Thursday, November 11, 2010

Can’t Buy Me Love: A Tribute to Lee

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

~ Ecclesiastes 1-2a, 4, RSV

In 1964 the Beatles wrote and recorded the song Can’t Buy Me Love with the line “I don’t care too much for money/money can’t buy me love.” I write this article as someone who has been blessed with deep and meaningful friendships, people who by their influence and encouragement helped make me more and better than I would otherwise be. Early Monday morning Lee Alpern, one of those special friends, came to the end of her journey here. Full awareness hasn’t yet set in, but there are moments when the magnitude of my loss hits me hard.

I doubt that a computerized friend-finding program would have matched us up. We weren’t from the same generation. I grew up in Southern California; Lee was from Boston. I am Christian; Lee was Jewish. When we first met, Lee was a college educated and highly motivated career woman; I was a secretary with a high school education. Still, we “clicked.” We could share on a deep level. Lee challenged me, encouraged me, and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Just a few weeks before she died she expressed her conviction that I have big things ahead of me – my number one supporter! And now she’s gone.

Fortunately, I have good memories. I have also been bequeathed a new, or at least larger, family – Lee’s daughters, three very different women but three women who carry pieces of her not only in their DNA but also in their character: strength, humor, devotion, and intelligence. Even now, in the midst of grief, I feel blessed.

I still have tears to shed. I cry, not for Lee, but for myself, for Barbara and Sherry and Debbie, for Jon, for her grandchildren and cousins and friends. And that’s o.k. We have lost someone dear and it is right to acknowledge that loss.

Unlike most of what we attain in life, the price we pay for love can’t be quantified, but sometimes it is a very high price. Earlier this week as I stood beside Jon, just hours before he lost the love of his life, I was reminded that sometimes enormous pain is the price we pay for love. Right now, the universe is demanding payment. The richness Lee brought to my life for these past eighteen years was worth every bit of it. May she rest in the arms of the Holy.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness,
lowliness, meekness, and patience…
~ Colossians 3:12, RSV

It had been a few years since I had taken a spiritual gifts inventory and I decided I was overdue for a reevaluation. It was no surprise to find that my primary gift is compassion. I’ve gotten the same result on every spiritual gifts assessment I’ve ever taken.

According to the United Methodist Church, “Compassion makes us fundamentally aware of the Christ in others and springs from our desire to care for all of God’s creatures and creation.”[1] Yeah, that’s me! God has gifted me with compassion. I don’t have to work at it. It’s in my spiritual DNA.

It seems to me that compassion is sadly lacking in the world today, as evidenced by the recent horrific news about suicide among gay teens and, of course, the rhetoric about undocumented or “illegal” immigrants. So what hope is there for people who find it difficult to recognize “the Christ in others?” Good news! According to a 2008 article on the website Science Daily, “Cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples' mental states.[2]

As part of the study participants at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were asked to first focus on directing positive energy (wishes for well-being and freedom from suffering) at their own loved ones, and then to direct that same positive energy toward “all beings.”[2] Over time the activity in parts of the brain that respond to emotion showed changes that indicated the subjects were becoming more empathetic.

Compassion is not an option for those of us who claim to follow Christ; it’s an obligation. If you sometimes find it difficult to care about what other people are going through… if you have a tendency to think they brought it on themselves… or it’s not your problem… maybe it’s time to ask the Holy Spirit to give you the gift of Compassion. You may have to work at it a little – spend a little time in meditation; it’s worth it.

[1] Compassion. “Explore the Spiritual Gifts”
[2] University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Compassion Meditation Changes The Brain." ScienceDaily 27 March 2008. 26 October 2010 .

Saturday, October 16, 2010


And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

~ Romans 5:3-5, NRSV

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope lately. A very dear friend has been hospitalized for the past five weeks; during that time she has learned that she has two medical conditions, each of which could be very serious. Her situation is complicated by the inability of various medical specialists to agree on the best course of treatment. She wants someone to reassure her that there is hope for recovery and for restored quality of life. Gallant as Paul’s words to the Roman church may be, I suspect that she feels as if her prolonged suffering is sapping her endurance, chipping away at her sense of self, and robbing her of hope.

A doctor tried to relieve my friend’s anxiety by quoting a definition of hope from the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, I don’t have the OED at my fingertips, but I found this definition from the World English Dictionary to be shorter but very similar to that shared by the doctor: to wish for something with expectation of its fulfillment.[1] The same doctor said something to the effect that statistics relate to a population and cannot be applied to the individual, because every individual case is different. In this case, he believes there is reason for hope.

I am hopeful. I expect that the doctors will eventually settle on an appropriate course of treatment, her medical situation will be resolved, and her strength will be restored. I believe she will be able to reclaim a full and fulfilling life.

I am also optimistic, in part because it is my nature and in part because I have made a conscious choice to focus on the positive. I won’t take the time to look up references for this post, but I have read of studies that indicate a positive attitude promotes healing and contributes to overall physical and emotional health. I choose happiness.

Hope is more situation specific than optimism, which is a generalized attitude. The hope I carry for my friend’s recovery may be no more than an extension of my essentially optimistic nature but I don’t think so. If I didn’t have “expectation of its fulfillment” I wouldn’t pray. I wouldn’t pray for her body’s defenses to be strengthened, and I wouldn’t pray that she and all of the medical practitioners make wise decisions. I certainly wouldn’t bother asking my other friends and colleagues to pray on her behalf.

Despite all of my hope and optimism I am not under any illusion that I have some mystic or psychic ability to see the future. Despite all the prayers being lifted on her behalf, despite all the words of encouragement and skilled medical care, there is the possibility that my beloved friend will never again have the quality of life she wants or that her loved ones want for her. My hope may be disappointed – yet I will continue to seek opportunities for hope and I will continue to pray for those who are ill or unhappy or otherwise in need, because God’s love has been poured into my heart.

[1] hope. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. Accessed October 15, 2010.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

~ Luke 12:15, RSV

The other day on the radio I heard Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton and is now a professor at UC Berkeley, compare the current economic situation in the United States to the situation that led to the Great Depression. [1] Both in 1929 and in 2007 the top 1% of America took home about 23.5% of the nation’s income. Reich says on his blog at, “A record share of the nation’s income [is] going to the top, leaving the vast middle without enough purchasing power to get the economy moving.” [2] He said in the radio broadcast that wealthier people speculated in land, commodities, and stock. There was a lot more to it, and Mr. Reich explained it all much more clearly than I ever could, but it piqued my interest.

If you could look at our bank statement or income tax return it would be apparent that my spouse and I are far from wealthy. Still, though, we are fortunate to have good medical coverage, the means to pay our mortgage and meet our other financial responsibilities, and enough “discretionary income” to enjoy luxuries like cable t.v., movies, and dinner out. We have a little money in stocks for our retirement and a very small amount in savings. We are people who try to be faithful to our God; what, then, is an appropriate Christian attitude toward the economy?

Based on a concept laid out in Leviticus [3], in 1998 the National Council of Churches adopted the “Jubilee 2000” resolution which, among other things:

[Urged] the United States government to use its leadership in the international community to support and promote debt cancellation for impoverished countries that reduces poverty, and restores economic and environmental justice for people who have borne the major burden of their countries' indebtedness. [4]

I think Jesus would have approved; he did, after all, teach us to pray, “And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” [5] While we sometimes interpret this line of the prayer as a metaphor, the word translated “debt” in this passage is the same as that used later in the parable about the servant who was forgiven what he owed.

Some would argue that people are entitled to accumulate wealth and shouldn’t be expected to “carry” those who haven’t worked as hard or are somehow otherwise not as wealthy. Never mind that we don’t have a level playing field; Jesus also told a parable about laborers who were hired throughout the day and all paid the same wage, even though some had worked longer hours than others. [6]

Finally, in the Acts of the Apostles we’re told, “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.” [7]

Maybe these are stories we Christians need to remember, regardless of whether we are rich or poor or part of the rapidly-shrinking middle class.

[1] Robert Reich. October 1, 2010 at First Congregational Church of Berkeley. Broadcast October 6, 2010 on Letters to Washington, KPFK (Pacifica Radio).
[2] Robert Reich. “Another horrible jobs report – and why the great jobs recession continues.” October 8, 2010. Accessed October 8, 2010.
[3] Especially see Leviticus 25.
[4] National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. “Resolution on the Jubilee 2000 Campaign to Cancel the Unsustainable International Debt of Highly Indebted Poor Countries.” Adopted November 12, 1998. Accessed October 8, 2010.
[5] Matthew 6:12, RSV.
[6] Matthew 18:30, RSV.
[7] Acts 4:32, RSV.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

~ Ecclesiastes 5:2, RSV

Language is powerful; it can be used to build up or to tear down, to hurt or to heal. From this point forward my goal is to cease using my words to tear down or to hurt – and, in the words of Christian singer-songwriter Rich Mullins, “If I stand let me stand on the promise that you will pull me through, and if I can’t let me fall on the grace that first brought me to you.” [1]

I remember trying to mediate between two people who disliked each other. One party was willing to try; the other was not. His rationale for his spiteful remarks was, “I won’t be a liar.” I pointed out that he didn’t have to be cruel. There is always something nice to say, even if it’s “I like the color of your blouse.” It only takes a little effort to say something that will “build up” another person. As my mother –and many other mothers – often said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Civility seems in short supply these days. As much as some people rail against “political correctness,” at its most basic the PC movement may be a desperate attempt to remind us to “Do unto others as [we] would have others do unto [us.]” [2] According to Merriam-Webster “politically correct” is an adjective originally used in 1936 (!) and defined as conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated. [3] What’s so bad about that? [4]

Dr. Kathleen Greider, one of my seminary professors, once said something to the effect that being willing to engage in conversation with a person with whom we disagree is a sign of respect because it implies a belief that the person is capable of learning; that has stuck with me. [5] There is nothing respectful, however, in demeaning a person or his or her belief system. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. It is possible to be passionate about an issue without being offensive, or without becoming DEfensive, for that matter… because, if I am truly convinced of the rightness of my belief that belief can surely stand on its own merit.

I’m not saying that we all have to agree or pretend to agree. Certainly not. As it says on a key fob I carry with me, “Diversity is our strength.” But it is possible for people to listen – truly listen – to one another and to express differing beliefs without using “loaded” language that subtly or not so subtly denigrates the other person or position. It is possible to challenge even an intolerable position politely and without resorting to name-calling.

So, with God’s help… one day at a time, one breath at a time… as much as it depends on me… I will use words that heal. I will no longer make spiteful remarks about people whose politics are disagreeable to me… whose attitudes or even actions are anathema to me… who make spiteful remarks about me or about ideals that are precious to me. I will think before I speak, and when my very thoughts are mean-spirited I pray that God will gently rebuke me. From this moment, I resolve to be a new creature in Jesus the Christ.

Pastor Mary Jo

[1] Rich Mullins. “If I Stand” copyright 1988 BMG Songs, Inc.
[2] Matthew 7:12
[3] politically correct. Merriam-Webster at, Accessed September 30, 2010.
[4]See my earlier post, “An open letter,” dated September 4, 2009.
[5] I hope I can be forgiven for what is most likely an inadequate paraphrase!