Tuesday, January 19, 2016


(In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I'm writing this reflection on Monday, January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Yesterday, I preached at our little congregation, where I am the Lay Leader. The Scripture readingi told the story of Jesus' first miracle at a wedding in Cana.

As I read the story, I was struck by the fact that both Jesus and MLK were called to lead before they were ready to do so. I believe this is often the case in my life and possibly in yours. I would like to reflect with you today on this dynamic. How can we live out MLK's legacy when much of our life happens when we are unprepared?

The Gospel story goes like this: Jesus and his mother were attending a wedding near their home. Wedding celebrations were big affairs in those times with food and dancing for several days. Friends and relatives came from all over. The groom's family threw a big bash to show the community that the groom came from quality stock and that would be a good provider for his new wife. So running out of wine was a problem for the host.

At this time, Jesus was not a well known rabbi or teacher. He was just beginning to invite disciples to join him He didn't yet have his act together. So Mary's request that he turn the water into wine was a big deal. If he had plans about developing his ministry, these plans were interrupted. His coming out at this time could blow the whole thing. This may be why he said to his mother, “My hour has not yet come.” Yet he acquiesced to her request, and the rest is history.

MLK Jr., like Jesus, may have been outed too soon as well. He was a young preacher in his mid-twenties finishing his PhD at Boston University and serving his first parish, Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, in Montgomery Alabama. When he arrived, the NAACP was organizing to desegregate the city bus system. At this time black riders were forced to enter and sit in the rear of the bus. If the bus was overcrowded, black riders were to relinquish their seats to white riders and stand.
The NAACP recruited Rosa Parks to refuse to leave her seat. She would be arrested and this would allow the NAACP to challenge the arrest and, if necessary, to have black riders boycott the bus system until the practice was changed. After Rosa Parks was arrested, Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen to lead the protest and boycott, not because he was so highly valued, but because his church was centrally located and because he was new enough in town that the white citizens had not yet intimidated him.

Both Jesus and MLK Jr. lived in times of great social upheaval and violence. In first century Israel, troops of the Roman Empire occupied and dominated the local population through violence and coercion. It was a time of unrest, and local zealots were fomenting rebellion.

In the United States during the 1950's, an emerging civil rights movement was challenging Jim Crow racism in the south, prompting an increasingly violent white backlash. Once again the potential for violence and class war was imminent.

Both Jesus and MLK Jr. were devoutly religious men. Both were viewed as prophetic leaders like Moses. They were expected to call down God's wrath on their oppressors and to lead them to freedom through God's awesome power and might. Both men disappointed their followers, preaching a response based on love for the enemy as the only way to wholeness.

Jesus put it this way, “To have life you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and you must love your neighbor as yourself.” When asked who was his neighbor, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan indicating that even the hated Samaritans were neighbors.ii

MLK Jr. was powerfully influenced by Jesus and by Gandhi's teachings on nonviolence. Dr. King once said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”iii He also said, “ I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daylight of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality...I believe that unarmed truth and love will have the final word.iv

Dr. King, like Jesus, moved forward completely dependent on God to help him discern his next steps in organizing people in his crusade for justice. He said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing”v He followed this saying, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”vi

In my understanding, this means that MLK believed that God's grace and forgiveness extend to us independent of our actions. If we live in this grace, we have already forgiven people for what they do before they do it. This allows us to relate to friends and enemies without bitterness or a desire to “pay them back” or “get even with them for their actions.” In this respect, both Jesus and MLK were seen as weak by those who wanted to answer violence with further violence.

Most celebrations of the MLK holiday feature the soaring oratory of King's “I Have A Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963, when more than 250,000 demonstrators descended upon the nation’s capital to participate in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” This was the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history.

In the year following this demonstration, Dr. King and other Civil Rights Movement leaders convinced President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress to pass the the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements as well as racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and at facilities that served the general public.

A year later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act banned racial discrimination in voting practices by the federal government as well as by state and local governments. It is is often held up as the most effective civil rights law ever enacted. It is widely regarded as enabling the enfranchisement of millions of minority voters and diversifying the electorate and legislative bodies at all levels of American government. (It should be noted that this act is presently under attack as politicians gerrymander voting districts, limit access to polling places and require forms of identification, such as drivers licenses, which many low income people do not possess.)

Dr. King lived 3 years after these milestone accomplishments. These were years in which his rhetoric and actions shifted. He began to lead and speak to the racism, poverty and militarism that threatened to destroy our democracy.vii

On one occasion Dr. King said, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem.”viii

Dr. king began organizing to address racism in the North. He also organized a Poor People's March on Washington to emphasize that poverty as well as racial discrimination are cancers that destroy democracy. He warned about the decay of our nation stating, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.ix

At Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination, Dr. King delivered his “Beyond Viet Nam” speech. In this speech he opposed US involvement in the Viet Nam war. He said, “When ma­chines and com­puters, profit motives and prop­erty rights are con­sidered more im­port­ant than people, the gi­ant triplets of ra­cism, ma­ter­i­al­ism, and mil­it­ar­ism are in­cap­able of be­ing conquered.x

The response to that speech was swift, certain and severe. Both liberal media and black media turned on him. The White House turned on him. He had worked with Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, but now [Johnson] turned against him.

The last Harris poll taken in Dr. King’s life showed that almost 75 percent of the American people thought he was irrelevant and almost 60 percent of blacks thought he was irrelevant or obsolete or persona non grata. In the last year of his life, the NAACP came out against him, and Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young of the Urban League. Ralph Bunche, the only other Nobel Peace Prize winning black, came out against him. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the powerful congressman, came out against him. [Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall had no respect or regard for him.xi

As I speak of these last years of MLK's life, I am reminded of the last year of Jesus' life. He too shifted or intensified his course of action. He left Galilee and moved toward Jerusalem. The writer of Luke puts it simply and eloquently saying, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”xii

As long as Jesus preached and healed in the backwaters of Galilee, he was lauded as great teacher. But when he challenged the entrenched hierarchy of chief priests and lawyers at the center of political and religious power, they marked him for elimination. His disciples and followers abandoned him leaving him at the mercy of his enemies.

Both Jesus and MLK were killed in the prime of life. Both lived courageously in the face of danger. Both left a lasting legacy demonstrating that love can conquer fear and violence.

Finally, MLK's critique of the United States applies today. All you have to do is substitute “Iraq and Afghanistan” for “Viet Nam” in his Beyond Viet Nam speech to see this.

Racism is alive and well in the United States. Evangelical activist, Jim Wallis, points out that a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey has revealed a devastating truth: While about 80 percent of black Christians believe police-involved killings are part of a larger pattern of police treatment of African Americans, around 70 percent of white Christians believe the opposite … that they are simply isolated incidents.xiii During this election season, political candidates receive applause when they characterize all Muslims as dangerous people who should be forced to leave our country or even should be attacked and killed.

Finally, MLK's critique on poverty still holds true. A recent Oxfam reportxiv states that just 62 individuals have the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – the bottom half of humanity - and that the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together. These statistics are mirrored in the United States.xv

What does this mean for us as we celebrate MLK Jr.'s life and legacy?

Author Tavis Smiley puts it well. He writes, In many ways we honor him (MLK) on the cheap. These monuments and holidays and postage stamps and his name on schools and streets are a beautiful thing and he deserves that. But King would much prefer that we deal with the triple threat he spoke of—racism, poverty and militarism—and try to save our democracy. So there’s work to be done. He’s a shining example of what the best of America looks like. I believe that the future of this democracy is inextricably linked with how seriously we take his legacy. I regard that legacy as one of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people.xvi

It's one thing to laud Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a single holiday. It's another thing to live into his legacy.

MLK and Jesus were both given the opportunity to act before they were ready. The were both challenged to live authentically rather than settling for the status quo. This was when they were most completely alive and engaged with that life force that courses through the cosmos.

Like Dr. Martin Luther King's life, each of our lives can make a difference. We can each leave a legacy of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people. A friend once put it this way, “What if the Moral Universe is in need of your unique way of interpreting and living your human experience?”

I will end with two questions for your reflection:

  1. When in your life have you been challenged, before you felt ready, to step out onto a path that was consistent with your authentic self? What was that like, or what might it have been like, to make that move?
  2. How has (or might have) that decision affected your attitude toward others; your ability to face difficult life circumstances; and your passion for life, peace and justice?

iJohn 2:1-11
iiLuke 10:25-37
vii“MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley” <http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157350>
viiiDelivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 4 November 1956.
ixSpeech was delivered by Dr. King in support of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, just two weeks before he was assassinated in the same city as part of his Poor Peoples Campaign.
xiHistory News Network | MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157350
xiiLuke 9:51b
xviHistory News Network | MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157350

Thursday, December 10, 2015

DUFUS - Changing Times - Part I

An arch of colored balloons towered above, and hundreds of booths spread out before us. People of all kinds milled around - old and young - black, yellow, brown and white - able bodied and wheelchair bound - LGBTQ and straight. It was like a county fair. “PARTY TIME!” I shouted as I grabbed a miniature rainbow flag and a bunch of silly buttons. The 2015 Boston Pride march and celebration was in full swing.

They're coming! They're coming!” someone cried; and we rushed to the parade route. Soon I was standing in the street, cheering and “high five-ing” the marchers. For several hours I lost myself in the dancing and commotion.

As we left the parade, my wife nudged me and said, teasingly, “Chuck, you looked like a Dufus out there.” She was right. Here I was, an older, overweight man, in shorts, with a rainbow flag in my teeth, dancing around on the street. I didn't care. I had been part of something wonderful.

Besides,” I rationalized, ”I'm not the only Dufus in history.” “Some pretty important people acted this way when they were transported beyond themselves.”

President Obama became the “Dufus-In-Chief” during his eulogy for slain pastor Clementa Pinckney who was gunned down by a deranged man during a Bible study on June 18, 2015.i The President broke with tradition and led the congregation in singing Amazing Grace while he swayed to the music.ii

Speaker of the house, John Boehner, acted like a Dufus when Pope Francis addressed the US Congress earlier this year. Mr. Boehner wiped tears from his eyes numerous times during the Pope's speech. The following day he announced his resignation with the following statement: “Speaker Boehner believes that the first job of any Speaker is to protect this institution and, as we saw yesterday with the Holy Father, it is the one thing that unites and inspires us all.” Critics said that Mr. Boehner resigned as a failure because he couldn't even unite his own party.

Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta, was a Dufus by the standards of Roman Catholic Saints. As a young woman, she experienced a dramatic call from Jesus, whom she loved with all her heart. She responded by committing her life to the destitute, providing them with a place where they could die with comfort and dignity. Early in this ministry, her connection with Jesus evaporated. Her faith based work for the poor was driven instead by her extraordinary willpower. For nearly fifty years, she thought of herself as a hypocrite when she talked about the love of God.iii

Dorothy Day also stood outside the mainstream. She, a writer and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, was a misfit and embarrassment to the Romana Catholic Church. As a young woman, she was attracted to both socialism and anarchism. She was active in the women's suffrage movement and was friends with leading members of the Communist party. A pacifist and anti-war activist, she lived a Bohemian life style in Greenwich Village, had several love affairs and an abortion. She became pregnant again and raised her daughter as a single parent.

She said of her friend, writer Eugene O'Neil, "(He caused) an intensification of the religious sense that was in me." In March of 1926, Dorothy Day encountered a local nun who helped educate her in the faith. She joined the Roman Catholic Church and soon challenged the hierarchy to live more like Jesus.iv

Dorothy Day's life of special solidarity with the poor inspired many: Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk; Cesar Chavez, President of the United Farm Workers Union; Robert Coles, the Harvard University medical professor; and socialist, Michael Harrington. Harrington, inspired by his experience in the Catholic Worker Movement, later challenged the nation with his classic book, The Other America. This book, in turn, served as inspiration for President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty.”

Even some of our most revered religious figures played the role of Dufus, standing outside socially accepted norms of their time:

  • David, the renowned king of ancient Israel, threw off his robes and danced in a frenzy of ecstasy while leading the procession carrying the Ark of the Covenantv into the Jewish capitol, Jerusalem.vi
  • Jesus refused to play the role of a respected teaching rabbi. He hung out with unsavory characters, including skid row bums, prostitutes and the hated tax collectors.vii Some called him a glutton and a drunkard, and others thought him a traitor to the state.
  • The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was an Indian prince raised in royal opulence. He, a skilled leader trained in the arts of war, was expected to succeed his father as emperor. Overcome by his compassion and concern for the poor, he abandoned his young wife and child and disappeared into the forest to live as an ascetic. Judged by cultural standards, he was a failure as a leader, husband, father and son.

Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Counsel, had a wonderful, almost bawdy sense of humor. In the 1940s he, an archbishop and the papal ambassador, was at an elegant dinner party seated across from a woman wearing a low-cut dress that exposed a good deal of cleavage. Someone turned to him and said, "Your Eminence, what a scandal! Aren't you embarrassed that everyone is looking at that woman?" He said, "Oh no, everyone is looking at me, to see if I'm looking at her." Later, as Pope JohnXXIII, he visited a Roman hospital called the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. Shortly after entering, he was introduced to the sister who ran the hospital. "Holy Father," she exclaimed, "I am the superior of the Holy Spirit." "Well, I must say, you're lucky," said the pope, delighted. "I'm only the Vicar of Christ!"viii

These Dufus stories are interesting and even entertaining. But they are more than this. We live in times of great change. Consciousness itself is shifting. With this shift, our images of the transcendent, our God images, are also changing. Some say this shift is as profound as that which occurred during the first Axial Age (800-200 BCE) when all of the major world religions emerged.ix

Established institutions - political, religious and social - are now less trusted. Voter involvement is decreasing. Many of the remaining voters are now attracted to outsiders who criticize politics as usual - people like Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Church attendance is declining, particularly among the young.x Dominant social/moral values are less well defined as evidenced by; increasing tension regarding same sex marriage; abortion; death penalty; relations among people of different races, religions and cultures. In addition, we are challenged by human crises: global warming; inequitable distribution of resources; increasingly violent military conflicts.

These shifts have deep social implications, because our world is profoundly interconnected. Each of our actions produces unintended consequences that are difficult to predict. As the influence of old moral and faith traditions declines, our more regressive instincts resurface. Personal and collective decisions are based more on individual and tribal concerns than for the good of all. Localized suspicion of those who are different generates ripples of fear, distrust and violence in the whole. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris and subsequent distrust of Muslims are only the latest indication of such dangers. World leaders gather in Paris to address global warming, a crisis which threatens us all. This unprecedented gathering is necessary because many political, business and religious leaders have too long denied or ignored the crisis.

Even as I name these issues, I remain hopeful because we each contain a bit of that mysterious life that courses through the cosmos. For some, this mystery manifests itself through the faith traditions that have inspired and energized people for centuries. For others, this mystery inspires, motivates and energizes in ways not completely understood. Regardless of our personal circumstances, we each have the potential to step outside our boxes of convention for the sake of our authentic selves.

Our challenge now, as in the past, is to nurture this potential. If you are inspired by traditional faith traditions and practices, engage these with intentionality and passion. The Apostle Paul, speaking to Christians, likens this type of commitment to that of an athletic preparing for competition. He says:

You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally. I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 - The Message)

If you are no longer grasped by traditional religious rituals and practices, you are still implicated as a member of the human race. You too are challenged to work for peace, justice, and health for the earth and all its inhabitant. In many cases, your task is more difficult than that of traditional believers. You have no set of proscribed practices to rely on. You must either adapt traditional practices to your new circumstance or develop totally new ones. You will be challenged to find or develop communities of like-minded individuals to support you. In many respects, your journey resembles Dorothy Day's life of special solidarity with the poor. She associated with communists, socialists, anarchists, artists and intellectuals, most not part of religious organizations, to achieve her goals. Your challenge is to proceed as an explorer into uncharted territory, drawn by the prospect of discovering new possibilities for yourself and humanity.

We all have Dufus potential. At our core we all experience compassion for those who suffer and a yearning for peace and justice. Even though we are just regular folk, we can inspire others to be more than they think they are. We, like the Dufuses of the past, can live our lives with authenticity and integrity, not taking ourselves too seriously. We, the ordinary ones, can live extraordinary lives.

I will speak more of this in my next blog post - “Changing Times - Part II.”

i   http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/rev-clementa-pinckney-killed-charleston-church-massacre-article-1.2262261
ii  http://time.com/3938544/amazing-grace-obama-funeral/
iii http://www.biography.com/people/mother-teresa-9504160#a-new-calling  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/aug/24/wasmotherteresaanatheist
v  The Ark of the Covenant contained the stone tablets of the 10 commandments that Moses had received from Yahweh. Furthermore, Yahweh was said to dwell between the Golden Angels carved on top of the arc.
vi  2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 David had just become the ruler of a divided Israel. To unite the kingdom he moved the Ark of the Covenant to the new capitol, Jerusalem.
vii Luke 7:31-35
viii The humorous stories of saints are directly quoted from the article by Rev. James Martin S.J., Huff Post, Religion, Nov. 1, 2012
ix  Reference Karen Armstron A New Axial Age – www.adishakti.org/_/a_new_axial_age_by_karen_armstrong

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;"