Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Real Thanksgiving Is More Than Pilgrims and Turkey

Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for our bounty in life. Right? Yes, but is that the real reason we celebrate Thanksgiving?
Okay. Then, Thanksgiving is a time to have reenactments of the Pilgrims at the first thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony in 1621. Right?
Actually, no, the harvest festival of the Pilgrims was in gratitude for the less than fifty-percent who survived the first winter in a new land. Those who survived did so chiefly because of the compassion of the Native-Americans.
It most definitely was not the reason for our current holiday.
Okay, okay, Thanksgiving was a holiday started after some war, probably World War One or Two. Right? Almost right. It was a war, our first as a nation.
On October 11, 1782, mere months before the end of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress issued a proclamation for a day of giving thanks. The Congress expressed in their document that they were mindful of God's hand on their behalf in the war of independence from monarchical rule. The establishment of a nation of self-ruled individuals was, indeed, cause for gratitude.
The Congress chose November 28, 1782 as the date. Congress recommended that all thirteen states give thanks on this day for the creation of the new nation and for God's hand in it. Further, they stated that all pray, give cheerful obedience to His laws and practice true religion. True religion in Biblical terms is care of widows, orphans and to keep oneself pure from evil practices.
The proclamation read in part: We do hereby recommend to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe, and request the several States to interpose their authority in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the twenty-eight day of NOVEMBER next, as a day of solemn THANKSGIVING to GOD for all his mercies.
In those earlier times, states had far more independence than now. This proclamation was not binding on all states. As a result not all celebrated and of those that did, some celebrated on a day other than November 28. New York was the first state to make Thanksgiving a legal holiday (1817).
By the Civil War most states celebrated Thanksgiving a state holiday. But, remember, this was still an occasion to give thanks to God for His provision, mercy and guidance--not to celebrate the harvest feast of the Pilgrims. Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863 that there should be a national day on the last Thursday in November. He issued this proclamation after three and one-half years of bloodshed and sorrow. His proclamation was all the more touching in that he spoke of the loss and pain, then said, "Notwithstanding..." and went on to declare God's presence and care in the midst of suffering.
Since that day each sitting president has issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving would be on the third Thursday in November. In 1941 Congress approved that declaration.   In 2007, President George Bush issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation referring back to the original one issued by the Continental Congress in 1782: Our country was founded by men and women who realized their dependence on God and were humbled by His providence and grace.
What should you be grateful for this Thanksgiving? Consider this: God has preserved us as a nation for over 230 years, in spite of wars, depression, disease, dissent and difficulty. What a good and gracious God.
I wish you a truly grateful Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Maximilian Kolbe: A Shaft of Light in the Darkness of the Camps

Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:13

Without sacrifice there is no love.
From a letter of Fr. Kolbe

As a child I was fascinated by the details of martyrs’ deaths: decapitation, torture, hungry lions, imprisonment, eyes plucked out.  Descriptions of the implements of torture were interesting too: swords, sand pits, spears, guillotine. This was how it’s done when someone dies for Christ, I thought in my innocence.  

As a grown-up I know there are other ways to die for Christ.
Father Maximilian Kolbe

Consider Auschwitz Prisoner 16770. Also known as Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, arrested in May 1941for hiding Jews, publishing pamphlets and radio broadcasts critical of the Nazi regime.

Father Kolbe died in Auschwitz along with 1.1 million Jews of the over 6 million that died in the gas chambers during World War II. Others died too at the hand of the Nazis: Christians, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally or physically handicapped persons.

His life there was later recalled by survivors at his canonization hearings. At night, they said, he would walk through the barracks asking if any needed prayer or confession. He shared his food with others even though the starvation rations were intended to literally starve a man to death. He urged the others to forgive their tormentors even while he receiving beatings and lashings.

July 1941, three men escaped from the concentration camp. As a reprisal, ten men were chosen to die by starvation to prevent further escapes. Franciszek Gajowniczek, was one of those chosen. When called, Gajowniczek cried out in anguish: “My wife! My children! I will never see them again! “

According to survivors, Father Kolbe stepped silently forward, took off his cap, stood before the commandant and said, 'I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.'

Furious, the Nazi commandant, SS-Hauptsturmf├╝hrer Karl Fritzsch, asked, “What does this Polish pig want?”

Father Kolbe pointed with his hand to the condemned Franciszek Gajowniczek and repeated “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”

Those present thought that the commandant would order the death of both men for Kolbe’s insolence. Instead, he considered for a moment, then nodded. The deed was done.

The ten men were thrown into the underground cellblock to die of dehydration and starvation. In the weeks that followed some of them drank their own urine; others licked the walls of the cells for moisture, hastening their own death.

Father Kolbe prayed with the men and led them in singing hymns. The guards reported that when they came to check, Father Kolbe was standing or kneeling and would greet them. After a few weeks in the cell with no light, no food, no water, nine died leaving only Father Kolbe. Finally, because he had endured too long and the cell was needed for others, he was given a lethal injection of carbolic acid and died soon after in agony. The Nazi’s, ever precise, noted his death: August 14, 1941, 12:30 pm. He was 49 years old.

We must bow our heads before such a life as Father Kolbe’s. No doubt you question, as I do, what you would do where you in his place? A deeper question nags at me: What leads a man like he was to make the ultimate sacrifice seemingly without deliberation?  Why was this moment of self-abnegation the next logical step in his life?

As a child Maximilian was often mischievous. One time he was playing roughly and. his mother corrected him. This event had a profound effect on him. Later, Kolbe wrote:

That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.' 

So he knew. He knew that one day it would end this way, that he would die a martyr’s death. But, was it just a question of co-operating with God until he came to the point of choosing to die for another? That’s too simple. In his life he had thousands of turning points, decisions, and personal trials, as we all do. He was a human being after all.

We don’t know the struggles, the painful decisions, and the failures that are the crucible in which a soul is refined.  We don’t know what it cost him to die with grace. But we know enough from his writings that he saw real battle wasn’t with the Nazis but within his own soul.

“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

If we read between the lines we can see that his life prepared him for death. Even though he was a crusader for justice, a preacher of truth, a peacemaker; he battled with his own inner thoughts and desires—and overcame them. His actions were the natural consequence of an inner state. He lived his life fully in the knowledge of his own humanity yet he gave himself again and again to love and for love sake.

His act of self-sacrifice was just one in a long series of such acts shaped by a soul that had become incandescent with the love of God.

A survivor Jerzy Bielecki declared that Father Kolbe's death was…
…”a shock filled with hope, bringing new life and strength ... It was like a powerful shaft of light in the darkness of the camp.”

In 1982 Father Maximilian Kolbe was canonized by Pope John Paul II who gave him the title “Martyr for Charity.”

Thursday, August 6, 2015

How Raymond Watson tore down walls

In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

In Belfast, Northern Ireland there is a wall that divides the loyalist area of Shankill Road from the Springfield-Fall Roads Catholic area. There are currently 99 barriers of various shapes and sizes dividing nationalist and loyalist communities in the city. In spite of the sorrow and trauma the walls have caused, it is called the Peace Line. The barriers have increased in number and height since the Good Friday Peace Accord ended the fighting in 1998. 
My photo of a section of the Peace Line
Raymond Watson knows about walls. He was barely twenty when the British government incarcerated him in the infamous Long Kesh Prison for his involvement in the political conflict. He was given a sentence of seven years and spent some of it in solitary confinement. 
I met Raymond last year in Cushendall, Northern Ireland while visiting my storytelling friend, Liz Weir. We shared a meal at Liz’s house and later enjoyed a celilidh with fiddlers, poets, and tellers.
Over tea I asked Raymond to tell me about Long Kesh.  "Well, it was no five-star hotel,” he said, giving me a sidelong look. He and hundreds of other men were kept in prison without heat, minimal food and clothing, and only a mat to sleep on. They were routinely stripped and examined in all orifices for possible messages smuggled in.
The violation of human rights were significant in Long Kesh, yet international law required the British to put a Bible in each cell. As part of a protest against wearing prison uniforms that signified they were convicts rather than the political prisoners they were, each man wore only a blanket. The concrete block cells had no heat and the winters were brutally cold. To keep his bare feet off the cold floor Raymond stood on his Bible. The irony of that image sticks in my brain still.
Particularly heart breaking was the invoking of the ancient rite of fasting as a form of protest for better prison conditions. Ten men eventually died of starvation.
While in prison Raymond had time to reflect deeply on the nature of the conflict that brought him to Long Kesh. Walls defend us, protect us, give us the illusion of safety, he thought, but more importantly, walls keep them on the other side. He saw the true walls are those in people’s minds, dividing us one from another.
Raymond turned to sculpture after his release to find a way to make sense of what happened, creating works that told the story of his experiences in Long Kesh. His sculptures are poignant, expressive, raw testaments in wood and iron.  Later he wrote The Cell Was My Canvas: Stories of artwork inspired by the experience of political conflict in Northern Ireland (2013) which chronicles his prison days and the evolution of his art. Raymond wants us to think about the walls we create; his art challenges our usual way of thinking about ourselves, neighbors, politics, culture.
Once, on a trip to Tibet he saw prayer flags by the thousands flapping in the breeze. “A lot of my art is around conflict resolution,” he explained. “I was traveling through the Himalayas and I saw a couple of towns which had thousands of Tibetan prayer flags containing wishes for the future. I thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a similar project here (in Belfast)’.”  As a community project, 10,000 flags were created and sewn together to make a bunting more than a mile-and-a-half long. The bunting runs along the interface between the Shankill and Falls Road—along the peace line—as mute testament to love that endures sectarian violence.
What I found so remarkable about Raymond was his lack of bitterness as he spoke about this long, difficult time in his life. It could have turned out so very, very different. He could have died or been bitter, angry, spiteful towards his jailers. He could have spent the rest of his life hating. Such toxic emotions would have poisoned him, those he loved, and certainly his art. 
Raymond Watson came to a place that makes no human sense at all. Instead of hatred there is forgiveness and--yes, even love. Not the emotional, love-me-tender, kind of love but love for life and self and others. A love that breaks down walls and is willing to endure—no matter what.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Welcome to my blog

Welcome. Thank you for joining me at Invisible Good. This blog is my exploration into how God's purposes and our free will intertwine (or not).  

As a personal story consultant I often hear my clients speak of turning points in their lives. You know the kind of thing I mean. The event that changes everything. Sometimes it's children or a death in the family or a mentor who believed in them. As they tell me about it, the timbre of their voice changes. It is as if another voice comes in, or put another way, as if a story is telling itself in them rather than they telling me a story.

That may seem like woo-woo stuff to you but I stand in good company when I speak of exploring the intersection of free and divine will and how our choices shape who we become.  It is a golden theme taken up by many writers and philosophers. My particular slant is that God seems to have a plan and a purpose that expresses itself no matter the twists and turns. We get there one way or another.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet tells Horatio there is a plot to kill him. Hamlet doesn't seem to take it amiss that someone wants him dead but sees the hand of God at work.
When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will- (Act V; Scene 2)
Circumstances, events, choices in our lives all seem to be our own at the time. We feel we are the masters of our fate, right? Maybe. No one chooses tragedy yet I have seen a goodness come from the hardest of times. Why is that? What does it take to respond to hard times, tragic circumstances, in a way that makes us better and in the doing experience God at a deeper level?

That’s what I want to look into in these pages (and I hope you'll join me). Through the stories of people I have met or read about--literature and life--I want to explore this idea that will not leave me: God is at work drawing us to Himself; He who is love incarnate. 

For most of us that drawing is a matter of living long enough to slowly, painfully, inexorably let God love us, usually when we are at our lowest ebb. Still, we may not have to go through all the terrible times. Stories can help us see our way. We have the option to learn the lessons that have been hard won by others. I believe that stories can change lives for the better. 

The stories I want to bring you are of the small and large ways that God teaches us to know Him in the events of a life, such as a priest who volunteers to replace a man in the gas chamber, of a poet for whom God sent a fog to prevent his suicide, or a chance word to a woman that turned her from a life of self-pity to joy, or the death of an infant that was not an end but a beginning.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And rides upon the storm. 
And works His sovereign will.  
William Cowper (1731-1800)

Do you have a turning point you want to share? Enter your story below. 
Note: I respond to every person.