I Co-Officiate at the Wedding of My Son, Brendan and His Bride, Erin Pearson

The Newly Weds

Our whole family just returned from five days in Paris. We were there for the wedding of my son Brendan. He married Erin Pearson from Waco, Texas — a beautiful and brilliant young woman whom we’ve all grown to love over the last number of years. I co-officiated the ceremony with the Rev. Tom Pearson, Erin’s father. Here are some remarks inspired by the occasion:

Marriage Is a School for Character: Embrace Its Challenges

I’m so proud of this couple. It’s truly a marriage made in heaven. Both Erin and Brendan are hugely qualified public servants. Their shared passion is serving the world and changing it for the better.

Both partners here have studied at Harvard. Erin is a Ph.D. researcher and public health professional. She works across the Global South on women’s reproductive health issues.

Brendan is a career diplomat with our country’s State Department. Currently stationed in Paris, he has previously worked in Mexico, D.C., Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Knowing just that much about them gives some idea about why I think of them as a truly Dynamic Duo. For them, the sky’s the limit in terms of the impact for good that their union promises to the planet.

Again, I couldn’t be prouder of them or more honored to co-officiate with Erin’s father, Tom, at this wedding ceremony.

But what does a father and father-in-law tell two smart people that might help them in their marriage which begins this momentous day?

There are three things that come to mind – three reminders.

The first is simply that you two deserve heart-felt congratulations. Congratulations for having the courage to take this huge step in your personal growth. You’re both aware that the vows you exchange this day enroll you in what many have called “a school for character.”

The marriage curriculum is daunting. And even though you are both brilliant scholars, you’ll find that what you’ll be taught by married life will be far more challenging than anything you experienced in Cambridge MA. Despite knowing that (as I’m sure you do), it’s wonderful that you’re taking this giant step anyway. Doing so implies that at some level, your desire to join forces to serve others as a couple transcends personal gratification. Again, congratulations for such noble generosity.

Of course, it’s your deep love for each other that impels you to take this step which today seems relatively easy. And that brings me to my second reminder. It’s this: Never forget the vision of each other that you have this moment – the one you had when you first saw each other across a crowded room. Don’t listen to the world’s wisdom about that. The world will eventually try to persuade you that the person you saw across that room was a deceptive illusion and that the trying one you’ll experience in day-to-day living is the truth. However, it’s just the opposite. The one you saw when you first fell in love is the truth. The one you’ll eventually wonder about is the illusion. Your task as a married couple is to work towards that truth about each other you saw years ago and whom you see so lovingly today. Never forget the vision you now share. That’s the truth of this union. Hold on to it; work towards its daily realization. That’s your challenging task.

My third reminder is about dealing with married life’s ups and downs. And here my reminder is best brought out by telling a story. The great spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, tells of a Zen master who communicated to his student the secret of dealing with life’s changes good and bad.

The student was about to leave on a year-long journey. Before going, he asked the master for a practice he might use while on his trip. He complained, “Look, I’ve been here in the monastery for five years. I’ve been a good monk and have done everything according to the book. But I still haven’t achieved enlightenment. Help me.”

“Well,” the master said, “here’s something I’d recommend. . .  No matter what happens to you during the coming year, simply accept it with the words, ‘This is good. It could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

The student was surprised. “You mean that’s it?” he asked.

“Yes,” the master said. “No matter what happens to you – good, bad, or indifferent, wonderful or tragic – say, ‘This is good; it couldn’t be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

With that, the student left on his trip.

A year later, he returned completely frustrated. He said, “Master, I did what you said. No matter what happened to me, pleasant or unpleasant, I always said, ‘This is good; it could not be better; thank you; I have no complaints whatsoever. But nothing has changed.  I haven’t yet achieved enlightenment.’”

The master paused a long time. “Hmm. . .,” he said. “Hmm . . .” Finally, he broke the silence and said, “This is good; it could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

The student heard that . . .  He pondered . . . And at that moment, he achieved enlightenment.

In the light of that story, my recommendation is that you adopt the Zen master’s practice in your married life. No matter what happens to you good, bad, indifferent, tragic or incredibly wonderful, say to yourselves, “This is good; it could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.” It’s a reminder that simply being alive is a gift. Simply having each other is a gift. Being challenged by the married-life curriculum is a gift.

So, Erin and Brendan, congratulations. Always work towards the vision you had of each other across that crowded room. And always be grateful for everything – even the difficult and painful.

With all of that in mind, we all wish you well. We join you in saying of your marriage, of this wonderful day in Paris, and of life in general “Thank you, Lord. This is incredibly good. It could be no better. We have no complaints whatsoever.”

Marianne Williamson’s Campaign Harnesses the Miraculous Power of Critical Consciousness

The Washington Post recently ran a long article on Marianne Williamson’s presidential campaign. It was the first acknowledgement of Ms. Williamson’s political efforts that I’ve seen in the mainstream print media.

The article was written by Anna Peele who not only introduced her readership to Marianne Williamson. She also indicated how Ms. Williamson offers an essential element no other Democratic candidate can possibly supply. 

In fact, Marianne Williamson’s candidacy addresses the psychological and spiritual concerns at the root of voters’ issues regardless of their party affiliation or religious orientation including those self-identifying as “spiritual but not religious” and even agnostic and atheistic.

By doing so, Williamson effectively rescues for the left the power of spirituality that has been the exclusive province of right-wing Republicans for the last 50 years and more. Unlike Republican Christians who use religion to defend the status quo, Ms. Williamson links profound spirituality and critical consciousness at their deepest levels. The consciousness ends up distancing itself 180 degrees away from our country’s reigning ideology about history, economics, politics, and personal responsibility.

At the beginning of her article, Ms. Peele admitted she had never previously heard of Marianne Williamson, whom she first understood in terms of a “self-help author and motivational speaker” as well as the spiritual advisor of Oprah Winfrey. Peele was intrigued by Williamson’s own job-description as “creating miracles” – something the author admits she wanted to believe in, especially given the state of our nation and world under President Trump.

Seeking that miracle, Peele confessed during her first encounter with Williamson that she was anxious about our country’s future. She mentioned her own anger and fear.

She was surprised by Williamson’s response. It was in summary: “Toughen up. We’re not porcelain dolls, you know. We need to get real and absorb with courage and endurance the hard knocks delivered up by Trump’s kind. After all, we’re following in the footsteps of Civil Rights heroes and the suffragettes who risked their lives resisting the old policies currently resurrected in today’s Oval Office. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work!”

Peele’s admits that she found that initial exchange actually inspiring. It bordered, she said, on the very miracle she had been seeking. The journalist’s vision, she says, had changed – of both Marianne and her campaign. (And that by the way, is what the term “miracle” means in Williamson’s vocabulary – a radical transformation of perception. It’s about developing critical consciousness.)

From there, Peele’s article describes Williamson’s January 28th formal announcement of her candidacy and her basic theme. It’s that America’s real problem is not with the likes of Donald Trump, but with us, our juvenile preoccupations with our personal lives, our resulting political disengagement, and our surrender of political terrain to corporations and the one-percenters.  “It is time for us to rise up, the way other generations have. Cynicism is just an excuse for not helping. Whining is not an option . . . We need to identify the problems in this country. Then we need to identify with the problem solvers.”

Williamson identifies herself as one of those problem solvers. In fact, she portrays her upbringing and 30- year career as a spiritual teacher as uniquely qualifying her for addressing the fundamentally spiritual problem underneath our country’s current dysfunction. No one else, she says, demonstrates that qualification or of even recognizes the problem as such.

Now 66 years old, Williamson comes from a Jewish family headed by a stay-at-home mother and by a father who practiced immigration law. When his daughter was just 13, Mr. Williamson took his entire family to Vietnam during the height of the war. His intention, Williamson says, was to “make sure the military-industrial complex would not ‘eat my kids’ brains’.” She never forgot that childhood lesson about the reality of war and its horror. It made her but a life-long anti-war activist.

But Marianne Williamson is not just some aging hippie activist with a past devoted to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. That was only part of it, she quips. “The rest of the day, we stopped a war.”

In 1975, Williamson’s activism found its theoretical grounding in what has since become a spiritual classic, A Course in Miracles (ACIM).  The book was allegedly “channeled” by Helen Schucman, who described the dictating voice as that of Jesus, the Christ. Williamson calls the book “basically Christian mysticism.” (I would call it a course on developing critical consciousness.) In any case, the book changed her life. On its basis, she began a spiritual practice that gave her that earlier-mentioned radical vision of the world.

Eventually, Williamson composed what she calls “ACIM Cliff Notes” – A Return to Love.

Oprah Winfrey loved it. It became a New York Times best-seller. And Williamson’s new career as a spiritual teacher was born. However, her spiritual teaching distinguished itself from others like Eckhart Tolle (whom Williamson considers an enlightened spiritual master) and Deepak Chopra by its continued commitment to the brand of anti-war social justice deeply instilled by her father.  

Williamson’s activism led her to launch Project Angel Food in 1989. It delivered meals to HIV/AIDS patients too ill to feed themselves. In 2014, she ran for Congress in California’s 33rd district. In 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2017, she organized “Sister Giant” seminars to raise political consciousness especially among women and to motivate them to run for public office.

In 1997, Williamson demonstrated her political acumen by publishing Healing the Soul of America. It’s a 256-page book that has become (in its 20th anniversary edition) her basic stump speech. In Healing, she exhibits her knowledge of American history, her firm grasp of economic realities, and her acute sensitivity to “the signs of the times.” Williamson writes, “When this book was first published in 1997, I wrote that there was a storm ahead, or an awakening ahead. Alas, that storm is upon us. But even now, in the midst of our national turmoil, there is an awakening as well.”

Ironically, a sort of awakening led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. In Williamson’s analysis, that outcome was an expression of deep popular despair on the part of a population worried for decades about making ends meet, sending their children to college, and paying skyrocketing medical bills. “It was either going to be an authoritarian populist or it was going to be a progressive populist,” she says. “Now, the person we got is clearly a con artist and someone who lacks basic respect for democratic norms.”

Donald Trump however isn’t the problem according to Williamson; he’s merely a symptom of an underlying condition that other candidates are not qualified to heal. Those others, Ms. Williamson is fond of saying, approach the presidency as technical administrators. They even talk about running the government “like a business.” But government is not a business to be governed by some bottom line. Instead, it’s more like a family where all the children are equally important.

Moreover, the job of president isn’t primarily administration. (There are plenty of well-qualified technicians that presidents can nominate to fill cabinet posts.) No, the chief task of the president is setting a tone; it’s motivation, inspiration, and supplying vision. Franklin Roosevelt realized that. “The role of the president, at this time in our history,” Williamson says, “has more of a visionary function. FDR said that the administrative functioning of the president is secondary; the primary role of the president is moral leadership.”

None of this is to say that Marianne Williamson is vague about policy proposals. She shares many of them with the others just referenced:

  • A Green New Deal
  • Medicare for all
  • Increase in minimum wage
  • Gun control
  • Criminal justice reform
  • Overhaul of public education
  • Raising taxes on the rich

To this list now familiar among progressive candidates, Williamson dares to add the issue of reparations to the black community for the wounds of slavery to which she traces so many of our nation’s current ills. Such repair, she estimates, would cost $100 billion to be administered across fields by a board of African-American leaders over a period of 10 years. Williamson says that without addressing the problem of racism and its fundamental causes, the soul of our country will remain deeply traumatized.

Despite the mine field that the reparations proposal represents, the Post article observes that Marianne Williamson would be a formidable debate opponent for someone like Donald Trump. Unlike the latter, she can speak eloquently for hours without written texts of teleprompters.

After every lecture, she answers questions of all sorts from audiences about faith, politics, religion, race relations, economic problems – and the meaning of life. She’s never at a loss for words. Moreover, by her own account, she’s used to being called a “lightweight thinker, New Age con artist, a b_ _ _ _ — if you really know her.” Can you imagine, Anna Peele suggests, Marianne answering one of Trump’s insults with a magnanimous reflection on the state of his own soul? Wouldn’t that would be fun to witness?

As Williamson puts it, Trump “is a master of false narrative. And if you come back at him with anything other than the deepest truth, he will eat you alive. But if you do respond from a place of deepest truth, he is completely disempowered. I plan to speak to the consciousness of the American mind. Where he has harnessed fear, I’m seeking to harness love. Where he has harnessed bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism and homophobia, I’m seeking to harness dignity and decency and compassion. And that does not defeat. It overrides.”

Anna Peele’s Washington Post article suggests (correctly, I think) that our country needs the change in consciousness and communication of deepest truth of which Marianne Williamson speaks. By addressing that level, she promises to answer a need that the left has traditionally proven incapable of confronting.

That inability has not hampered the political right. They’ve understood the power of faith to motivate people to political action. On the left, African-Americans have a similar understanding, though in the opposite political direction. The same is true of liberation theologists in the Global South – and (dare I say it) of militant Muslims.

In summary, Mary Ann Williamson’s use of the term “miracle” for the achievement of critical consciousness along with her courageous invocation of spiritual traditions from her own Judaism as well as from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and New Age understandings of Ultimate Reality promises to enrich enormously the upcoming selection of Donald Trump’s progressive opponent.

And she may prevail. As Anna Peele attests, Ms. Williamson is good at creating miracles.    

In Memoriam: Matthew Setlik (Aug. 20, 1985-Feb. 5, 2019)

I experienced a great sorrow and privilege over the last couple of weeks. The sorrow was the loss of a dear nephew, Matthew – the son of my younger sister, Mary. At the age of just 33, Matthew died suddenly from a virulent strain of cancer following a brief illness. All of us remain devastated. None of us can believe what on the surface we’ve experienced as a great tragedy. Our tears are not yet dry. They won’t be for some time to come.

Nonetheless, I found myself also experiencing Matthews death as a privilege. It took the form of an urgent call to stop my hurried and harried routine to ponder and appreciate the significance of this exemplary young man’s brief life. Even more importantly, Life itself gifted and summoned the entire community of those who love Matthew to reflect on death and its meaning in the light of the faith that formed my nephew. I share that faith with my sister, with Matthew’s family, his Methodist church community in Riverside California, and with many of his dearest friends.

My own fondest memories of Matthew are of his playing with our youngest son, Patrick when they were small children of approximately the same age. They both loved video games. Then, there were the several Suzuki music camps our families shared in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. Like Patrick and my other son, Brendan, along with my daughter, Maggie, and, of course, Matthew’s sister, Amanda, Matthew was a musician – the son of a dedicated Suzuki mom (and only Suzuki parents know how they can be!). Back then, Matthew was doing piano. Later on, he switched to drumming. He played in a Jazz band, though I never heard him perform. Those summer times in Steven’s Point were memorable.

Afterwards, my connections with Matthew came through Mary. She told me of his studies at the University of Kansas, where he majored in business and finance. She’s described to me his work as a sports agent and with the Special Olympics organization. After Kansas, Matthew taught in Spain. He loved that country and its language. Mary visited him there three times recording it all in lovely artistic photos. She treasured every minute of her time with her son.

Mary told me of Matthew’s marriage to Emily Ann whom he met through their shared work with Special Olympics. Everyone said they were a perfect match. They bought a lovely home near Emily’s parents, Patti and Bob. Matthew loved both of them and considered Bob a father-figure.   

Then several years ago, our paths crossed again at his sister, Amanda’s wedding. My wife, Peggy, and I came away from that experience as enthusiastic members of the very large Matthew Setlik Fan Club. We were completely won over by his out-going spirit, his light-heartedness, and his desire to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. He was a complete joy. And afterwards, we bragged about him to everyone who would listen.

And now, all of a sudden, it seems, his life has been cut off at just 33 years of age. As I said, and like everyone else we found ourselves confused and moved to tears.

And somehow that brings me to a deeper dimension of this turn of events. I’m reminded that faith was important to Matthew and remains so for Emily, his bride of just two years. To begin with, Matthew’s tragically shortened life reminds me that in our Christian tradition, Jesus himself died at that very age. His life too was cut off just as it seemed to be getting started. The same was true of Martin Luther King whose life ended at just 39 years of age.

Those numbers remind us that the length of time we’re given here on planet earth is all relative. The examples of Jesus and Dr. King tell us that in the big scheme of things, the number of years we spend here is immaterial. I mean, time itself is relative. It’s actually an illusory construct that is nothing but a measure of motion. Einstein himself said something like that. He called time “an illusion – albeit a persistent one.”

The fact is that all of our life-spans are incredibly brief. Outwardly, we’re born, go to school, get a job, some of us marry and perhaps have some children. We buy and sell a few things, accumulate a truckload of trinkets and then die.

All of that is on the outside. Inwardly however, there’s so much more going on, isn’t there? Quite early on, we begin to wonder what our lives are for. What should I do with mine?

Why are we here? Where are we going? Am I wasting – have I wasted – my life? Is there a God? And what happens after we lay our bodies aside?

Surely those question occurred to Matthew. And the choices he made during his all-too-brief life indicate the conclusions he must have drawn. Instead of focusing on money, power and prestige, he and Emily joined forces to become elementary and middle school teachers. As we all know, what an important vocation that is. Yes, it’s a vocation. No one chooses that path to become rich. Instead, the choice is made out of a sense of calling, service, and responsibility for others. Each of us, I’m sure has a special place in our heavens for our dearest teachers.

As for what happens after death . . . None of us really knows. Hindus emphasize one thing, Muslims another. Life after death has been described as a Great Banquet or a great family reunion. Some believe in reincarnation. Then there’s the approach of Dante Alighieri in his Paradiso. It centralizes the “beatific vision” and the “resurrection of the body.” It’s important to note that for all those ancient traditions, the afterlife, for virtuous people like Matthew, is something joyous and fulfilling. The fact that all traditions across the world agree on that point should give us great comfort.

For followers of Jesus, death has a dreamlike quality. It’s not an ending, but a beginning. We fall asleep in the Lord and then wake up. And there’s a reason for that dream connection. Genesis 2:24 tells us that the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam. But nowhere does it say that Adam woke up. Instead, what we have in effect throughout the entire Bible is the dream of Adam.

He dreams that death is somehow a punishment (GEN 3:19) as is his relationship with woman and nature. He dreams of a war-God who demands the slaughter of thousands – men, women, and children. He dreams of restrictive laws and of a God who severely punishes breaking them. He dreams that his ethnic group is special, and that all others are God’s enemies worthy of death.

But then come the prophets; then come Jesus and Paul to save us from that nightmare. They correct all of that. They call us to wake up from Adam’s dream. God is not a war-God, they tell us. God is not a punisher, but a loving father. Even the holiest of laws are meant to be broken when human welfare is at stake (MK 2:27).

Death is nothing more than falling asleep and waking up to fullness of life. Jesus demonstrates that by raising Lazarus to life (JN 11: 1-44). He does the same for the daughter of Jairus (MK 5:26-43; MT 9:18-26; LK 8: 40-56). (Everyone was convinced that she was dead. No, Jesus says, she’s only sleeping.) Above all, Jesus’ own resurrection – the center of our shared faith – teaches that death is not the end but a glorious beginning. Reflecting on Jesus’ death and our own, Paul asks triumphantly, “O, death, where is your victory; where is your sting?” (I COR 15: 55-57).

As followers of Jesus, we share that faith. We’ve awakened from the dream of Adam to realize there’s nothing to fear in death. Despite our present overwhelming feelings of severe loss, death is not tragic. It is an inevitable part of life. It is a bridge leading to what Jesus called “fullness of life.” For Matthew and the rest of us, it represents a promotion. Our faith tells us he is better off now than any of us. Yes, that’s our faith.

As for our feelings of loss . . .  Eckhart Tolle tells the story of a Zen master who communicated to his student the secret of dealing with such pain.

The student was about to leave on a year-long journey. Before going, he asked the master for a practice he might use while on his trip. He complained, “Look, I’ve been here in the monastery for five years. I’ve been a good monk and have done everything according to the book. But I still haven’t achieved enlightenment. Help me.”

“Well,” the master said, “here’s something I’d recommend. . .  No matter what happens to you during the coming year, simply accept it with the words, ‘This is good. It could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

The student was surprised. “You mean that’s it?” he asked.

“Yes,” the master said. “No matter what happens to you – good, bad, or indifferent, wonderful or tragic – say, ‘This is good; it couldn’t be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

With that, the student left on his trip.

A year later, he returned completely frustrated. He said, “Master, I did what you said. No matter what happened to me, pleasant or unpleasant, I always said, ‘This is good; it could not be better; thank you; I have no complaints whatsoever. But nothing has changed.  I haven’t yet achieved enlightenment.’”

The master replied, “Hmm. . .  This is good; it could not be better. Thank you. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

The student heard that . . .  He pondered . . . And at that moment, he achieved enlightenment.

Do you see what the story teaches? It means that even in the apparently tragic situation of Matthew’s death – keeping in mind the relativity of time, the dreamlike quality of all our experiences, and given what Jesus taught us about Adam’s dream and the triumph of life over death – there is something extremely important for us to learn. It’s that all of life is a gift. And in the light of that gift, the proper faith response to absolutely everything – even this apparent tragedy – is “Thank you Lord. This is perfect and could not be better. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

So, if you can, join me in saying that prayer now – but perhaps in the following form:

“Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of life and for the experiences we enjoyed with our beloved Matthew. Each of the moments we spent with him was infinitely precious. But so is this present one. All our lives are incredibly short. We thank you for Jesus’ teaching that death is merely a bridge to complete fullness of life. We are happy that Matthew has crossed that bridge and is now happier than he ever was here. Yes, we believe he has received a promotion and is now happier than he ever was here. We know that it’s only a matter of time before we each join him in that better home. So, thank you, Lord. We know this present moment could not be better. It is a complete blessing. We have no complaints whatsoever.

And so, it is; we all pray, ‘Amen.’”   

Groundhog Day, The Musical: Better than Church

Ground Hog Musical

Today is Groundhog Day. It reminds me that last summer one Sunday instead of going to church, I took in the musical version of the familiar story. I accompanied my daughter’s and son-in-law’s family to the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street in New York City to see Groundhog Day: The Musical. It’s the inspired and inspiring Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin rendering of the familiar Bill Murray classic of the same name, without “The Musical” addendum.

Virtually everyone, of course, will recall the Groundhog Day story. It’s about Phil Connors (Andy Karl), the big city TV weatherman sent to small town Punxsutawney PA to cover its famous winter festival. To his great frustration, the jaded and self-centered Connors finds himself condemned to living the same day over and over again till he gets it right.

Obviously, then, it’s a story about personal transformation reminiscent of Murray’s Scrooged. But the musical version of Groundhog Day has the advantage of making its point even more sharply than the Murray film, because the play’s memorable songs provide direct insight into the minds of the story’s characters.

So my choice of theater over church proved to be a good one. The play confronted me with the sort of questions that church should raise for me, but rarely does. Among them:

  • What is the nature of time and space?
  • Does when and where I live make any difference?
  • Does my own life make a difference?
  • How do I escape from behavioral patterns that objectify women and seek salvation in sex, alcohol, and the latest fads in natural healing, therapy and religion?
  • What is life for anyway?
  • Does God fit into any of this?

Surprisingly, the play suggests answers that coincide perfectly with universal spiritual traditions found everywhere. As the play’s book writer, Danny Rubin, points out, I’m not alone in saying that. Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle loves the story.

Take those questions about time and place and the pointless nature of life’s repetitious patterns. The play’s songs make them as inescapable as Connors finds Punxsutawney itself. After all, his very job has caused him to focus on the future and absolutely predictable weather events. That job has given him an identity of sorts. But it’s no more meaningful than that of his namesake, Punxsutawney Phil, a large rodent who comes out each February 2nd to declare with great pomp and circumstance what everyone already knows: “There Will Be Sun,” but there will also be six more weeks of winter.

Again, Phil Connors’ job is like that too. So he’s entirely bored. He’s as stuck in past patterns of thought and living as the two drunks Phil eventually identifies with in the song, “Nobody Cares.”

Phil’s foil in Ground Day is Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss). As the associate producer of his TV spot, she has accompanied Connors to Punxy to cover Groundhog Day festivities. And she’s everything Connors is not. She was French major in college focused on 17th century French poetry. She enthusiastic and lives in the present. She loves Punxy, its simple people, and Groundhog Day itself with its funny hats, balloons, and ice sculptures.

The contrast between Phil and Rita is wonderfully expressed in their rousing duet “If I Had My Time Again.” Phil’s part is focused on the superficial, and he’d do it all over again.  Rita would make great changes in her life. Phil has spent his life focused on eating, drinking, sex, violence and money. He’d like to sleep with 90% of the women he meets. He’s stolen $18 million dollars, started 700 fights, and once masturbated seven times in a row. If he could, he’d eat a dozen donuts at a time without knowing why. And he’s spent endless nights contemplating different ways of committing suicide.

Rita, on the other hand, is focused on growth and change. Sure, she’s made mistakes, but she’d like to set them all right. If she could live her young life over, she’d take the road less trodden. She’d fulfill neglected desires, study math, send unsent letters, learn piano, and make more friends. She’d also punch a lot of men.

The reason for the latter is embodied in her relationship with Connors. For two-thirds of the play, he tries to bed Rita using all the ruses familiar to men (and women!). He flatters and even feigns interest in French literature. But Rita resists each time and actually does punch Phil at one point. She’s intent on not being like Nancy, Rita’s own foil.

Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry)  is the Punxy girl we meet at the beginning of Act II. She has come to terms with the world shaped by men – men like Phil Connors. Nancy is pretty and, as she confesses, looks good in tight jeans and low-cut tops. But, like Rita, even she wants to be more than a sex object. She wants to be more than the role men expect from women. But she’s given up trying. She says all of that beautifully in her wistful “Playing Nancy.” Listen for yourself.

As it turns out, Rita outlasts Phil. And here’s where his spiritual conversion comes in.

Realizing that the present moment is all that he has, Phil at first concludes that his actions have no consequences; after all there is no future. He’s free to do anything he wants. So he continues doing what he’s always done, only with greater abandon. More sex, drinking, anger, and violence.

Then, however, comes the inevitable. The meaninglessness of it all becomes so clear that suicide makes more sense than ever. So Phil puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Ironically, however, that’s the key.  As Buddhists would put it; Connors saves himself by dying before he dies. That’s necessary, he realizes, before he can resurrect – as he himself puts it, “Like you know who.”

His resurrection makes Connors discover his own divinity. He realizes that in fact he is God. The awareness makes him so sensitive to his unity with others that he becomes as familiar with the details of their lives as if they were his own – because they are his own. So he knows what they’re thinking and everything they’ve done with their lives. He perceives it all in God’s eternal Now where everything is happening simultaneously – where there is no past or future. Here’s the way Bill Murray expresses the consequent power in the movie.

In this way, like Dickens’ Scrooge, Connors transforms before our eyes. He exchanges his cynicism for cheerfulness, shares his money generously, changes tires for strangers, takes care of the homeless and dying. He falls in love with Rita’s person, not just her body.

As a result, winter’s bleakness ends for this human Punxsutawney Phil. He’s released from the rodent-like behavioral patterns that previously imprisoned him. He’s finally free to exit Punxy. Ironically, though, he chooses not to. He and Rita decide to remain in the small town he previously despised. They end up on a park bench simply watching the sunrise.

The play’s bottom line?

  • Time and space are figments of the imagination.
  • Small town life can be every bit as meaningful as in the big city.
  • So when and where I live is completely relative.
  • My own life can make a difference for others if it is focused on the present rather than the past or future.
  • Putting the needs of others first provides exit from self-centered and destructive behavioral patterns.
  • That’s what life is for.
  • It’s the path to realizing (making real) the divine nature all of us share.

Of course, all of that sounds platitudinous, doesn’t it? A lot of it is what we learned in Sunday School. But Groundhog Day: The Musical makes us realize it’s all true. And it does so far more effectively than most Sunday sermons I’ve heard.

I’m glad I took it in. Church can wait.

What Really Happens after Death? (Conclusion of a two-part series)

Last week I raised the question of what really happens after death. My jumping off point was last Easter’s Time Magazine article by Jon Meacham called “Rethinking Heaven.” There the author contrasted what he called a “Blue Sky” approach to heaven (a kind of Disneyland up above) with a “God’s Space” understanding (bringing God’s Kingdom to earth). I remarked that the “God’s Space” approach seemed more believable and adult than the “Disneyland” heaven. However, the alternative to Disneyland didn’t really help us understand what happens after we breathe our last.

Tony Equale’s blog (http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/) does help. For Equale (a Roman Catholic ex-priest) heaven has little to do with the pearly gates. At the same time he explains more starkly what entering God’s space after death might really entail.

To begin with, Equale says, we must admit our ignorance. We have little idea about heaven or what happens after death. It’s all speculation. Even Jesus himself said precious little about the afterlife, much less about the specifics of a heaven. In any case, anything the Bible might have to say about the afterlife is expressed in religious language which is of necessity highly metaphorical.  It gestures towards something else.

What we do know about Jesus is that his own understanding of death was shaped by his belief in God’s universal love. He had absolute trust in God as a loving Father. Jesus believed that God’s unfailing trustworthiness took away the “sting” of death, so that dying became irrelevant; whatever was to happen could be trusted as the best outcome possible. As a result, death had no dominion over him.

Moreover the heroism of Jesus’ witness was to actually “prove” his claims about God by staking everything on them. Here we’re not talking about a rationalistic proof, but about something existential. In effect Jesus said, “Do you want me to prove I’m right? O.K. then, I will.” So he courted death by doing the things God’s love demands (siding with the poor and oppressed) – a choice that usually brings assassination to any prophet. That was his proof. “You see,” he insisted, “God can be trusted; death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love.” A way of putting that metaphorically is to say that Jesus rose from the dead.

According to Equale, belief in resurrection in those terms — in terms of real flesh and blood people choosing to risk their lives because they trust God’s love – mostly unraveled within a few generations of Jesus’ execution.  Its place was taken by a mixture of Roman and Egyptian ideas about disembodied souls in a “Blue Sky” heaven familiar to three year olds, to Dante, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

According to Equale, where does that leave us? With one choice only, he says – either to trust or not to trust the source of our existence, which Jesus claimed is absolutely loving.  However, even if we make the choice to trust, the reality of God’s love might not be as we want it to be. Tony writes:

“But what if the reality is …that at death we are dissolved back into the elements from which we were formed, to be reused over and over until the whole meets … another implosion to singularity and another big bang — a new universe. What if our little heads and our little hearts are not equal to the unfathomable magnanimity of a “Father” who, more like a “Mother,” wishes to share, and share, and share Herself (and us as part of Herself) endlessly, … we might even add, purposelessly … for the sheer joy of it … to share being-here with ever new things and new “people” with a generosity and self-donation beyond our capacity to imagine … or endure? . . . Do we want to go to that heaven? Are we really as convinced that “God is Love” if it would mean that much love? . . . Do we love our existential source and the universe it has made, as it is — or only as we want it to be?”

These words are reminiscent of the insights of Eckhart Tolle. Tolle says there is no doubt that life continues after death. One has only to enter an untended forest to see that live trees are surrounded by dead leaves, branches, and fallen and decaying trees.  However, closer examination of the dead matter reveals that in every case, the distinction between “dead” and “alive” is misleading. The fallen leaves, branches, and trees are teeming with life. In biblical terms, their lives have been changed not taken away. Of course, it will be the same with our bodies as they decay and molder in their graves. Life will continue in our bodies too. And who knows where that life will end up – in what communities or “people?” Death is always followed by rebirth – and perhaps by rebirth in the cosmic sense of passing again through an entire evolutionary process.

As for our consciousness . . .  That too will persist – insofar as it achieved unity with the source of the profound intelligence that pervades the universe. (The reference here is, for example, to the intelligence manifest in a single human cell. The information contained in that unit is enough to fill one hundred books of six hundred pages each.) That such Source Consciousness is present is evident from the fact of our own awareness. Ours comes from somewhere. As scholastic philosophers put it “nihil ex nilhilo fit” (nothing comes from nothing).  In as much as we have achieved unity with the Consciousness that pervades the universe, “our” consciousness will surely continue. All other consciousness passes away – most of it, experience shows, even before we die.

So the ultimate question about heaven is not whether it is up in the blue sky or in “God’s space” here on earth. It’s not even a question of our attitudes towards climate change, HIV/AIDS or world hunger.  Rather, it’s a question of death and surrender.

In confronting death, in explaining it to our children, are we willing to admit our absolute ignorance?  And if we claim Christian commitment, are we prepared to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a call to complete trust in God come what may? Are we disposed to surrender our very lives, as Jesus did despite threats from those who routinely kill prophets, because of our conviction that death is irrelevant in the face of God’s love and promise? And are we ready to do that even if God’s love is so great that we find it incomprehensible, purposeless, confusing, and even disappointing to the ideas of a three year old like Eva?

Finally, are we willing to make our own the prayer of the medieval mystic, Rabia al-Basri [a woman and Muslim (717-801)]?

“Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven,

Close its gates to me.

And if I love you, because I fear the pains of hell,

Bury me in its depths.

But if I love you for the sake of loving you,

Hide not your face from me.”