Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Op-ed redux: thoughts and prayers

The op-ed below appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer last May after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. There's been another shooting, so many other shootings. We throw up our hands and say there are too many guns but what's to be done? If we had the will, if we cared about the lives of our children and our young people, perhaps we could see to it that there were fewer guns. We may never stop all of the violence, but to say that we can stop none of it is untrue.

We have gun toting congresspeople, but I wish someone would ask Marjorie Green Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert every time they speak, why do you need to carry a people-killing machine in your purse?

I wondered what image to put with this post, a photo of the original article, or some religious image, perhaps Christ bent under the weight of a cross. But part of me really thinks that what should go with these articles are pictures of the carnage. Detailed, up close, many, pictures of the carnage, the physical as well as the emotional. I spent time many years ago in Ignatian contemplation of the crucifixion, and wonder if we need a national contemplation of these tragedies in much the same way. Not to experience the horror of it, but to viscerally experience the weight our sins and know how we must change and live from that reality. To truly see what we have chosen as a nation. It surely isn't life.

Ted Cruz is “fervently lifting up in prayer the children and families.” Mitch McConnell is praying fervently, too. My Twitter feed is full of thoughts and prayers for Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two adults on Tuesday afternoon.


We keep using that word, but what do we mean?

As someone who writes regularly about prayer, every time I see “thoughts and prayers” in my Twitter feed or hear it uttered by a politician on the news, I wonder what we think we’re praying for.

Are we offering to make some vague noise in the direction of God’s ear and then move on? Or do we have something specific in mind that we expect God to come down and take care of? Perhaps a miracle that restores the lives lost, or some divine assurance that something this horrific will never happen again — or at least not to us.

C.S. Lewis once said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless … It doesn’t change God — it changes me.” Are we willing to pray fiercely — even desperately — to change the way we approach guns, as individuals and as a nation?

Remington claims its version of an AR-15 rifle will give you “the confidence and firepower to get the job done.” Are we willing to pray to change the conversation, to dispense with euphemisms and say aloud what the job of a gun is: “This AR-15 will allow you to kill or maim another human being. Many human beings. Quickly.”

In Buffalo, N.Y., 10 in two minutes.

Can we pray for the vision to see how guns change us? To grasp that we might secretly relish holding the power of life and death in our hands, to consider we sometimes buy guns because they make us feel a little like gods ourselves, or if not gods, at least like a superhero. Or a patriot.

Are we willing to pray that we can change — that we could imagine ways to reduce, if not eliminate the carnage, as other countries have done? Or perhaps should we be praying for forgiveness from the families of the next classroom full of terrified children who will die in a hail of bullets? And we won’t have long to wait. On average, one child is shot every hour of the day in America.

We say now is not the time, in the wake of a tragedy, to think about the solutions. Instead, we should focus on thoughts and prayers for the dead, the dying, and those who loved them. But what are the prayers for, if not to change things? We must go beyond issuing vague petitions in the wake of a tragedy. Instead, we can offer ongoing, concrete prayers for our own change of heart, and for the hard, realistic thinking and respectful dialogue it will take to change a nation.

Perhaps the next time our leaders are offering their thoughts and prayers in the wake of a mass shooting, they might take the lead and say what those prayers and thoughts are.

That would be a miracle worth praying for.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Leaves of grief

Grief is a funny thing. It can reach out and grab you by the throat from years in the past. Tom has been gone almost 36 years. I have grieved for him. I have found great joy in Math Man and our two sons. Yet somehow the joy and the grief are interleaved with each other, flying past each other like the pages of a book ruffled in the wind. 

Our beloved cat Fluffy died on Friday. She went to sleep on Thursday and simply didn't wake up. The end was swift but gentle, but it remains hard to lose a companion of almost 17 years. Math Man and I cried our tears for her, and did the last necessary things. We will bury her ashes under the cherry tree that she loved to climb,to harass the squirrels and find her way to the window outside my study, demanding I remove the screen and let her in. Terrifying the neighbors as she balanced on the roof, but never once falling. 

I came home from teaching on Friday afternoon and was faced with her food bowl sitting in the kitchen. I emptied her bowls and put them in the dishwasher, and started to clear away the little pieces of her life scattered around the house, washing the bedding in the basket she sometimes occupied in the kitchen and picking up the toys she batted under the sofa. And as I did so the grief and the anger I felt when I came back from the hospital after Tom died came flooding back. I had gone around the house that Good Friday afternoon doing the same thing, throwing away the razor he would not need ever again, washing the bedding and remaking the bed for a single occupant. Suddenly that grief was all fresh again, and I could hardly speak for the tears.

In a moment of clarity, I remembered the advice of a long-ago spiritual director on this kind of grief. Think of it like the Amtrak train howling through the station, he suggested. It comes on fast, it's noisy and rattles you, it's frankly terrifying. But it will pass, and generally quickly. And it did. But I still miss Fluffy...and Tom. 

Friday, January 06, 2023

Happy New Year!


What makes me happy? Besides a book and a cup of tea?

A kitchen full of family. From conversations with my mother over the counter in the kitchen, to early mornings cups of tea with my dad, to times with my brothers and their home kitchens, to cooking a holiday meal with my sons and their partners, to the quiet days of emptying the dishwasher while Math Man cooks dinner for us. The holidays this year made me happy on all fronts. Family, food and cups of tea and lots and lots of books.

Perhaps it's because I grew up in a large family that even though I am an introvert, it's the people in my life that bring me joy. It turns out that I'm not alone. Last summer I had the privilege of reading a draft of a book a friend was writing on happiness. Marc drew on all the data generated by an ongoing study begun at Harvard in the 1930s (he is the associate director of the study.) I loved the interplay of data and story in the book. (Also fun, seeing your colleague's work in the NY Times.) Whether the conversations happen in the kitchen or elsewhere, what generally makes us happy is our relationships. 

The book (The Good Life: Lessons from the World's Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz) is coming out this week, and if you're interested in happiness (who isn't?), I recommend it. But I'd also recommend it if developing community as part of the work you do. I'm chairing our parish council through these pandemic years and have really come to appreciate how important relationships are to keeping a community healthy and whole, and the work that is required to keep them going when events such as the pandemic interfere with our usual patterns. So I read this with an eye to what I could learn, not only about my own life, but about the life of the parish.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Dr. Francl's home for lonely poinsettas


The email came from a student in my first year writing class. Could I give a temporary home, she wondered, to her poinsettia over winter break? After a brief exchange concerning cats and watering requirements we agreed that I could house her poinsettia. She would drop it off, she said, on the last day of final exams. "Perfect! I'll be on the lookout for it.”

Friday came, and the poinsettia arrived with a note. I took it into my office and put it on my desk and returned to grading quantum mechanics finals. I stepped out for a minute to heat up a cup of tea and when I returned there were two poinsettias outside of my office. I was puzzled for a moment. I was sure I had brought the poinsettia in. Had I imagined it? I picked them up and carried them inside and indeed there was already a poinsettia my desk. Whew!

Still I wondered, why the plenitude of poinsettias? And one looked a little bit the worse for wear. Was it the ghost of poinsettias future? 

An email resolved the mystery, upon hearing that I was giving a home to one poinsettia, friends of my student thought I might give a home to their poinsettias as well. So I find myself a plant parent for break. They do brighten my office. And I feel honored that someone thinks I might be able to restore the sad poinsettia to health (though I fear it may need more of an Easter event). I will do my best to channel my mother who was not only an amazing parent to six kids but also a terrific plant parent as well.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Asperges: Blessing the sparrow-grass

Asperges. From the Latin, to sprinkle. We replaced the almost three decade old hymnals at the parish. I was sad to see them go, not because I will miss the music, but because I will miss the water-crinkled page with the song we sang many Easter seasons during the sprinkling rite. There is something about the physical traces of the water that cascaded over the assembly, a potent reminder of mercy we held in our hands each and every liturgy.

Asperges. French for asparagus. I wondered if this was somehow related to the ritual asperges. If I squint my eyes the individual stalks of asparagus look much like an aspergillum. But no, asparagus at least, is an old word. Even the OED is unsure where and how it was born. Perhaps it comes from the Greek, perhaps from something much earlier. The a vanished early on, dropped in Latin, and Italian, and old English. Sparagi,sparaci and spargen.And from there sparagrass. And finally sparrow-grass. Only botanists called it asparagus, reclaiming the a from the proto-Indo-European dustbin. It was too stiff, too pedantic for common use.