoria. She never made the news media, but she told me that she fell to her knees and began praying when the plane first hit. After seeing God directing the angels to protect her, she heard the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” She got up and proceeded to lead a group of about 25 people down from the 62nd floor by singing praise music and gospel songs.

I went back to Port Authority shortly after the bombing to help them regroup. The difference between working conditions in August and October was marked. We were in makeshift offices in a hastily remodeled warehouse, with ongoing threats of anthrax, concerns about more attacks, and the reminders of ongoing memorial services – as many as five a day. But the affection between the Port Authority employees was palpable. For one month, I worked with people who were not ashamed to show their unabashed love for each other. For one month, I lived in a beloved community.

The other time was January 2001, during a trip to South Africa with the Wesley Seminary choir. We were sponsored by two churches in adjoining suburbs of Cape Town. One was a black township called Langa, and the other a white village called Pinelands. On our last night, a half dozen of the white families from Pinelands came with us to worship at Langa. It was the first time that any of them had set foot in a black church, and they were unprepared for what they found. No pipe organ. No Books of Worship. Just spontaneity, fellowship, and joy! After the service and the goodbye reception, some of us were milling around in the parking lot. One of the older black women came up to me, gave me a powerful hug, and said, “When we and you and them (meaning the folks from Pinelands) are here in church, singing and dancing, and praising God together, I think that maybe, just maybe, that heaven has come down to earth.”

As tears welled up in my eyes, I could only agree and hug her more deeply. We were in community and we were all beloved. If it can happen even in the “decade of fear,” then surely we can take the message of Jesus, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Invictus and Avatar and spend the next decade working on creating a beloved community, learning to live together before we die together.

* Dr. Josiah Royce is one of the most important American philosophers, an idealist in the tradition of Hegel. He was professor of English at University of California Berkeley and of philosophy at Harvard. He emphasized will over intellect and believed that religion was the basis of human loyalty, which is the cohesive principle of ethical behavior and social norms. He argued that the highest good is achieved by “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” A diverse thinker, he also made contributions to psychology, social ethics, literary criticism, history, and metaphysics.

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Grace Happens Part III (a.k.a. “Encouragement”)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

Encouragement – it seems like an ordinary word that simply means “the act of encouraging” or “the state of being encouraged.” Ordinary. Bah. Humbug.

Not so! Encouragement is the bedrock of our faith, the source of our hope. This is because it is derived from “courage,” which itself comes from the Latin cors, or heart. And so “encouragement” literally means “giving heart to.” When we encourage our children, our friends, and those who are struggling, we are literally giving them a piece of our heart. And is this not the very heart of the gospel?

As I join nine others in our service trip to Nepal, I have been encouraged in so many ways. I particularly want to thank Ginny Curinga, Amy Greene, Alice Middleton, Laurel Morrison, and Jason Wright who went way out of their way to contribute money and supplies. And many more of you have provided encouragement through your prayers, enthusiasm, and help in working out logistics like dog, house, and garden care.

Please don’t stop!

I am the oldest person going on the trip and thought I was doing very well (having graduated from Dr. Dark Chocolate, M.D., to the 12-step Elliptical Program). But in the last few days, my lower back has started acting up (the same area where I had surgery four years ago.) I’m sure that it is stress and anxiety, but I really don’t want to be a burden to the other folks AND I want to help the orphanages and join in the trek.

So please continue to pray for me, for Carla, for the other eight, and for the orphaned children who need our help. I am usually a bit reluctant to ask for prayers (preferring to be the “strong” one who prays for others), but humility is a virtue and I’m learning. I need your encouragement and your prayers.

But as you “give a piece of your heart” to me and the others on this trip, please also look around you to find someone closer to home that needs encouragement. Remember that encouragement is a seed that, when sowed freely and tended lovingly, provides food and nourishment for years to come.

Thank you.

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A Prayer for Writers (based on process theology)

Monday, February 16th, 2009

When they asked, I was both thrilled and cowed. Dean Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral had always given the invocation in the past – but he would be sailing the South Seas on Friday, February 13, 2009.  And so Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen (the organizers of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference) asked another minister-cum-writer to deliver the opening invocation … and that was … me.

Following the Very Reverend Alan Jones would be a challenge for anyone, for he epitomizes wisdom, courage, and grace in his every written and spoken word. But Elizabeth is my literary agent and Michael is my friend, and I am forever indebted to them. After honoring me with the request, they told me to focus on the needs of writers, be inspirational but not religious, and keep it under five minutes.

So with the blessing of Rev. Jones, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the Bible as my guide, I was thrilled to give the following invocation:

Good afternoon. We have come together in this, the sixth convening of the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, to make new friends, explore new possibilities, and encourage each other.  As such, we are “making community” – and surely that is the work of God, or Spirit, or Muse, or Desperation, or whatever we call that force that pushes us to keep writing.  For we know that the challenges are real – in fact, I wonder if sometimes our prayers sound like this:

The Muse is my shepherd,
I shall not want for words.
She makes me lie down with greenbacks that flow from big contracts;
She restores my self-esteem.
She leads me in paths of rhyme and right phrasing
For her arts’ sake.

Yea, even though I stumble over stones of shame and self-contempt,
I fear no writers’ blocks.
For Thou are with me;
Thy words and phrases, they comfort me.

Surely verbs and verses shall follow me all the days of my life
And my books will be bestsellers forever.

In all seriousness, I suggest that, whatever your religious beliefs, you might resonate with “process theology,” in which God is the creative process – more like electricity or magnetism than a person or entity. As you read the Bible or other sacred texts, replace “God” with “Creativity” – I think you will like the results.  And remember what St. John wrote:  “In the beginning was the Word” – the seed planted in us so that we could be co-creators with God.

And so, as we give thanks for the sun, rain, and earth that grew this food, the hands who planted and prepared this feast, and the friends who brought us together, we also honor the Great Creativity that lies at the core of our cosmos and at the center of our yearnings. And thus we pray:

Our Creator, who art in the Eternal Imagination,
Hallowed be Thy powers.
Thy arts be honored, Thy works be written
In the mundane
and eternal realms.
Give us this day our daily Word,
And forgive us our mixed metaphors, split infinitives, and the overuse of adjectives.
Lead us not into feelings of inadequacy, but deliver us from the travails of unresponsive agents and unappreciative publishers.
For thine is the glory, the possibility, and the connection with the Eternal Word.
For ever and ever.  Amen.

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