“First, Sandra Day O’Connor, An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice”

The news has been brimming with tributes to Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens who died this week nine months shy of his 100th birthday. The comments did focus on his 35 years of important opinions on landmark Supreme Court Cases. But they also described a man of generosity, courtesy, intellectual curiosity, and willingness up until the day of his death to re-think his opinions and adapt to new ideas.

A week ago, I probably would have let this man’s death float away with the flotsam and jetsam of political news.  However, a few days ago, I finished a remarkable book about  Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor (known as FWOTSC: First Woman on the Supreme Court) by Evan Thomas.  My knowledge about the Supreme Court, our bulwark in an era when President Trump and his administration demolish the norms of  our constitutional democracy on a daily basis, has increased exponentially. 

For example, as I was wiping my eyes during the testimonials of people who had loved and respected Stevens, I flashed back to a story in the book about O’Connor’s first years on the court when she was trying to adapt to the lack of communication between the judges outside of oral arguments and the actual court sessions. The author describes O’Connor’s excitement and pride when Justice Stevens walked down the hall to her office to praise her for an opinion she had written. The walk, the office visit, and the praise were rare oc- currences for her.

When I heard Chris Hayes, the host of the MSNBC  TV show All In, say that he and his wife, a law professor who had clerked for Justice Stevens, recently attended a reunion of former Stevens’ law clerks, I had the background from this book to know and understand the role and importance of law clerks, the cream of the crop of law school graduates. They are not glorified secretaries.They research case law, prepare their Justice for oral arguments, and write drafts of majority and dissenting opinions – often without significant revisions from the Justices.  Evan Thomas, the author of First:  Sandra Day O’Connor,  An Intimate Portrait of the First Woman Supreme Court Justice, conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of the one hundred  plus  O’Connor clerks, many of whom became life long friends. Their personal stories gave me a real “feel” for how the Supreme Court operates, both in the courtroom and in the unseen offices and conference rooms.

Thomas’ book is more than a tale of important court cases.  It is a gracefully written story of a beautiful woman who grew up on an Arizona cattle ranch, developed thick skin under the teaching and criticism of a much-loved father, left her family for nine months of the year to attend a school where her precocious intelligence could flourish, refused a proposal from William Rehnquist (which caused some awkward moments when he became Chief Justice he joined the Supreme Court), and married the love of her life, John O’Connor, who essentially gave up his law career to follow her to Washington to be her life partner – and her dance partner at hundreds of glittering Washington D. C. parties. (Thomas writes that people would stop to watch John and Sandra dance.)

Sandra was extremely athletic; her favorite place to be was on the back of a horse cutting cattle, but she also excelled at tennis (one of her weekly partners was Barbara Bush), golf, hiking, fly-fishing and skiing. The mother of three boys, she was determined to create balance in life between her work and her family. She was a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals, the first ever female majority leader of a state (Arizona) senate and considered running for governor.  And then came the challenge and constant scrutiny of a quarter of a century as the first female Justice of the Supreme Court.

This is a heavy book in many ways.  The 476-page tome is literally heavy to hold, especially if you are reading in bed! It can be heavy reading – especially as court cases are described. But every time I began struggling in the weeds of constitutional law, the author would again bring in the delightful details of this delightful woman, and I would be back in love with her and her story. It is also heavy because it is so important. The personal, political, and professional story of the first female supreme court judge whose influence before, during and after her quarter century on the Supreme Court is a model for women who want to be taken seriously in what is still a man’s world.

Most importantly, it is a book about the rule of law, the interpretation of the Constitution, the differing visions that justices bring to a case, the compromises and lack of compromises on difficult cases, and – most importantly – the need for justices who are not political partisans, or who are not swayed by constituencies, but are willing to decide each case on its merits and in line with an interpretation of the constitution. Nothing in our chaotic political times is more important than a fair justice system, an independent Justice Department, and judges who live up to their high calling.

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We Are Our Own Worst Enemies

Once again, I pleaded with my husband to stop smoking – not just for my comfort and health but for his health. And once again he conceded that he was spending money on something that would kill him – that, in fact, is already killing him.

The next day a friend sent me an excerpt from one of my favorite Frederick Buechner books, Secrets in the Dark. Buechner describes a cigarette ad featuring beautiful people in a beautiful place smoking cigarettes. At the bottom of the ad is the surgeon general’s admonishment that cigarettes kill. Buechner’s message is that we are our own worst enemies:

“As nations we stockpile new weapons and old hostilities that may well end up by destroying us all; and as individuals we do much the same. As individuals we stockpile weapons for de- fending ourselves against not just the things and people that threaten us but against the very things and people that seek to touch our hearts with healing and make us better and more human than we are. We stockpile weapons for holding each other at arm’s length, for wounding sometimes even the ones who are closest to us.”

In my imagination I pictured Frederick Buechner and Frederick Bables meeting for coffee  and marveling  with disgust and foreboding the truth of a cigarette ad: what we love and protect the most can kill our bodies and/or our spirits.

Think for a moment of the thing and activities we love that can kill us physically or emotionally:

  • collections of favorite things that can become a hoarder’s (and his/her family’s)night- mare.
  • constant activity (resulting from individual responsibilities that may be good for us and beneficial for the world) that leaves us physically and emotionally exhausted and drained.
  • devices that connect us to the world but seem to require constant checking; social media messages that triple hourly; likes and comments that leave us wanting more and more.
  • food or drink which brings pleasure, but creates  a need which must be satisfied.
  • obsessive control of our children which rises from a heart of love but pushes us constantly checking up on them (no matter what age) advising them, preaching to them, or confirming in some way that they still care about us.

You can think of many more good things that can end as bitter pressures. And Buechner goes on to warn us:

“We need no urging to choose what it is that will destroy us because again and again; we choose it without urging. If we don’t choose to smoke cigarettes ourselves, we choose at least to let such ads stand without batting an eye. “Buy this; it can kill you,” the pretty picture said, and nobody on the train, least of all myself, stood up and said, “Look, this is madness!” Because we are more than half in love with our own destruction. All of us are.”

Here are some things to chew on as we attempt to navigate the madness of our world: Am I obsessed with something that will harm me? Is my family headed toward self-destruction because we don’t see the dangers in what we love? Is the western church so consumed with good things such as worship styles, raising funds or ratings, giant, well-appointed auditoriums that we miss the point of a spiritual journey all together? Are political parties so focused on the value of their partisan politics that they accept the narcissism of a president who causes havoc in our nation and the world? 

I recently  read a quote by William Faulkner:  “A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says,’This  is where I was when I moved again.'”  The example and spirit of Jesus will not help us build monuments to the things we love, but it can encourage us to walk away from them before we destroy ourselves.

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From My Reading

“You cannot make God love you any less, either—not an ounce less. Do the most terrible thing and God wouldn’t love you less. You cannot change the Divine mind about you! The flow is constant, total, and 100 percent toward your life. God is for you. We can’t diminish God’s love for us. What we can do, however, is learn how to believe it, receive it, trust it, allow it, and celebrate it, accepting Trinity’s whirling invitation to join in the cosmic dance” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, May 22, 2019).

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“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” (Rachel Carson).

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“When you can’t go far, you go deep” (David Steindl-Rast).

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“Abundance is not something we acquire.  It is something we tune into” (Wayne Dyer).

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Just as God cannot be ‘caught’ or ‘comprehended’ in any specific idea, concept, opinion or conviction, he cannot be defined by any specific feeling or emotion either. God cannot be identified with a good affectionate feeling toward our neighbor, or with a sweet emotion of the heart or with ecstasies, movements of the body, or handling of snakes. God is not just our good inclinations, our fervor, our generosity, or our love. All of these experiences of the heart may remind us of God’s presence, but their absence does not prove God’s absence. God is not only  greater than our mind; he is also greater than our heart, and just as we have to avoid the temptation of adapting God to our small concepts we also have to avoid adapting him to our small feelings” (Henri Nouwen in  You are the Beloved). 

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“Gentleness is a cultivated habit of sensitivity, founded on strength—not weakness. It’s a powerful skill sourced from God’s kind of love. An ability, a strain of inner toughness that can weigh anger and reason at the same time. It has the resilience to consider, at the moment, what’s at stake? Is it my inflated ego that’s been frustrated or has justice and fairness actually been violated?” (jonathan@jonathanrbailey.com, May 5, 2019). 

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The God Who is always There – Jeremiah 29: 1-14

Eugene Peterson’s book Eat this Book teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our early Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. In this letter to the Hebrews who are in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah speaks the hard truth. The exile will be long. They will have to adapt and adjust to the situation in Babylon. However, he promises, God will always be there with them. This post was originally published on May 24, 2015.  It seems very appropriate for today’s world. 

  THE GOD WHO IS ALWAYS THERE – Jeremiah 29: 1-14

“This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. .  . . . This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bJeremiah 29 3ring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.'”


♥  From the time he was called, (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you I appointed you a prophet to the nations”) Jeremiah spoke a dual message of judgment and of hope.  In this passage he tells the exiled people that they will be in exile for 70 years, but that God’s will is for them to make the best of it  –  including praying for the welfare of Babylon.  Jeremiah never minced the truth whether it is bad news or good.

♥ Life today is frighteningly reminiscent of the period when Jeremiah spoke. Our culture is enmeshed with false goods, misplaced hopes, and evil practices. We are in exile in enemy-occupied territory. We, too are called to live in the land and “seek its welfare.” And, like Jeremiah we are also called to be a “peculiar” people; we are to look different from the culture that surrounds us. We are to live in the hope and trust that God will not forsake us even when we are angry or in despair or feel forsaken.  God promises that when we search for God  and call upon God, God will hear us.  God’s ultimate plan is for our good – “to give us a future and a hope.”


♥  This passage speaks of exile.  Our world is full of people who are displaced within their own countries or refugees seeking a new homeland.  exileWe also live in a culture when we can easily feel uprooted or dislocated or wrenched from the familiar.  Grief and loss can also create those feelings.  Endings and beginnings and transitions make us question who we are and who God is.  If you feel this way, take God’s promise to heart and listen for his plan to give you a future with hope. Memorize Jeremiah 29: 10-14 and repeat it every morning before you get out of bed.

♥ Look for a moment this week to speak a difficult truth into some situation, trusting that God will be there for you in those moments just as God promised to be there for Jeremiah. Others may not like your point of view.  They may even reject you along with the truth you tell.  You will be in good company; most people who heard Jesus rejected him and “rewarded” him with the death penalty


♥  My Father in Heaven, help me to become more like Jesus so that I will look different from others in my world who do not follow him.  Help me to speak the truth in love.  Help me to believe that you are a loving and nurturing God and that your dreams for me are my hope for the future.


“God only comes through doors that are purposely opened” (Rufus Jones in The Double Search).

Posted in Living as Apprentices

“I Thought I would be Dead by Now”

A friend recently asked my about the status of my cancer.  I have a type of  incurable blood cancer (multiple myeloma).  I have been in “remission” (although the doctor prefers to say the cancer has been subdued) for several months after more than three years of weekly and then bi-weekly chemotherapy injections. When I was first diagnosed,  the prognosis for Stage 2 multiple myeloma was 44 months.  I realized recently that I have passed that magic number.

As my friend and I talked how it feels to have a diagnosis of incurable cancer, I said, “I thought I would be dead by now.” She studied me seriously for a minute and said, “You need to write a blog about that.”

So here it is . . .

One of the many things a person with a diagnosis of an incurable disease and a relatively  short prognosis faces is how to deal with approaching death. Of course, we all face approaching death as soon as we are born, but most of us push that reality aside until we can’t anymore. When the reality appears, we have several options:  ignore and deny, panic, fall into depression, or start learning to “let go.”  My statement, “I thought I would be dead by now” was a clear reflection of the process I have been going through as I wrestle with the concept of my death. In December, 2014, I began living in the anticipation that I would die soon.

When I was first diagnosed, I processed the news by writing a booklet, Who Am I When My Body Fails Me?  In the first chapter, I wrote the following:

A psychologist who works in an Alzheimer unit tells the story of a woman who visited her husband Joe daily. Every time she came, she asked him, “Do you know who I am? And he would shake his head and answer, “No.” Observing the ritual the doctor pulled the wife aside and suggested that she no longer ask that question. Being queried, he said, was causing anxiety for her husband. When she visited next, the wife came in, sat by the bed, and undaunted asked, “Do you know who I am?” Joe looked at her for a long moment and replied, “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you.”

The wife thought that everything Joe had been was melting away, but the essence of Joe was unquenched. He could still offer and receive love, intimacy, and connection. So it seems we are still who we were even when we can’t understand how.

Life is, I think, all about honing down to our essence. When we distill water, the pure is discovered and the contaminants are left behind. So it is with our lives. To use another metaphor, the refiner’s fire does its work; only the core of our being remains.  That core or flame is the breath of God in us. The work of the dying, then, is to practice letting go, relinquishing the contaminants so that we carry only our essence into the presence of God.

Letting go of stuff is a great symbol – and great practice – for letting go.  If we can’t let go of stuff, how can be begin to let go of life? I am preparing to move again to an apartment with no stairs. This will probably be our last move unless one of us needs care that can’t be provided at home. So even though I “purged”a lot of stuff when we moved three years ago, I now realize that more can be relinquished. So this summer, I gave away a comforter to a granddaughter, a Christmas music box to another granddaughter, a storage unit to my son, miscellaneous garden tools to my daughter-in-law – and our Christmas tree and ornaments and miscellaneous items to the Rescue Mission.

And then I began on the hard stuff:  files and files and files of the fruits of my labors as a writer, teacher and a spiritual formation director. When I came across a forgotten or cherished gem, I would remark to my husband, “This is too hard!” – and then add it to the pile of discards. But once it was all recycled, I felt lighter. I understood that those files were the products of the essence of who I am. The essence remains and is even more distilled now that I have unloaded much of the stuff. (My books still remain, a story for another time.)  That’s a valuable lesson for anytime in life.

When the cancer returns, which it will, and my life on earth does end, I will carry only that essence into the presence of God – the flame of the image of God personified as Karen. Whatever the presence of God is like after death, I will be joyful. 

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Living the Jesus Way

“If something comes toward you with grace and can pass through you and toward others with grace, you can trust it as the voice of God . . . .  If a voice comes from accusation and leads to accusation, it is quite simply the voice of the “Accuser,” which is the literal meaning of the biblical word “Satan.” Shaming, accusing, or blaming is simply not how God talks. God is supremely nonviolent. God only cajoles, softens, and invites us into an always bigger field”  (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, May 28).

Did you ever wonder if a thought you wanted to share or an action you wanted to take was the will of God? Did you ever second-guess a gesture of love or friendship or decide against offering  help because you didn’t know how it would be received?

Have you you ever spent sleepless hours in the dark of night rehearsing all the dumb mistakes, the bad behavior, or the angry or bitter words that you purposely or without even thinking threw out into the world.

Richard Rohr offers us a view of God that can take away all this unnecessary agonizing with two statements:

  • We can trust that when we have an idea that comes from a place of grace in us and moves in grace to someone else the idea is God’s will.
  • We can trust that our agonizing self-blame is not from God. God is a God of grace; God “cajoles” and “invites.” God doesn’t shame.

Therefore we, too, are meant to operate out of grace; we are to “cajole and and invite.” We are not to shame or blame – even ourselves.

Shaming, “guilting,” and criticizing are not part of God’s personality. Thus they cannot be  part of the image of God in us. We are never to listen to an inner voice of shame or blame, nor are we to shame or blame others. Shaming and blaming are an attempt to be in control; we need to take down someone else in order to feel good about ourselves. Our current president is a grand example of the damage that can be done to individuals, to diverse groups of people, and, indeed, to an entire country when negative behavior in general and name-calling, false accusations, shaming and blaming are to go-to behaviors.

Our life’s operating principle, then, is to recognize God’s grace to us and bring that grace into the world, free from any shaming thoughts and behaviors about ourselves or toward others. Henri  Nouwen gives us encouragement in this effort:

 [T]he experience of God’s unlimited and unlimiting acceptance of us as beloved children, [is] an acceptance so full, so total and all-embracing, that it sets us free from our compulsion to be seen, praised, and admired and frees us for Christ, who leads us on the road of service. This experience of God’s acceptance frees us from our needy self and thus creates new space where we can pay selfless attention to others. 

This, of course, is living the Jesus Way. 

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The Steady Gaze of the Soul

Yesterday our little spiritual formation Renovare group was discussing prayer. “What actually is prayer?” Why do I feel so formal when I pray?”  “Are there ‘rules’ for praying?” “How do I learn to focus during silence/prayer?” The Renovare Spiritual Formation Workbook that we use focuses on six traditions of spirituality that grew out of centuries of the practice of Christianity. Some of the group members are also reading Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water, which details and explains these six traditions.

One of those traditions is the Contemplative Tradition: the “prayer-filled life.” But how can we fill our lives with prayer, we ask, when we are doing so many other things. We began  dipping into Foster’s discussion in Streams of Living Water. Here he states that the centrality of prayer is essential to the contemplative tradition. Foster also says, “This tradition offers a distinctive angle on prayer: a stress upon silence and a call to unceasing prayer.”

 He goes on to quote Brother Lawrence on his view of prayer: 

“I do nothing else but abide in his holy presence, and I do  this by simple attentiveness and an habitual loving turning of my eyes upon him. This I should call . . . a wordless and secret conver -sation between the soul and God which no longer ends.”

Foster then summarizes the life of Frank Laubach, missionary to the Philippines and founder of a famous world-wide literacy program.  Laubach made it his daily practice to attempt to  turn his attention to God every minute of every day – speaking and listening to God through every moment of the day.  I suspect this is what Paul meant when he said we should pray without ceasing.

I have come to believe that prayer is a running conversation with God as we go through our day – as well as times of silence and solitude.  As I  listened to the group discussion, it occurred to me that the following story is a great example of how “keeping God in the loop” at all times  brings answers to wordless prayers.

Currently I am going through boxes and files, purging my life of paper – even well-loved pieces of paper. In the process I found some things that belong to the church I formerly served as director of spiritual formation. I decided to return a huge, very heavy bag of materials I used to teach the Apprentice series, as well as a large box of empty hanging files that I thought my former executive assistant could use.

Yesterday it was all ready to go. My husband I shared the load of the heavy bag. Straps in hand and bag between us, we slowly carried it down the steps. As I placed the heavy bag and the box in the trunk, I wondered, “How am I going to manage this?” 

When I got to church, I took the items out of the trunk.  But my plan to carry it all in on the seat of my walker fell apart when I couldn’t balance it all on the seat.  I knew I couldn’t carry the stuff in while using the walker. As I was struggling, a good friend and member of my spiritual formation group came around to the back of the car.  “Do you need help?” she asked.

I looked at her in astonishment!  “Why are you here 20 minutes early?” I asked.

She said, “Well, I left home early so I didn’t couldn’t involved in something there and be late. What shall I carry?” She took the box, I put the huge bag on my walker seat, and off we went.

So this is the lesson I keep learning:  Wordless needs are supplied (a process normally called “answered prayer”) when we practice the presence of God and carry on “secret conversations” with our Creator. This concept echoes Foster’s conclusion, “Put simply, the contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul on the God who loves us.”  This is what we call prayer.

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From My Reading

“Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day (1897–1980) was fond of citing Catherine [of Sienna’s] inspiration in her own reflections, often writing “All the way to heaven is heaven.”  I’d also add “It’s hell all the way to hell.” You’re choosing your destiny right now. You are responsible, not God. Do you want to live in love and communion? Or do you want to live in constant opposition to others and life itself?

As we observe our politics, antagonism appears to be the primary style of communication today—how to fight and win, how to be suspicious, how to be hateful, how to tell lies. Who can we exclude now? Which race, religion, or group is unworthy? (All in the name of God, remember!) That’s simply hell right now. And an awful lot of people, even those who call themselves Christian, appear to be living in a hell of their own construction” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation for April 28).

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“When our desire for recognition and approval is ordered rightly, it’s transformed away from vainglory toward magnanimity “MAG-NAH-NIM-UH-TEE”. Magnanimity is the virtue that showcases the genuine goodness inside us, writes Rebecca K. DeYoung. The magnanimous person understands they’re thoroughly known and unconditionally accepted by God. They have a deep peace about who they are and who they are becoming. They know the glory inside their body is not theirs—it’s Gods. It’s His virtue filling and freeing them” (jonathan@jonathanrbailey.com., April 28, 2919).

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“When we do the best we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another” (Helen Keller).

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“Silence is that moment in which we not only stop the discussion with others but also the inner discussions with ourselves, in which we can breathe in freely and accept our identity as a gift. . . .Without silence the Spirit will die in us and the creative energy of our life will float away and leave us alone, cold, and tired. Without silence we will lose our center and become the victim of the many who constantly demand our attention” (Henri Nouwen, You Are the Beloved).

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God doesn’t seem to be in the habit of pushing himself upon people. The question is not what manifestation the Spirit will take, but rather what are you willing to let him do? Grace allows us to start where we are and works with us as we grow in our openness and awareness” (Nathan Foster, The Six Streams and Hope for a New Reformation, Renovare Weekly Digest, May 6-10).

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