Why We Embrace Traditions of Denial and Sacrifice

Tonight is Ash Wednesday. It is an important date on the traditional Catholic and Protestant church calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. The period mirrors the reported 40 days Jesus of Nazareth spent  fasting in the desert.

Observant Christians mark the season attending Ash Wednesday services. There, they will have a cross marked on their head with the ashes made from palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The marking of an ashen cross on the forehead is often accompanied with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Catholics will practice fasting, repentance, and abstaining from some foods, like meat. Protestants, like the Lutherans I grew up with, would focus on self-denial or charity work. Most Christians are supposed to contemplate on the coming of Easter and its meaning.

Tonight I attended my first Ash Wednesday service in more than 35 years. I needed the quiet time, in a quiet place, with quiet and thoughtful people, to contemplate my life and sacrifices that some people I know are making for others.

The sermon by the Rector at the Episcopal Church I attended focused on the importance of not running from our grief and contemplating on the world’s problems and the individual’s relation with God. Though I am not a true believer in any faith, I found these words comforting, and I had a few tears because of all that is happening with those close to me.

For those of us who have far more than we need, the idea of purposefully sacrificing something and denying one’s self pleasure seems incongruous. What would you do if you had to give up your smart phone? Your email account? Your morning coffee? What about something more radical, like running water or medicine?

We live in a world where many don’t have these luxuries, and yet we who have them are even afraid to consider life without them. So let those thoughts stay with you as we head into this period of Lent. It is one of many religious traditions that demands sacrifice. There is a good reason to practice this to think of others and not ourselves.


Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.

Learning the power of forgiveness and why it mattered the rest of my life

At some point in all of our lives people will do bad things to us, intentionally and unintentionally. This may happen many times, in fact. And these can be awful things. They can be crimes. They can harm our family and friends. They can disrupt and destroy our lives. The victim will then have many choices to respond. Among the most powerful and liberating of all responses to injustice, violence, and evil is forgiveness.

President Abraham Lincoln, an ardent practitioner of forgiveness.

President Abraham Lincoln, an ardent practitioner of forgiveness.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” said Mahatma Gandhi, a man of peace who also was murdered in 1948 by a fellow Hindu for his efforts to reconcile the violence that divided the Indian Subcontinent between Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths as the British pulled out of their Indian colony. President Abraham Lincoln, one of the world’s most revered leaders, also deeply embraced a philosophy of forgiveness while trying to lead his country out of a system of slavery and through the nation’s most bloody war. During his famous and searing Second Inaugural Address, prior to his assassination on March 4, 1865, he called for the warring sides to embrace forgiveness. When urged to punish the violent slaveholding South, Lincoln responded, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” And, like Gandhi, Lincoln too was killed, by a Southerner who considered him a traitor.

Clearly, forgiveness is not easy, and some of its most ardent practitioners have met with violent ends. “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth,” writes philosopher Hannah Arendt. “The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.” The Christian gospels written in the years after his crucifixion are premised on the very notion of Jesus’ ability to forgive his tormenters. According to the Gospel of Luke, 23:34, the dying Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, another practitioner of peace, killed.

Source, Forbes

President Nelson Mandela (source, Forbes)

Former South African freedom fighter, prisoner, and president Nelson Mandela chose to embrace forgiveness as a tool of reconciliation to heal his nation after decades of the racist Apartheid laws that relegated non-whites to second-class status and excluded them from all forms of politics, education, and economic opportunity. After his release from Robben Island, he took many actions to heal the wounds the could have erupted in more bitter violence that was seen in neighboring countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). As Barbara Mutch, a white South African noted after Mandela’s death in 2013, “Nelson Mandela sat down with his enemies and forgave them and moved on. And in doing so, he rescued his country, and he rescued each one of us, and gave us hope that there could be a future for our beautiful, fractured land. And for the greater earth that we all share.”

For me, my moment of action came when I was 18. I had finished high school and was working to save as much money as I could for college that hot summer in University City, Mo. I knew that this marked a pivotal transitional point in my life. I wanted to begin my journey was a clean slate, free from the baggage I carried from my earlier years. I wanted to explore a new path and forge a destiny  that broke from the past. I knew the most important thing I could do for myself was to let go of what I harbored against someone who caused great pain and hurt to me and my family and to themselves, in ways that I still cannot forget.

The only one who could really control the outcome of this experience was me. I had to own it for what it was. That meant I had to own accepting what had happened, and more importantly, letting it off my back and from my heart and soul. I remember the long drive I made on a hot August day with a stranger to Cleveland. I confronted the person who had done many wrongs. I told that person, with great sincerity I felt inside, that I forgave them for what they had done. I meant it. And then, a day later, I took a long bus ride back to St. Louis. Within two weeks I was in Portland, Ore., starting a new life in college, charting a new path that I would define and that would not be defined by this person or the experiences resulting their actions earlier in my life.

It was one of the most important moments I have ever had. I never forgot what it did for me and the party I forgave. Within three years, that person would be dead, and that chapter in my life would be closed.

According to Howard Zehr, the author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice, “Forgiveness is letting go of the power the offense and the offender have over a person. It means no longer letting that offense and offender dominate. Without this experience of forgiveness, without this closure, the wound festers, the violation takes over our consciousness, our lives. It, and the offender, are in control. Real forgiveness, then, is an act of empowerment and healing.”

Years later I am struck by what I gained during the few days in my life when I was striving to define who I wanted to be, and doing that through intentional deeds with a clear mind and a clear sense of purpose.

Some days still I lose focus. I stray from my path. I am tempted to go to a place that I know Lincoln and Mandela would not want to be. At those moments, I go back in time to that place when I became the kind of person I always wanted to be. Then I find the strength to do the right thing, even when it is perilous, as so many good persons have learned.

The American ‘Philomena’ story that is also my own

I love great acting. A good actor or troupe of actors can make things accessible that are scary, complex, or just distant. They become real through good art.

Dame Judi Dench stars as the main character, Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for her son giving up for adoption.

Dame Judi Dench stars as the main character, Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for her son given up for adoption.

I found this to be true with the highly acclaimed 2013 film Philomena, starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. The film portrays, in brutally painful terms, how a Catholic-run adoption system in Ireland forced young pregnant girls, usually orphans or wards of Catholic homes, to give up their kids, who were sold to wealthy American parents. The film alludes to young mothers who died in childbirth, and their kids, at these places—a national scandal in Ireland to this day.

Watching the film, one really feels for these young girls and the heartache they had giving up their young children. The pain they feel is, as is the case of the main character, Philomena Lee, a lifelong loss. The film begins with her pain thinking of her son on his 50th birthday. Fate pairs her with a journalist, Coogan’s Martin Sixsmith character, and they embark on a journey of discovery.

As an adult adoptee, naturally I become curious, what was the “system” that my birth mother found herself in during the 1960s? Who was helping her? What were her support networks? Who were all these other actors who made this work? I started Googling the name of my birthplace, Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit, Mich. This hospital apparently has been torn down and moved. I also discovered it was part of a national philanthropic organization started in the late 1800s to help unwed mothers, known by many as the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers.

Dr. Kate Waller Barrret is one of the co-founders of the Florence Crittendon Homes for Unwed Mothers (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Dr. Kate Waller Barrret is one of the co-founders of the Florence Crittenton Homes for Unwed Mothers (courtesy of Wikipedia).

In 1976, the Florence Crittenton Association of America merged with the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), and the Florence Crittenton Division of the Child Welfare League of America was established. In 2006, the National Florence Crittenton Mission became the National Crittenton Foundation and broke with Child Welfare League of America and returned to being a stand-alone organization that is linked with dozens of Crittenton-affiliated agences around the country. Oddly enough, the National Crittenton Foundation‘s headquarters are in my current home town, Portland, Ore. I find this coincidence fascinating.

How the Philomena system worked in the United States

A number of online bulletin boards have allowed adult adoptees to swap information, including for this organization and the hospital where I was born. These queries stretch over many years, and it appears there were many of us.

A Facebook page was created that is devoted to these homes nationally and larger issues of accessing records. Comments on that Facebook page call these homes the American equivalent of the one portrayed in Philomena.

The creator of that page also created the Florence Crittenton Home Reunion Registry, and I found her story touching.

The “about us” page for the registry notes: “Before society had accepted pregnancy outside of marriage, my birth mother age 18, became pregnant while in nursing school. Her mother was not around and had left the family to get jobs where ever she could to live. Part of my Birth Mother’s life was raised in an orphanage after her father had died in the coal mines. Times were extremely hard and she had no place to turn.”

As an adult adoptee who has now known about his birth ancestry more than 25 years, I continue to discover new things about the past. Today’s discovery illuminated just how many people came together as part of these hard stories, particularly for birth mothers. There were doctors, nurses, social workers (in a weird role as baby brokers), families, and the mostly hidden and also central figures, the father of “illegitimate” children.

Like the system portrayed in the film Philomena, this country had social and child adoption networks and maternal care systems operating largely under the radar because of social norms around illegitimacy, sex, birth control, and more. All of these people operated with the prevailing culture and social values of the time, which promoted secrecy and, for many, shame. A major outcome of this shame-based system was having multiple parties, from the state of Michigan to social service agencies, deny giving identity information to adult adoptees like me. I, like many others, had to spend years and many resources tracking down information to what we are entitled to as a human right—to know who we are.

Years later, the mothers and kids have revisited these past times and the systems with different values, and the story looks vastly different. In the end, this is a story that matters not just for those who were a part of this large and nationwide network. The film Philomena shows that these stories are tales about love, about loss, about life, about connection, and about identity. These are universal stories, accessible to all of us.

Turning off everything except your mind


Tonight, the rains returned to Portland. That dark winter gloom fell on cue just after 5 p.m., and I took to the streets of Portland’s so-called Alphabet District to experience this dense neighborhood.

St. Mary's Cathedral Photograph

St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

It is easy to feel isolation and gloom in this weather. People in Portland tend to avert their gaze like urban dwellers in many cities and walk purposefully.

I stumbled on one of the prettiest religious building complexes in the city, St. Mary’s Cathedral. As I noted on my photo blog, the cathedral sits in a five-block area that also includes Temple Beth Israel and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. I like this part of town a lot.

I stepped inside as the 5:30 p.m. mass was beginning. It felt warm and cozy. I decided tonight was not the night to sit, but I thought about the need to do that more frequently.

I am not a religious person, but I like that houses of worship are one of the last remaining places in our country where people intentionally turn off their cell phones, disconnect from the media and the material world, and perhaps connect with something beyond themselves. That is what I like about them. I am not a fan of charismatic churches that are full-on multimedia spectacles that turn on media to prevent contemplative thought.

When I was a kid, I was forced to sit in church nearly every Sunday for years, until I was 18. I initially I could not stand it because I did not and do not adhere to the tenets of any organized religion. But as the years came and went, I realized I had learned a great deal sitting in the wooden church pew, gazing at beautiful stained glass windows at Bethel Lutheran Church in University City, Mo. Sitting for a forced period of time stilled my mind and my generally active body.

Bethel Lutheran Church Photograph

The place where I spent many an hour contemplating things in a quiet, peaceful place–Bethel Lutheran Church.

To this day, nothing else will quiet my mind like a church pew. Though churches are not my house of worship, they still remain my quiet place. I think all of us could benefit from turning it all off for at least an hour regularly and contemplating things bigger and more important than our small, insignificant selves. For me the place is a church pew. What is it for you? If you have not gone to that place for while, maybe you should pay it a visit.

Tribal loyalties run far and deep

In the United States, we use many methods to define ourselves and our loyalties. Race, religion, ethnicity, and geography are common ways we come to understand ourselves and our circles. Groups we belong to, and schools we attended, also seek to capture our loyalties, and help us navigate the world.

In my case, I was adopted into a Lutheran family. My father was a Lutheran minister. I was brought up as a Lutheran by my mother. I was confirmed as a Lutheran as a teen. I attended a Lutheran church until I was 18 years of age and old enough to leave home forever. Today, when I hear Garrison Keilor on his show, A Prarie Home Companion,  affectionately make fun of and celebrate Midwest Lutherans, I know the world he speaks of.

Bob Dylan wrote this line in his haunting ballad, With God on our Side, in describing the world he came from in northern Minnesota and also of who we are as Americans:

Oh my name it is nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that the land that I live in
Has God on its side

Well, the country I come from is the Midwest, and whether I wanted them or not, I became one of them–a Midwest Lutheran. It is not a bad thing. It is just is part of who I am, regardless of what I believe about faith.

(Click on the photo to see a larger picture on separate picture page.)