Monday, September 28, 2015


A tribute to my son, Timothy Pfeifer Part 2i

Not long after my son, Timothy, died, I shared my grief with a friend. During a pause in our conversation, he said, “Now you have to carry on Timothy's legacy.” I sat bolt upright. “That's wrong. I'm supposed to pass my legacy on to Timothy, not the other way around.”

My friend's statement continues to challenge me. What has Timothy passed on to me? I now realize that much of Timothy's legacy is my legacy. I passed my conscious and unconscious values to him. When he died these values were handed back to me for my conscious development and growth.

One thing I admired in Timothy was his brilliant mind. But more than his brilliance, was his ability to act with authority and perseverance. During the Madoff investigation, he chartered a plane to fly his team into an airport in eastern Europe that didn't accommodate commercial flights. If I am to carry on Timothy's legacy, I need to acknowledge my personal authority. I too am intelligent and creative. I carry Timothy's legacy forward when I use my abilities with greater hope and confidence.

Timothy and I both enjoyed people. He deepened my appreciation of this fact through his photography. His subjects were more than a girl on a New York subway platform or a peasant on a street in Mumbai. They were people with hopes, dreams, fears, hurt and joys - people like me.

When Pope Francis visited Washington DC, he noticed a small girl in the crowd who who was a cheerleader in the Special Olympics. He smiled broadly and stooped down to greet her. This was not the Pontiff blessing a handicapped girl. This was one human being embracing another with no agenda other than to enjoy the moment. My heart swelled in recognition. In all of our differences, we humans are more alike than we care to acknowledge.

I spend time in a local coffee shop where I am the de facto welcoming committee. I nod and engage people in conversation. It has gotten to the point where I now recognize so many people, that I introduce them to one other. My coffee shop emulates the Boston tavern, “Cheers” where everyone knows your name. It is special to know that Timothy and I share this interest in people.

Timothy detested stereotypes. He once challenged me saying, “Dad, you see everything as black or white. People are much more complex than that.” He was correct. We raised our children to honor all people, even those with whom we disagree. When I was director of Madison Urban Ministry (MUM), I developed cooperative rather than oppositional strategies for dealing with community problems. Even in this, I stereotyped people as good or bad - for me or against me. I was still trying to manipulate people to achieve my ideal for Madison.

Timothy invites me to rethink my understanding of personal and social interactions. I now realize that we humans are subject to psychological, spiritual, and cultural forces beyond our control. Our engagements are more like a dance than a tug-of-war. Social action from this perspective is a different animal. It requires discernment as well as rational thought; emotional engagement as well as analysis; a feeling for the thing as a whole as well as recognition of the individual parts; empathy with all involved rather judgment of others through stereotyping and demonization.

As I engage life in this way, I find am able to relate to people; accepting my authentic self with all my strengths and weakness. This stance of humilityii reinforces another characteristic that I share with Timothy. Neither of us would play political games - games that forced us to be inauthentic. Although this insistence on authenticity may have cost us in our professional lives, it reaped long term positive benefits. We were more consistent in our actions and reactions. People could trust us because “what you see is what you get.” We did not have to pretend.

I remember a time when I, as director of MUM, confronted the director of the United Way at a public meeting. People thought I was crazy, because MUM was funded in part by the United Way. I challenged her and her agency to fund unpopular programs that addressed intractable community issues; like racism, sexism and economic discrimination. To everyone's surprise, she engaged me in a dialogue on this troubling dynamic. She knew I was not trying to manipulate her. She was able to respond from her authentic self. We connected at a deep level; as we acknowledged our community's inability to stand with the oppressed. Timothy's actions have fortified me to remain authentic and to grow in self confidence.

Timothy enjoyed life and lived it full-out, packing 80 years of living into 45 years of life. He lived outside the box: dressing extravagantly; giving fun and silly gifts to family, friends and co-workers; painting his toenails purple; and decorating his office with science fiction kitsch. He refused to be categorized politically or spiritually. This life-style caused him some anxiety and emotional pain and perhaps contributed to his death. Even so, his will to live full-out prevailed. Timothy passed this legacy on to me. He stated it best in a card given to his second cousin which read, “The world is yours - Take it! Share it! Love it!”

I have lived much of my life like Atlas, shouldering the cares of the world.iii I have toiled like Sisyphusiv, struggling to promote social change, often seeing my efforts undone by forces beyond my control. I can hear Timothy saying even now, “Dad, you take things too seriously. Lighten up! You care for the world. Now love it and enjoy it.”

Although Timothy espoused no religious or spiritual tradition, his advice reminds me of the admonition of the first commandment of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I tend to translate this as, “God is God, and you're not.”

I can't force humanity into my mold. My puny efforts are entirely insufficient for this task. Furthermore, I am not separate from the world. I am part of an amazing and complex dance that has been going on for more than 13 billion years. My opportunity is to attune myself to this cosmic flow of life, not because I need to improve on the flow, but because I am more alive when I do so.

I will close this reflection with a homely example relating to Woburn United Methodist Church. Our little congregation of 35 people recently conducted a “Worship Without Walls” service on our minuscule front lawn on Main Street. I had imagined this service as a recruiting effort for new members. The night before the service I had this insight: Our “Worship Without Walls” service is not a project that can fail or succeed. It makes no difference how many people attend. We, in our little church, are participating in something beyond ourselves that contributes to LIFE. This is why we do it.

Immediately the pressure was off. I relaxed and enjoyed the experience. The first commandment was no longer a judgment about how I should live my life or how we should conduct our service. It became an invitation to allowing something beyond ourselves to flow through us.

Timothy, I miss you and always will. Through my memories and your legacy, you continue to live in me. I thank you for that. Blessings my son.

i Thank you Keith Johson for prompting this reflection.
iiSr. Joan Chittister defines humility as the ability to accept ourselves as we are. This implies we not only identify our weaknesses without shame, but we also identify our strengths without pride.
iiiIt seems significant that a statue of Atlas stands outside Timothy's office in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
ivSisyphus committed crimes against the Gods. As punishment he was condemned to an eternity of hard labor. He was consigned to rolling a huge boulder up a hill. Once he had succeeded, with huge exertion, to attain the summit, the rock rolled back down the hill

Monday, August 31, 2015


A tribute to my son, Timothy Pfeifer Part 1

My son, Timothy Scott Pfeifer, died unexpectedly from complications of health problems. The date was February 12, 2015. Even now, it is difficult for me to acknowledge this fact. I go about my daily business - reading, writing, reflecting, exercising, praying, eating, watching TV- trying to ignore the empty spot in me that may never be filled.

Timothy was a complex, caring, tenacious, brilliant, extravagant individual - a powerful life force that is no more?  He was loved by many? He lived life "flat out," packing 80 years of living into 45. Many grieve his passing with tears and tortured conversations. I am just numb.

My grief is creeping up on me in the form of depression and loss of energy. I find consolation knowing that he lives on in the lives of all of us who were touched by him. He is now a part of that cosmic mystery that throbs with life.

James Carroll (The Winter Name of God) states, “The name of God is changing in our time. What is his winter name? Where was his winter home?” This quote characterizes me; and has much to say about my son.

Timothy did not define himself as traditionally religious or even spiritual. In fact Timothy refused to be stereotyped in any way. Politically he was loathe to characterize himself as either liberal or conservative. He often challenged me calling me a typical 'Madison knee-jerk liberal'. He said, “Dad, you see the world as either black or white, good or bad. People are much more complex than that.”

His philosophy of life was summarized in a note accompanying a book of maps given as a Christmas present. It read, "This is your world. Care for it. Share it. Love it."

Tim's brilliance and perseverance were unquestioned. He was employed first as an associate with the law firm of White & Case and then as a parter with BakerHostetler. There he was part of the team that prosecuted the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. David Sheehan, the lead lawyer for this investigation, said of him, "Timothy joined the Madoff team very early on and was a key member of that small band that created the architecture for all of the complex litigation in which we are all now immersed. He had an amazing facility to walk you through the labyrinth of facts that comprised our most complex cases and make them readily understandable." Sheehan further remarked at Timothy's memorial service, “When you interview some people, you say, 'They are obviously someone I want.' Timothy was so far above even that estimation that there wasn't any comparison.”

Jim Mintz, founder and CEO of the James Mintz Group of private investigators had this to say of Timothy, “My colleagues were Timothy's investigators. Together we created giant graphics that looked like platters of spaghetti and that only he and we understood. He had an uncanny ability to hone in on the crucial details, to see connections no one else was seeing while, keeping in view the big picture, and how it fit into the larger argument he was advancing. Timothy was genuinely brilliant at studying what makes people tick. Our love for him grew from this business relationship. I'm not sure that I will meet the likes of Timothy Pfeifer ever again. I miss him a great deal.”

Tim was much more than a brilliant lawyer. He had a marvelous “out of the box” sense of humor. As a partner at BakerHostetler, he purchased a PackMan machine and installed it in his office. People had to pay to play, and the proceeds went to charity. When something struck him funny, he erupted in a silly giggle that echoed throughout the room.

Timothy was a connoisseur of comic books. In fact, he and a fourth grade friend, wrote and distributed them. They hired other forth graders as copyists paying them a penny a book. Timothy's comic book collection, many collected in his youth, was stored in a corner of his office in special boxes. Each comic was encased in a plastic sheathe to keep it in mint condition. Timothy's office shelves were populated with a strange assortment of trinkets including Star Wars action figures, a Buck Rogers Ray Gun, robots, moon landers, a sword cane, and a futuristic red fan. After his death, these momentos were given to friends as keepsakes.

Timothy was known for his special flair. His professional dress was impeccable – suit, tie, pressed shirt and carefully polished shoes. Outside of the workplace he dressed in outrageous combinations. When traveling to international assignments, his flight outfit consisted of shorts, golf shirt, suit-coat and flip-flops. He once accompanied an Asian friend to a family wedding. He dressed in a gold oriental coat that was more spectacular than even that of the groom. He accompanied his friend's father, a diminutive Asian man dressed in a western business suit, to the wedding. They stopped at a fast food place for coffee. Neither man seemed concerned that a small Asian man in a western business suit was dining with a large African American man in a gold caftan. Timothy once met a neighbor outside his apartment building wearing shorts and flip-flops.  He had painted his toe nails. His neighbor noticed this; and on the spot, they schedule a time to visit the salon to have their nails repainted.

Timothy was exceptional in the way he related to people I remember attending a party with him at a supper club in rural Wisconsin. Timothy sat down on a bar stool next to a local farmer and engaged him in an extended conversation. He later explained that the man seemed like an interesting fellow, so he struck up a conversation with him.

It took Timothy's assistant a long time to realize that her boss could also be her friend. She is an organized person who keeps her desk and office area neat and clean. Timothy would tease her by placing little knick-knacks on her desk. She'd remove this clutter and place it discreetly back in Tim's office only to find it reappearing in her office area. Timothy engaged her in long discussions about what color they should paint the one non-white wall of his office or how he looked in his new shirt.

Timothy took hundreds of candid photos of people standing or sitting alone in parks and subways, or walking on city streets. His photos demonstrate deep insight into the human condition. Timothy was particularly affected by the poverty he observed on his trips to Mumbai, India where grown men scrambled to gather the garbage thrown to the holy cows in this Hindu country.

His appreciation of and commitment to the humanity of each individual even affected his legal career. He refused to participate in the political games that many play to obtain advantage over others. He once told me, “Dad, if you honor your opposition in a legal case and are willing to really listen to their arguments, you can save millions of dollars in the settlement.”

Finally, Timothy loved and was loved by people. When we traveled to New York City after his death, we were overwhelmed by love. Over and over we heard how Timothy cared about each person he met - partners in the firm, foreign dignitaries, building caretakers, social acquaintances and personal friends. Tim befriended a cleaning woman at the firm. One night he found her crying in the hallway. Her pay had be docked because she had inadvertently violated a building regulation. He reached into his pocket and gave her all the money in his billfold. A British lawyer who worked with him on the Madoff case in England, was so impressed by Timothy that he traveled from London to be present at his memorial service.

Timothy, you and your legacy continue to live. You affected the lives of individuals and institutions throughout the world. And you affected me.

You taught me to see the creative potential in all people, particularly those with whom I disagree. You taught me to live outside my box, to challenge my norms and biases for the sake of creativity and life. You taught me that brilliance in thought is much less important than loving relationships. You taught me that a whole or holy life is not primarily about well developed philosophies, theologies and belief systems. My life becomes more whole when I engage the wonder of the cosmos completely and without reservation and share that wonder with others in mutual caring and respect.

The writer F. Forrester Church put it this way: “The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. When I pray to God, God’s answer comes to me from within, not beyond. God’s answer is yes, not to the specifics of my prayer but in response to my hunger for meaning and peace.”

Son, you are helping me to appreciate my hunger for meaning and peace. You are teaching me to Live with Soul. I love you so much; and I miss you more than I can ever know.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


January 28, 2015

Christmas is behind us. This year the holiday season was, for me, a time of waiting. I waited and watched my grandson as he anticipated Christmas and the presents that accompanied it. His family came to our house on Christmas Eve. His eyes sparkled as he danced around the room helping everyone open their presents. I thought of my own childhood Christmases as I watched him. My aunts and uncles came to our house on Christmas Eve. We children waited upstairs for Santa to come. There would be a knock at the door, and we would run to greet him. He carried a large bag filled with presents. We stood back a little, fearful, as he handed each of us our gift. To this day, I can feel the knot in my stomach, part fear and part excitement, as I reached for my gift from this strange bearded man.

We spend much of our lives waiting, sometimes in hope and sometimes in fear. I remember waiting as a teenager, wondering if the girl of my dreams would accept my invitation to a dance. I also remember waiting when I searched for my first job. Pregnancy and birth involve a lot of waiting. The same is true of adoption. Young people wait to grow up and old people wait to die. Hungry people wait for a meal. Athletes wait anticipating the competition.

This days I watch news reports, waiting with a mixture of hope and fear. Will the tactics of ISIS result in further suffering and death? Will terrorist cells kill people here like they did in the Paris attacks? Does the recent killing of African Americans by police indicate that racism is on the rise? Is our political system being sold to the highest bidder as wealthy politicians restrict advantages to middle and low income people while lining their own pockets? Is it even possible to build a society where trust and good will are the norm rather than fear and domination? Does the spirit of Christmas and the delight of little children have any affect? Or are these images merely the hopes of dreamers who are not in touch with reality?

Underlying all of this is the question: How can I live with hope and expectation in these chaotic times?  This question isn't new. It has haunted humankind for ages.

The Old Testament book of Habakkuk records the prophet's anguished dialogue with God:2 Habakkuk screamed, “God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, 'Help! Murder! Police!' before you come to the rescue? “ And then God answered: “Write this. This vision-message is a witness pointing to what’s coming. And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It will come right on time.”

Habakkuk's anguished cry was joined by Ellie Wiesel and two other rabbis who put God on trial in a Jewish concentration camp.3 Wiesel states, “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty.' It means ‘He owes us something.' Then we went to pray." These rabbis trusted God even when they believed God owed them something for their suffering.

Hindu activist, Mahatma Gandhi4, lived in hope and expectation as he led the fight for Indian liberation from Britain. Although he was assassinated as he tried to stop the Hindu-Muslim conflict in Bengal, his strategy of resistance through mass non-violent civil disobedience, changed the world.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr. adopted Gandhi's strategy as he campaigned for civil rights in America. He was gunned down as his “Poor People's March on Washington” faltered and failed to achieve its goal. Yet he lived in the belief that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”5

Although there are times when I am able to feel compassion for my enemies, there are other times when I am beside myself with frustration. I want to destroy those who oppress the powerless and flaunt justice. At these times King's words ring in my ears. “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. . . . Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

So what is this life-giving love that can drive out hate? In my less cynical moments, I catch glimpses of it.

My sister Sue died of cancer nearly four years ago. She was a school counselor, played horn in a brass choir and was active in her local church. She was quiet, well-liked and had a wicked sense of humor. She was not known as a mover and shaker in the community. People at her funeral told story after story of how Sue had affected their lives. One young man said, “Thirty years ago, I was headed for trouble. But Sue believed in me, and that made all the difference.” With stories, laughter and tears people gave witness to the life-giving love that flowed through Sue into the community.

Ed Steichen, was a priest and papal volunteer in South America. There he met Helder Camera, Brazil's archbishop of the poor.6  Ed was deeply impressed when archbishop Camera attended a convocation of bishops dressed in peasant's garb rather than the traditional royal robes. Later in life Ed left the priesthood and married Aggie. We became friends through Madison Urban Ministry. Ed was a tireless advocate for the poor. He, like Camera, critiqued the oppressive structures of Society.7 He fought to reform the dehumanizing practices of the prison system, particularly solitary confinement in the super-max. Ed's connection with the life-giving love of the cosmos was evidenced in his actions and in his second passion, nature photography.

Sometimes life-giving love is manifest in organizations, groups that are characterized by people who move forward with passion and humor even in dire circumstances. The Church of the Saviour, founded by Gordon Cosby in Washington D.C., is one such organization. Cosby told how he and his brother, also an activist preacher, met annually at a motel to strategize. One year, the president of Cosby's congregation joined them. She was ill with cancer. Gordon said, “Here we were, two old men and a woman with cancer, sharing how God was using us to change the world.” The congregation he led continues to minister in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Washington D.C.  Life-giving hope and love flows through these people into our nation's capitol.

Sometimes life-giving hope and love manifests itself in large social movements., like the civil rights struggle where millions of people are impacting the course of nations. Some of the leaders are familiar to us8, but the power of life-giving love is carried mainly by thousands of ordinary people and organizations who operate behind the scenes with little fanfare. We gravitate to such endeavors because something important is happening through them, something that is transforming the world. Many of us risk reputation and personal safety to be a part of these efforts.

Yes, we humans are part of a mysterious dynamic that defies rational description. We are more than we think we are. We know this dynamic, not through logical arguments and theories, but in our experiences. It might be in watching a sunset, looking at a picture, listening to a piece of music, hearing a story or experiencing one of the thousands of everyday events that fill our lives. This knowing comes from our guts, not our heads.

Habakkuk described this knowing as engaging Yahweh. My sister Sue, my friend Ed Steichen and Martin Luther King Jr. were inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi practiced non-violent resistance motivated by his life as a Hindu. Buddha preached an enlightenment that grows out of compassion.

Inspiring as these teachers were, many of us today are not moved by traditional religions. They no longer speak to us. Their images and beliefs seem outmoded and irrelevant when viewed through the lens of our twenty-first century technology, science and psychology. Yet we all experience moments when we “know” something that is difficult to explain rationally. This knowing often gives meaning and purpose to our lives.

Fritjof Capra9 and David Steindl-Rast10, with Thomas Matus, discuss this disconnect in the book, Belonging to the Universe11. I have excerpted a few paragraphs below:

David: We all carry with us a great question. There is something questioning within us. It is unexpressed most of the time, or perhaps always. Our very life is a quest, a questioning. And once in a while, for no particular reason, we suddenly know the answer, we glimpse the answer. But the answer is not yet spelled out. We just say, “This is it.” It may be the smile of a baby in a crib. A parent looks at the baby, and there, “This is it.” It is this kind of being able “to rest in it” from our restlessness with which we normally pursue life.

Fritjof: Yes, but I want to get at something else in spirituality or Religion . . . It is the sense of connectedness to the cosmos as a whole. That's also in the smile of the baby, because I am the father, but the smile of any baby is also my smile. And the smile of a dolphin - if you can call it a smile – is also my smile. . . . So this sense of connectedness with the cosmos is essential to religious experience for me. . . . the expression I usually use (is) belonging.

Thomas: Belonging has a double meaning. When I say, “This belongs to me,” I mean that I possess something. When I say, “I belong,” (I mean) I take part in, am intimately involved with a reality greater than myself, whether it's a love relationship, a community, a religion, or the whole universe. So “I belong” means “Here I find my place,” “This is it,” and, at the same time, “Here I am.”

David: Maybe one can now use another image. I said we go around with this quest, with this question. Maybe one can say we often feel orphaned; we feel lost; we feel we're wandering and looking for something. Then comes a moment, unexplainably, “Now I am at home, this is my home. And I belong. I am not orphaned. I belong to all other humans.” Even if there's nobody around, this is clearly felt. I am at home with them. I am responsible for them and to them. We all belong together in this great cosmic unity.

Fritjof: Etymologically, the root of religion is connectedness and the root of theology is in theos, God. But the way you present it it does not require the concept of God.12

David: It does not require the name “God.” And I am always very careful not to say “God” unless I know that the people with whom I speak feel comfortable with it, or at least don't misunderstand it too greatly. The term God is so easily misunderstood that it is just as well to use it only with great caution.

I am impressed with David Steindl-Rast's insight in the paragraph above. “(Religion) does not require the name 'God.' The term God is so easily misunderstood that it is just as well to use it only with great caution.“

This statement puts us all on equal footing. Whether or not we use the name God, we are each responsible for how we engage that unexpressed questioning in our lives. We can try to ignore it. We can lose ourselves in societally conditioned pursuits that never really engage this dimension of living. Or we can seek to live our lives as authentically as possible, saying, “Here I am.” “I belong.” Only when we engage that sense of belonging that we occasionally glimpse will we know our authentic selves, our human capacity to live in hope even during desperate times.

Only then will we sense that we are part of the energizing, creating dynamism of the cosmos. Perhaps this is why the recent celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is so meaningful to me. It is a manifestation of humankind's potential in the midst of humankind's shortcomings. We are able to discover life-giving love and hope even in the midst of the hopelessness and fear that often characterizes our human condition.

I will end this reflection with another personal story. Sometime in late November, we were caring for our grandson. He told us he wanted to take a break in the crib in our bedroom. He knew he could only have his pacifier and blanket when he was in his crib. I put him down and lay on our bed, hoping he would go to sleep. I felt restless and despairing as my mind played through all the violence and suffering in the world. In the silence, I heard my grandson talking to his stuffed animals: Big Doggie, Little Lamb and Little Doggie. After asking them questions, he was quiet. Then I heard this little voice say, “Big Doggie, I love you so-o-o much.” My heart melted. I felt strangely at peace. Something soft yet powerful filled the room through my grandson's proclamation.

1I want to thank pastor Yoo-Yun Cho-Chang of Woburn (MA) United Methodist Church, whose sermon on Nov. 30, 2014, “Standing at Watchpost,” inspired this reflection.
2The Hebrew prophet Habakkuk lived in the late 7th century about the time the Hebrew people were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians.(Habakkuk 1:2-4; 2:2-3)
7The late archbishop's place in history will be heavily influenced by one of his more memorable sayings. "When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist."
9Fritjof Capra is an Austrian-born American physicist. His books include, The Tao of Physics (1975), The Turning Point (1982), UncommonWisdom (1988), The Web of Life (1996) and The Hidden Connections (2002)
10David Steindl-Rast is a Catholic Benedictine monk, notable for his active participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science.
11Belonging to the Universe: Explorations on the Frontiers of Science & Spirituality, Fritjof Capra author of The Tao of Physics & David Seindl-Rast with Thomas Matus, Harper Collins, p. 14-15
12Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the word back to an old Latin word religio meaning "taboo, restraint." A deeper study discovers the word comes from the two words re and ligare. Re is a prefix meaning "return," and ligare means "to bind;"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


What a summer! Our children treated us to two weeks in Italy to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. Our whole family – Rebecca, Dan and little Gus as well as Timothy and Johanna – spent the first week in a villa near Cortona in Tuscany. The second week, Jean and I set off by ourselves, traveling to the cities of Cinque Terre1, Pisa, Florence and Rome.

I was awed by the beauty of the country and by the Renaissance art of Florence and Rome. I was further blessed spending time with our family and with Jean. This alone made the trip worthwhile.

Yet I received something else from the trip for which I wasn't prepared. This was our involvement with the people of Italy. These experiences humanized the trip and helped me appreciate at a deeper level what it means to Live With Soul. I'd like to share a few of these experiences with you.

I remember mornings hiking up to the walled city of Cortona2. The road was bordered by trees in the valley and by vineyards and olive groves as we ascended. The base of the city wall dated back to Etruscans times (5th century BCE) while the remainder was added in the 3rd century after the Roman conquest3. Upon reaching the city, we entered by one of the four gates and proceeded down narrow streets, past ancient buildings, to Bar Cafe Signorelli, where we enjoyed our morning coffee. Claudio, the owner, would greet me with a friendly “Ciao,” while bringing my decaf espresso with cream. Although his limited English and my non-existent Italian, made conversation difficult, I felt a special bond with him. The day we left he hugged me saying “Arrivederci.”

Jean and I spent two wonderful nights with Gabriele at Stella Della Marina, a 10 room hotel in Monterosso (Cinque Terre). It was here that I lost my credit card to a pick-pocket. I told Gabriele that he was truly the angel Gabriel, as he offered me his business phone for the 1½ hour conversation required to obtain a replacement credit card. His hotel is like a bed and breakfast, because he is both the proprietor and staff. His morning meals, served on the roof-top of the hotel overlooking the sea, were one of the high-points of our trip.

The loss of my credit card enabled another meeting, this one with a wonderful woman in Riomaggiore (Cinque Terre). We were about to purchase a book in her shop when I realized my credit card was missing. She understood immediately what had happened and gave me the book. She then said, “Most Italians are not like this.” Jean later returned to thank her for her graciousness and generosity. With little language in common, they connected at a deep level. The woman said Jean reminded her of a dear relative.

The credit card fiasco precipitated yet a third chance meeting. Since the emergency replacement card could not be used in cash machines, son, Timothy, wired me money via Western Union. Unfortunately, the Western Union Webpage is outdated. This resulted in an unplanned walking tour of Florence. Finding no available Western Union offices, I finally had the hotel call a distant bank which said they could handle the transaction. I took a cab to this location and asked the cabby, Jacobi, a thirty-something young man, to wait for me. Alas, this bank also would not serve me. Upon learning this, Jacobi drove me up and down streets in the area searching out Western Union locations. Although this too proved unsuccessful, I had a wonderful conversation with him. He said that he was most hopeful about the new pope. He also indicated that he considered himself a global citizen. He had learned English by watching YouTube videos. As we parted, he said he was sorry he couldn't help me.

Our vacation concluded in Rome. One afternoon we met Shahidul in the near vacant Ristorante Bar L'Euroea, where he was a waiter. He told us he was from Bangladesh. His wife had returned home because she felt excluded due to language and cultural differences. His children also left because of problems with the education system. It seems we are all aliens in one sense or another.

We toured the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica. As we queued up to see these sites, guides separated us into groups according to our native languages. A woman from Portugal was frantic, because she couldn't find her group and because she spoke no Italian or English. Jean used her limited Spanish to find out what the woman wanted. When she explained her plight, I asked the English speaking guide to direct her to a group, which she did. In some strange sense, I felt part of a larger global community in this act.

We spent our last night in a crowded outdoor restaurant. The staff were somewhat formal as they waited on us. When the crowd had thinned, I asked our waiter, Emanuelow, about himself. He told me he had completed his university degree in the history and philosophy of science. I said my training was in physics and that I was interested in the growth of consciousness. We talked further; and he finally asked if we might exchange email addresses, which we did. It's curious how many opportunities we have to connect with one another if we can only see them.

We finally rendezvoused with Dan, Rebecca and Gus, for our trip home, at Fiumicino - Leonardo da Vinci Airport.  We joined the crowds in the passport inspection line and boarded the plane. As I took my seat, I felt strangely unsettled. Part of me was preparing for the transition back to my 'real world' in the United States – Logan Airport, our condo in Woburn, the traffic on I95, the mundane chores of home life and the news reports of the stalemate in Congress & warfare in Israel, Syria and Iraq. Another part of me lingered in Italy – the rolling hills of Tuscany, the seaport towns of Cinque Terre, the Renaissance art of Florence and Rome, and the wonderful people we met.

As I sit here on a chair in front of Boston King Coffee, at Four Corners, in Woburn Massachusetts, I remain betwixt and between. I am back into my old routine. Yet I am not completely back. Perhaps this time away - yet not quite away - is a portal into a new way of being. Perhaps I can begin to look around - really look around – truly seeing those I meet and myself in the process. Things are always more than they seem. The old is never really old because it is always changing and evolving, as am I.

Life is always a journey into a new country. In some sense, I am always an alien in a strange world. As an alien, I needn't separate myself in my differentness. I can remain open to new relationships, even with those people whom I have known. Life is filled with opportunities for adventure.

As I look around and imagine people throughout the world, each with his or her own hopes, fears, pains and joys, I realize that we live a messy existence - complicated, hurting and fearful. Yet soul shines through. Perhaps Living With Soul every moment of every day, is the most radical action we can take as we engage that mysterious presence that heals and enlivens existence. 

1    The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. "The Five Lands" comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. The Cinque Terre area is a very popular tourist destination.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Sentimental greeting cards rub me wrong. They seem trite and false. The life I experienced in Madison Urban Ministry wasn't warm and fuzzy. The real world is nitty-gritty and not always hopeful.

Dishonest individuals – members of Congress, business people and even religious leaders - get rich at the expense of others. They corrupt the democratic and religious principles we hold dear. As a result, ordinary people suffer. Globally, our economies are in difficulty. The environmental crisis threatens our long term existence.1,2,3 Billions of people live in intolerable conditions. Poverty is widespread. Wars rage throughout the globe. Honest reformers - politicians, business people and spiritual leaders - fight an uphill battle to promote justice. “Good guys” finish last. Pietistic assurances that the world will be a better place if we love each other, seem to apply only to those who are well off.

This is a real bind. We crave affirmation and unconditional love. We yearn for a creation in which the “lion lies down with the lamb.” Yet, we are stuck in a world where “might makes right” and the powerful make the rules. Fear, anger, violence and defensiveness condition the realities of our existence.

Is there anything that can modify these destructive dynamics? Is there a deeper form of love that can transform things? I want to say, “yes.” But I can't prove it. What I have is stories that resonate within me.

My mother, twice widowed, raised four of us as a single parent. Ours wasn't a Brady Bunch family. Mom told me once that she was sorry she couldn't provide the male guidance I needed when I was young. She said, “I didn't know how to be both mother and father to you.” Life didn't go as she wished. She had to be tough and make hard decisions. Yet she loved us with the fierce tenacity of a mama bear protecting her cubs. Her love was infused with the coarseness of real life experience.

My second father, Jim, demonstrated a loving gentleness that still amazes me. He was a farmer turned small business owner. He left the farm because he knew my mom would be unhappy as a farmer's wife. He was soft spoken and not very assertive. Still, he was a constant source of support. I remember the winter he fitted our old car with snow chains so the family could drive through a blizzard to attend my sister's performance in a college drama. He made this extraordinary effort because he knew my mom wanted to be there.

Last winter my little grandson was fascinated by the Christmas tree. He wanted to touch the pretty lights and decorations. I warned him that he could be hurt if the tree fell over. Testing me, he reached for the tree. I shouted, “No Gus!” This scared him. He looked at me. His face clouded over. His lip quivered, and he burst into tears. Then he reached up for comfort. Even though my shout had startled him, he trusted I would keep him safe. My heart nearly broke as I held him.

Another time Gus was riding with us as we drove to our local coffee shop. This is the place where he is smitten by one of the staff. As we drove down the road, we heard this little voice from the back seat. “Gus love Allie.” He is so innocent and na├»ve. Love is just love. It's uncomplicated and true.

I spent time with my sister, Sue, as she fought the ravages of cancer. She struggled just to eat and to walk a few steps. It tore me up seeing her suffering. When I left her home the last time before she went into hospice, she hugged me. I could feel her ribs. She was all skin and bone. I gave her a squeeze, but didn't hug her as I wished I had. I was so filled with sorrow and love that that was all I could do.

When the Tsunami hit Japan and wrecked their nuclear reactor, I saw a newspaper photo of an old woman. She stood in the wreckage of her town wailing in despair as her body was bombarded by lethal doses of radiation. I anguished for her as I might for my own mother.

I remember camping on a lake in northern Minnesota. It was evening. The sunset cast a pink glow in the sky. The trees, mere silhouettes, reflected in the still water. All was peaceful and calm. I could have sat there forever.

I saw a baby robin hopping in the street near the wheels of a car that was stopped at a traffic light. I raced toward it wanting to sweep it from harms way. The car moved forward crushing the life out of this innocent creature just short of my outstretched hands. My heart screamed in anguish.

Once, while hiking on a warm summer day, I watched a hawk soaring motionless in the clear blue sky. I stopped, captured by wonder.

Yes, love is real. I experience it. Love transcends rationality. Love immerses us in existence. Love imbues us with compassion, the capacity to “suffer with” others. It leads into valleys of pain and anguish and allows us to soar on waves of joy and awe. Love overcomes fear, compelling us to engage in efforts where the odds are stacked against us. Love connects us in our Humanity. It shifts and broadens our perspectives.

I am beginning to believe that we humans are participating in an evolving pattern of the creation, the growth of consciousness, compassion and love. As we play our part in this cosmic drama, we may be facing some of the greatest challenges in the history of our species. Presently, our interactions are dominated by the fight or flight response. Existence is a zero sum game with winners and losers. We experience this in our interpersonal relationships as well as social encounters. These are all too obvious on the international scene that I characterized at the beginning of this reflection.

Yet there are signs that things are moving. We are more in touch with love and compassion. This allows us to see people, not as adversaries, but as fellow human beings with the same wants and needs as our own.

A Restorative Justice movement is emerging within the traditionally adversary oriented legal profession.4 Trust fund managers are finding that investment policies that improve the welfare of citizens are more profitable than those which don't.5 Business leaders are beginning to adopt practices that enrich the work environment because such businesses are more profitable.6 David Brooks makes a similar claim about the stock marked in an April 11th editorial.7 Recent data indicate that nonviolent movements, as evidenced in the Egyptian protest uprising in February 2011, are more effective than violent ones.8
I observed this potential when I was director of Madison Urban Ministry. We conducted a series of public Dialogues on divisive community issues, including abortion, the death penalty, racism and homosexuality. We brought people together over a meal and told them they were not permitted to argue the merits of their positions. They were only permitted to tell personal stories of how they came to them. As we talked, we realized that our personal experiences had a tremendous affect on our attitudes and ideas. I recall thinking, “If I had had this person's experience, I probably would hold her/his position and not my own.”

I remember conversations on the planning committee for these events. Two of the members, both pastors, one a homosexual woman and the other a heterosexual male, were in strong disagreement. The man believed homosexual lifestyles were sinful while the woman said that she had found God through her partner. As we got to know and trust one other, these two were able to joke about their different beliefs and experiences. Through this planning process, we began to recognize that our common humanity bound us together in spite of our differences.

This realization was born out in another city where a union leader and the head of the local police force were involved in Dialogue meetings. Following the sessions, the union planned a protest in which violence was a real possibility. Prior to the event, the union leader and the police chief came to an agreement. Because they respected and trusted one another, the police chief said his people would not carry fire arms; and the union leader guaranteed that the protest would be nonviolent. The protest took place with no violence or injuries.

As we explore this new way of relating, traditional and contemporary spiritual understandings and practices are important. I'm not speaking here of theological or dogmatic interpretations of religious/spiritual traditions. Rather I'm speaking of ways that ordinary people engage the religious/spiritual/moral dimensions of their lives. At this level, we are more connected than we care to admit.9

Strategies that acknowledge this connectedness can alter community dynamics and attitudes. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this. Gandhi said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”10 Dr. King put it this way, “I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good.”11

I believe we can engage the difficult issues of our time with greater effectiveness if we are motivated by love and compassion rather than fear and distrust. Love and compassion connect us, not only in terms of 'doing the right thing,' but in our guts. When I saw the picture of the Japanese woman grieving in the wreckage of her community, I felt compassion. In some sense I suffered for and with her. When the baby bird was crushed by the car, I anguished over this loss of life and innocence.

I can't prove it, but I believe there is a deep form of love that can transform our species.
  1. A member of the selection committee for the 2022 Winter Olympics reported that projected weather temperatures in the 6 potential sites will make the relatively warm temperatures of the Sochi Olympics seem frigid by comparison.
  3. Private conversation with trust fund consultant, Keith Johnson.