Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent: Day Three— and some new things!

My study is in disarray due to the painting project which I began right after the Thanksgiving holiday.  My mornings since have been crippled by this situation.  I anticipated the dilemma to some degree,  but never imagined that it would be so traumatic.  Normally I spend my first three or so hours each morning in that little space, pondering, journaling and reading.  Without that space I tend to simply wander from one room to another in the house—never finding a “space”  in any of them!

Yesterday I suggested that Advent is about “new things” breaking forth. I’m experiencing a few “new things” on this third day of Advent. I have a stiff neck from painting the ceiling yesterday, my arms feel like heavy weights from rolling the first-coat on the walls today, and my legs are bitterly complaining about the ladder. There was, once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a time when such a simple project would not have fazed me at all.  New things are happening.

The new things revealed to us in Advent are not always positive ones.  Think, for a moment about Mary’s situation in Nazareth.  Joseph, when he realized she was pregnant, was ready to abandon her and probably would have done so, if it hadn’t been for that dream.  Just think of what they had to go through in their relationship to make it all work out.  They also had to put up with their community, which like all communities ever since, enjoyed a good scandal.

Then there was that tax enrollment business which forced them to go to Bethlehem when Mary’s time was very near.  There was, too, that episode at the Inn—no room!  Spending the night in a stable was not a very pleasant development—and just then the baby was born.  New things are not always positive.

The stiff neck, sore arms, and aching legs are new developments—a new happening, a new chapter in life. They are not imagined ailments.  I cannot escape them by entering “a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent.”  Yes, new things come in Advent and we adjust as Mary and Joseph adjusted.
Perhaps more zip-lining over the rainforests of Costa Rica is in order?

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Second Day of Advent..."new things"

Advent is the beginning of the church year for many.  For Orthodox Christians, this period is known as the Nativity Fast and lasts for 40 days, starting mid-November until Christmas.  The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “advenio” which means the  “beginning, or the arrival of something anticipated”.  In the Western Church, Advent focuses on the comings (or  advents) of Jesus Christ:  his birth, his coming in our lives through grace and the Sacrament of Holy Communion; and his Second Coming at the end of time.

Advent seems a logical starting point for the New Year 2017, in spite of the calendar and with or without the religious connotations.  Thanksgiving weekend offers the opportunity to express gratitude for the year gone by.  Advent offers a wonderful opportunity to begin to look forward to what is yet to come.

What will this
Great Granddaughter Addison's first
visit to Grandad's house! (a new thing)
New Year bring?  Can I hope for some positive  change in myself and in the world?  Advent means a new beginning and the arrival of something anticipated.  Can I gather up hope within myself to anticipate and to feel that something is about to happen?  Something special, something mysterious, something beyond my dreams, something  spectacular, something beyond my wildest imagination will happen, if I am open to it. I don’t mean the remembrance of a child being born in Bethlehem long ago, or of some spiritual experience that happened to me in the past, or to some vision of the world’s final chapter. No!  What I look for is not “smooth words and illusory visions,” but of a “new thing” happening that can make me a better person, some new thing that can alter the pattern of my life and the life of the world. My hope is deeply rooted in the scripture and in this new year of my life, in this new advent, I anticipate “glad tidings of great joy.”

See how the first prophecies have 
come to pass,
and now I declare new things;
before they break from the bud I
              announce them to you. 

(Isaiah 42:9)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The First Day of Advent

The coming of Advent marks the beginning of a new year for me.  This Advent, however, I’m engaged in renovating my study—installing crown moulding and painting.  This means my morning “space” is unavailable for a week or so.  Oh, my, what a difference that is making in my normal morning routine.  It did not prevent me from accomplishing one of my annual Advent activities—selecting photos of the year and displaying them on two glass-covered tables in the living room—but it did hinder my usual morning pondering and writing time.

Advent is a very special time—a time of promise:
    a time of preparation for the new about to happen,
    a time for new beginnings.

Advent is a time of expectancy...a time of happenings: 
   annunciations are heard if ears are opened,   
   and  dreams are dreamed and guidance given.

Advent is a time of giving birth to God:
Morning company at my study window last year
 during the big blizzard.
    we carry God around with us and do not know it,
    Advent is a time for a new birth within.  

Advent is a time of waiting:
    waiting for mountains to be brought down;
    hills to be brought low,
    and for valleys to be lifted up and crooked places made   straight.

Advent is a time of moving—a time of transition:
    not a movement backward, but forward,  
   moving all inhabitants of the world
   to a place we’ve never been before.

Advent is about newness—a time for the "New Things:”
    a season of receptivity and openness,
    a time of new vulnerability.

Advent announces a Way—a time of new dreams:
    a time to sing our own song, dance our own dance,
    a time of searching and for finding.

Advent is all of the above—it is also kairos time:
     time to start anew, to begin again,

  Advent is the time to follow your star. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving Continues….

Thanksgiving Day is now past, but gratitude continues into today, hopefully into tomorrow and in every day that lies ahead of us.   Eighteen  members of our extended family gathered round the festive table yesterday at the home of our son, Paul,  and his beautiful wife, Helen.  I can’t believe it, but it is true, Paul and Helen celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary just a few days ago!

Each year brings remarkable change and newness to our Thanksgiving Day as it does for every family.  This year we celebrated Shawn (Katie and Liam’s friend from Wales) being a part of our family, adding an international dimension to our gathering.  (This was Liam and Shawn’s first encounter with our American Thanksgiving).  Helen’s mother and sister were present—they were born in England, but have lived most of their adult life here in the US.  

Megan and Katie, daughters of Helen’s sister,  were with us too.   I’ve watched these two girls grow up!  What an incredible experience!  I am grateful for it!  With Megan’s permission I share her photo on this blog today.  Our two grandsons, Austin and Nick, were with us.  Now college students, they always bring their grandad a sense of pride and a deep feeling of gratitude.

Thanksgiving continues today at our home—not with turkey and all the trimmings—but with additional family members gathering round the table with thanksgiving.  Grandson Matt, his wife, Emily, and our first great-granddaughter, Addison, will be here, along with others.  Can it get any better than this?  Yes, says Browning, “the best is yet to be.”

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed; 

and free us from all ills, in this world and the next.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Day 2016

Yesterday, the aroma of pies in the oven, and the day before,  the delightful smell of cookies baking, reminded me of those Thanksgivings in days of yore. Those long ago days when my paternal grandparents and my parents were still living and made Thanksgiving a very special time.  The smell of the turkey roasting, the festive table with all the condiments, and my grandfather’s Thanksgiving prayer before we enjoyed the feast are an indelible part of my Thanksgiving memories.  Eventually my parents assumed the responsibility for the feast in their home to relieve my grandparents.  As the years went by, and I had a family of my own, we traveled back to New Jersey for years to be with my parents (my grandparents for a little while) and siblings to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  

Somewhere along the way we began to celebrate Thanksgiving at our home with our own growing family, no longer making the annual trip to be with my parents.  In fact, my parents began to have Thanksgiving dinner with my eldest brother and his family.  Now more years have passed and we no longer have Thanksgiving dinner here at our home.  Our eldest son and his wife will host us today.  How the years shape our lives and our celebrations!  Remembering Thanksgivings of my yesterdays awakens deep emotions.  Gratitude is an emotion.  Gratitude would mean little if it did not include “feelings.”

“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives-the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections-that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.

Let's not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God” (Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey).

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

National Thanks-giving With Penitence

Thanksgiving Day, as we know it now, did not originate with the Pilgrims, though we have through the years romanticized the connection.  There is nothing wrong with romanticizing and connecting the Day with Native Americans welcoming and helping the first refugees to these shores, who, in turn, invited the Native Americans to give thanks with them for their survival in a new land.

While there were occasional thanksgiving celebrations dating back to the early days in Virginia and Massachusetts, there was no established tradition, nor were these by any means national celebrations.  An obscure woman, Sara Josepha Hale, is credited for our present observance.  In 1863 she wrote President Abraham Lincoln requesting a meeting to propose that the scattered celebrations of Thanksgiving be unified into “A National and fixed Union Festival.”  On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued the first National Thanksgiving Proclamation, and presidents ever since have continued to do so.

It is interesting that Lincoln did not suggest that Thanksgiving be a “Church” event,  but that it should be celebrated by families in their homes.  It was a time, he said, to give thanks for the many blessings that we have enjoyed in our nation, but it was also declared a time for “humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”  Giving thanks to “the Most High God” for blessings and confessing our faults and failures went hand in hand according to Lincoln.

That first Thanksgiving Proclamation also called upon the American people to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”  

We are no longer engaged in a civil war, but we certainly know “civil strife” and we, as a nation, suffer from many wounds still.  There are people all across the land who are “widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers” because of our “national perverseness and disobedience.”  So it is, that we, as a people, give thanks—but recognizing our foibles—we must also confess and implore forgiveness, as a people, on Thanksgiving Day.  We often forget that the two go hand in hand.  Lincoln, in the first Thanksgiving Proclamation, would remind us that this is reality.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Handling Life’s Circumstances

How do we react to trouble?  How do we deal with the vicissitudes of life?  How do we handle the things that often tumble in on us?  Life tumbles in on everybody, young, old, and in-between.  Disappointments, sickness, and tragedy appear suddenly and without warning.  How do we handle the circumstances of life?

There is a little fable about the gravel path and the rose bud which had fallen upon it.  “How fragrant you are this morning,” said the gravel path to the rose bud.  “Yes,” said the rose bud, “I have been trodden upon and bruised and it has brought forth all my sweet fragrance.”  “But,” replied the gravel path, “I’m trodden on everyday and I only grow harder.”  

Some of us react to misfortune and suffering like the gravel path.  We grow cold, hostile, and hard.  We become bitter and curse the darkness of our circumstance.  We mourn and complain about our fate and often fall into despair.  We lay broken and defeated by adversity.

Would that we could react as the rose bud?  The suffering and pain experienced is the same as that of the gravel path.  The rose bud, too, is acquainted with the storms of life; however, out of every experience the rose bud finds a way to use the suffering as a means of bringing forth the sweet fragrance of it’s being.

We do not always choose our circumstances—sickness, disappointment, heartache, pain—for these things have a way of intruding into our lives helter-skelter.  But we do have the freedom of choosing how we react to them.

Fanny Cosby was blinded as a little girl, but from her blindness she wrote 442 inspiring hymns, including “Blessed Assurance,” “I Am Thine, O Lord,” and “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.”    

John Bunyon, while a prisoner in Bedford, England, wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.

Beethoven, so deaf he could not hear himself play, would bend over the piano, painfully seeking to find chords of beauty.  

“A cheerful heart makes you healthy; a broken spirit dries you up” (Proverbs 17:22).

Monday, November 21, 2016

Blessing, Affirming, Encouraging

Affirmation is important.  It is saying, “Yes” to someone’s hopes, dreams,  and goals.  Henri Nouwen writes, “To give a blessing is to affirm, to say ‘Yes’ to a person’s Belovedness.  And more than that: to give a blessing creates the reality of which it speaks.” How well do we affirm  (bless) others?  How well do we nourish the divine seed in another?  How well do we affirm our children?  How well do we encourage one another?  Affirmation, this “Yes” for another person has the power to turn that person inside-out and to turn the world upside-down.

The reason we fail in giving affirmation, I suppose, is our inability to get out of our own skins long enough to see what lies beneath the skin of the other person.  We are always coming at other people from our world.  To be able to affirm someone we need to enter their world.  Sharing another person’s struggles, hopes, and dreams is to participate in a divine mystery.  But we can never know this mystery nor can we affirm the person if we are always coming at them from our world rather than entering their world.

One way of affirming another, of saying,“Yes,  is to give encouragement.  This is so simple, yet so seldom given.  We tend to be critical of others, putting them down rather than lifting them up.  We come at them from our world, telling them what we think they need to be and to do.  A Methodist Bishop told the following story:

A Pastor-Parish Relations committee approached their Bishop to say that they wanted to be relieved of their pastor.  His preaching was extremely poor, they said, and they would just love to have another church take him off their hands.  The Bishop thought for a moment and then suggested that every Monday morning, members of that committee and congregational members as well, call the pastor and tell him what a wonderful sermon he gave on Sunday (“Yes, Yes, Yes), and that they do that continually.  What will happen, the Bishop told them, is that he will either become such a great preacher that some other church would be glad to take him off their hands, or he would work so hard that he would die trying to preach the very best that was in him.  Saying, “Yes,” affirming, encouraging another can make that kind of difference.  

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Pool of Tears

“Nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.”  (Abraham Lincoln)

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”  (Carl Jung)

Have you heard about the Celtic paradise?  I don’t know where I came upon the story, but it is described as a place where the souls of the redeemed are filled with a joy that is so joyful that it feels like pain.  The light in this Celtic paradise is so bright that it literally blinds those who look upon it.  Unable to look upon that great light, the redeemed are led to a pool which is fed by all the tears shed on the earth and there they are told to stoop and bathe their eyes.  Only then are they healed from their great gladness, and only then can their eyes withstand the great light.

As I ponder the story of this Celtic paradise this morning, I think it would be good for us, living in this country, to find our way to that sad little pool of tears.  We are the most pampered of all people upon the face of this earth.  We eat better than anybody else (though often the wrong stuff, which is why we lead the world in obesity).  We consume more of the world’s resources than any other nation upon the earth.  Our life styles (no matter what our income) are affluent and opulent compared to those of other people in the world.  We ought to be filled with a joy and happiness beyond measure—the bright light in which we live day to day ought to blind us.  

I think it is time for us to find our way to that sad little pool, fed by all the tears shed upon this earth and bathe our eyes in it.  Perhaps then, our eyes would be opened to the ache and agony of the world around us and we would be saved from our selfish happiness.  

Saturday, November 19, 2016

“Practicing What We Preach”

“Democracy does not succeed by creating a system of counting votes.  It depends far more on whether we retain the essential dignity of man.  Can man, the individual, respect himself and his neighbors?  If he cannot, the most elaborate system will break down.  Lacking respect for himself and failing to trust others, he is easily appealed to by a demagogue who asks the citizens to trust him and him alone.”  These words were written in 1938 by D. Elton Trueblood in his little book, The Predicament of Modern Man.  

America has never practiced what it preaches.  Our forefathers wrote that all men [people] are created equal with certain unalienable rights, but failed to put that ideal into practice.  It took a Civil War and a Civil Rights Movement to lift us closer to our own standard (and we still have a long way to go). For years, women were denied equal status (still are) in the voting booth and in the work place. The foibles of the human heart are such that we as individuals and as a nation seldom practice what we preach.  Rejecting in practice what we say we stand for has always occurred and still does. But so long as we have the principle, the theory (all men [people] are created equal with certain unalienable rights) there is always hope, because some of us will be disturbed by our hypocrisy.  But when the theory goes, too, there is no hope; there is nothing to give us a bad conscience, since we do not hold any longer to the theory that all men [people] are created equal.  It is bad enough that we fail to practice what we preach, but it is far worse if we lose the principle and take pride in that loss.

We all make value judgments and have preconceived notions—subjective thoughts, feelings and opinions.  It is our nature to do so.  With the advent of social media, however, these value judgments run rampant without evidence to support them as truth.  Some people make money misrepresenting the truth and providing fake news stories on Facebook (as we have recently been made aware).  If we lose the sacredness of truth, we lose everything.  For then, whatever I say is true, whatever you say is true—not based on any solid evidence, but based on your values or mine.  When these values do not jive, we end up having “truths” galore, without any factual basis.  Democracy cannot survive under a barrage of many “truths!”

A secession from theory (all men [people] are created equal) and from the sacredness of truth leads us to a secession from the moral grounds that have made our democracy possible.  

Friday, November 18, 2016

The “Humming” in My Mind

As I sit here in the quietness of my study this morning two Afro-American spirituals are humming within me.  Have you ever had that experience when suddenly a song pops into your head and you wonder why and from whence it comes? 

“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.  Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”

“When the storms of life are raging, stand by me.  When the world is tossing me, like a ship upon the sea, thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me.  In the midst of tribulation, stand by me.  When the host of hell assail, and my strength begins to fail, thou who never lost a battle, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I’ve done the best I can, and my friends misunderstand, thou who knowest all about me, stand by me. When I’m growing old and feeble, stand by me.  When my life becomes a burden, and I’m nearing chilly Jordan, O thou Lily of the Valley, stand by me.

Is there a balm in Gilead, an ointment to relieve our discouragement?  Is there Someone to stand by us when the storms of life are raging—when tossed about, in tribulation, when hell assails, in the midst of faults and failures, and in and through the passing of the years?  

In the quietness of this morning, in a world of suffering, anxiety and hurt, with the words and the tunes of these two spirituals singing within me, I sense “There is a balm in Gilead,” and there is Someone who stands by me (and you).  God is a person, and in the deep of God’s mighty nature God thinks, wills, enjoys, feels, loves, desires and suffers just as we do.  God communicates with us through the avenues of our minds, our wills and our emotions.  God breaks through in the words and the tunes humming within my mind.  God is just as discouraged as I am, but God presses on with God’s dream.  God is tossed about too, and lives in the midst of tribulation WITH me and WITH you.  It is because God is in it all with us that we discover there is a balm in Gilead and there is Someone who stands by us in all that we experience as we trod the trail  of life.    

Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Filotimo" (φιλότιμο)

Our technology is amazing.  Yesterday I watched President Obama speaking in Athens on my computer screen as well as the live stream of responses coming in during his speech.  There were 19.3K comments, 20.3K "Shares" and 1.4 million viewers on FB from all over the world.  I took some time to look at some of the comments (even though retired, I didn’t have time to read them all).  The majority of these comments were positive, praising and thanking President Obama for his service over the past eight years.  There were, also, of course, some negative comments.  Oh, my, how we differ in our opinions!

"I'm not an American, but I'll miss him so much... Obama was the greatest president for USA in my opinion. I'm from Bangladesh!!"

"Ditto from Australia. Obama will be missed. We have fascists running the country here."

"Yes, he is going down in history as the one who destroyed morals and values in this country."

"The Donald will whip your SOUL Obama you will NOT have a Legacy in these states! you did NOTHING for America but ROBBED US BLIND!!"

President Obama gave an amazing speech.  What struck me most deeply was his reference to  the Greek word, ’Filotimo.'  "In all of our communities, in all of our countries,” he said, “I believe there is more of what Greeks call ‘filotimo.’ Love and respect and kindness for family and community and country and a sense that we are all in this together, with obligations to each other. ‘filotimo’: I see it every day and that gives me hope." 

"Love and respect and kindness for family and community and country" that sure sounds something like the "Beloved Community" to me.  I'm all for it! I hope there is a lot more 'filotimo' out there than I can see from where I am sitting this morning.

Like the term, "Beloved Community,"  filotimo or philotimo is hard to explain and even more difficult to translate.  The Greek people seem to know what this  untranslatable word means and for them it is simply a way of life.  Filotimo, for the Greek, includes ideas and virtues such as hospitality, justice, courage, pride, dignity, self-sacrifice, respect, freedom and much more.  Since we have already borrowed so many things from the Greek people, including democracy, philosophy, science, architecture, mathematics,  and so much more, I think we ought to borrow 'filotimo' too.  It would be extremely beneficial just now and would give us all some sense of hope.  


Epiphany Celebration, 1961--Heraklion, Crete, Greece

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Election Revelation

Nikolai Berdyaev wrote in 1938 that the First World War was a revelation for him instead of just a mere war.  The war revealed to him how flimsy the prevalent optimism of his day that the world was progressing to new levels of humanization.  Certainly the Second World War revealed to my parents’ generation that inhumanity was still present in our world.  I wonder if our recent election is a revelation instead of just a mere election.  I believe it is a revelation!

For all of my adult life I have worked to build community.  Community, for me, is where all people, regardless of religion, nationality, race, politics, status, etc., experience one another as brothers and sisters and operate on the rule of love.  In spite of having read Berdyaev’s prophetic words of 1938, I became an optimist through the years as I watched the many barriers pulled down that once dehumanized so many (there are still many barriers left).  I made the same mistake that people of an earlier time had made.  I believed we had made progress and would continue to make progress in the building of the beloved community (in spite of the many setbacks, like 9/11, the consequent war in Iraq and Afghanistan and many more).  The recent election revealed my mistaken notion!  

Eugene Robinson wrote on November 14th: “No one should be over it (the election). No one should pretend that Trump will be a normal president. No one should forget the bigotry and racism of his campaign, the naked appeals to white grievance, the stigmatizing of Mexicans and Muslims. No one should forget the jaw-dropping ignorance he showed about government policy both foreign and domestic. No one should forget the vile misogyny. No one should forget the mendacity, the vulgarity, the ugliness, the insanity. None of this should ever be normalized in our politics.”  But it is normalized now! Someone posted the following on Facebook:  “My preacher urged us to vote for Trump.” So now, it is normalized (even by the preachers).  It is normalized by the fact that Mr. Trump is America’s president-elect.  What a revelation!

I should have known better than to be overly optimistic about our human progress.  I haven’t given up on that progress, the building of community, for it cannot be quelled, but it can be, and may be, stymied for a while. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Cut-Flower People

A week ago this past Sunday I cut the last roses from the Knock Out Rose Bush in the back yard.  Some of the blooms had already been lightly touched by frost, the tips of the petals showing a yellow scar.  There were still a few blossoms untouched, however, and there were even a few buds yearning for a chance to burst forth. I cut about a dozen roses and enjoyed their fragrance and beauty for a few days, watching each day to see if the buds would open.  Some did and some did not.  Cut flowers of whatever variety do not last long once they are severed from their roots.  My roses lasted for four or five days before they began to wilt and die.

D. Elton Trueblood is with me this morning.  I am reading once again his book written in 1944, “The Predicament of Modern Man.” This little book is almost as old as I am and yet it still speaks to our time and our modern predicament, even though the price of the book when first published was just one dollar.  

The gist of the book is simply that we have become a “Cut-Flower” generation, a people who have lost their philosophical and spiritual rootedness in the midst of great technological advancement and a relentlessly changing and frustrating world.  Severed from these spiritual roots we cannot long survive, for like my bouquet of roses, we will wilt and eventually die.  Humans, like us, are in need of something to “buttress and to guide” our lives.  “Without this, the very capacities that make us a little lower than the angels lead to our destruction.  The beasts do not need a philosophy or a sense of spirituality, but man does.”  Elton continues, “Man’s sinful nature is such that he will use instruments of power for evil ends unless there is something to instruct him in their beneficent uses.  Without the conscious and intelligent buttressing of what has been demonstrated as precious, human society goes down.”

If we allow ourselves to be cut-off from the roots of our American dream—a dream of a land where men and women of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers and sisters—we will wilt and die as a democracy.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [all people and wherever they may live] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are words that have cosmic, even spiritual proportions.  If we cut ourselves off from this spiritual base, our democracy and human society “goes down.”

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Cain and Abel Within

“Whatever Happened to Sin?” Dr. Paul Menninger asked some years ago and wrote a book by the same title, suggesting that, truth be told,  “Sin” still abounds!  The “Us” verses “Them”  mentality dominates our society at the moment.  This has been going on since the beginning of time.  It is nothing new, even Cain and Abel couldn’t talk to each other.  The only way Cain (Us) knew to solve the problem was to get rid of Abel (Them).  Dialogue is impossible if we only see “Us vs. Them,” “GOP vs. DEMS,” and all the other separations now made so apparent in our society.  Like Cain, we seem to have only one solution to the problem and that is to “do in” the other by whatever means we can.  The “Elephant” must trample the “Donkey,” or the Donkey trample the Elephant!  

The very names Cain and Abel have meanings which are revealing.  Cain means “I have gotten a man.”  Eve, a proud mother, suggests that this son will bear the dignity of being the first-born and that for her he is the quintessence of power and strength.

Abel on the other hand means something like “nothingness, frailty.”  Abel is overshadowed by his elder brother from the very beginning.  He seems destined to always play second fiddle.  He represents all those who get the short end of the stick.

The catastrophe of fratricide (Us vs. Them, Cain vs. Abel) derives from this inequality of the roles Cain and Abel and all others find themselves (winners/losers, white/black, Christian/Muslim): the fact that some have favorable chances to begin with and like Cain are provided with the privileges of the first-born, whereas others grow up in the shadows and are seen as nobodies (losers).  

The story of Cain and Abel, writes Helmut Thielicke, is the beginning of world history, the “space into which we are ‘thrown;’ the space in which Cain lifts his ax and Abel falls lifeless to the ground; the space in which creatures fight to the death for a place in the sun, in which the stronger triumph and right is threatened by power…”  That world history has been dominated by fratricide is a matter of fact and we haven’t grown out of it yet.  We have work to do with the Cain and the Abel within us if we want to survive.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Nurturing The Garden

“Can you not see,” the Apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 3, “that while there is jealousy and strife among you, you are living on the purely human level of your lower nature?  When one says, ‘I am Paul’s man,’ and another, ‘I am for Apollos,” are you not all too human?  After all, what is Apollos?  What is Paul?  We are simply God’s agents in bringing you to the faith.  Each of us performed the task which the Lord allotted him:  I planted the seed, and Apollos watered it; but God made it grow.  Thus it is not the gardeners with their planting and watering that count, but God, who makes it grow.  Whether they plant or water, they work as a team…We are God’s fellow-workers; and you are God’s garden.”

The whole of creation is God’s garden.  The world, the segment of it we know and those parts of it that we have never seen is like one huge garden.  This garden is a magnified version of all those little ones we see as we drive through any community in the spring, summer and fall—those gardens with the statues of St. Francis, birdbaths, fountains, and scarecrows.  There are ornamental monuments like that in God’s garden:  the pyramids of Egypt, the Acropolis in Athens, the Coliseum in Rome, the Alps of Switzerland, the castles of Germany, the Appalachians, the Grand Tetons, and the Grand Canyon.  Interspersed among these colossal monuments are rivers of running water to irrigate this vast garden—the Nile, the Rhine, the Mississippi, and many more.  There are birdbaths, too, which we call the seas and the oceans.  Between these there are all the various forms of plant and animal life, each having a particular terrain in which to grow and live.  There are stretches of sand with cacti and palms, the plains with flowing waves of wheat and corn, the vineyards of Tuscany and Greece, the California valleys of lettuce and artichokes, the redwood forests and the rain forests of the Amazon.  What a garden it is, and in the midst of it all is humanity (which like the plants and animals consists of a wide variety)—you and me and every other man, woman, and child—all part of this glorious garden God has cultivated and grown for thousands upon thousands of years.  

During the years of my growing up, we rented a house in the country with fields, woods, brooks, ponds, rivers and farms nearby.  I shall ever be grateful for the beautiful garden I knew and experienced in those formative years.  Forty-plus years ago, my grandfather died and my parents inherited the little 5-acre farm where my father was born and raised.  They made improvements on the old place and my father tried to re-create an orchard that was there when he was young.  There was only one tree remaining from that old orchard—an apple tree—there when my dad was a boy and there as my brothers and I grew up.  The tree was old and after years of bearing fruit, its branches had to be propped up with poles.  The heavy branches were so large and twisted that the main trunk of the tree had been slowly splitting for years.  So, my father, wanting to save the tree, grafted its branches on to two other tree trunks.  They took hold and while the old tree will eventually die, its branches on those new trunks will remain to bear its very special apple for years to come.  

We are each called to tend the garden, prop up the branches of old apple trees, graft branches to form new trees, plant seeds and water them.  We are a team; we are fellow-workers.  We are part of God’s wondrous garden and our task is to care for all of it and trust God to make it grow more wondrous still.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Empathic Universalism vs. Provincialism

A significant change happened in our society in 1966, according to David Rothman, when “Black Power” took place.  The rhetoric of the Black Power movement was quite different from that of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It didn’t seek brotherhood and community but separatism.  It was premised not on a mutuality of interest shared by all members of society, but upon the basic conflicts in the society.  Black Power admonished blacks to become organized, take control of their community, its economic and political institutions, and  achieve “their own island of life” in a white racist society.

This change from dreams of brotherhood/community to the establishment of separatism has plagued our society ever since. (History tells us that it has always been a factor—and not something suddenly born in 1966).  It is a strategy that every minority group in our society has emulated.  In almost every movement from prisoners’ rights to the rights of children, this attitude has prevailed.  It is the attitude of empathic provincialism.  This provincialism is an attitude of exclusiveness, the desire to achieve one’s own demands and welfare, without concern for those outside the circle.  It is not based on unity but on conflict.  Be exclusive, press your own demands, it is “us” vs. “them.”

This provincialism limits our caring.  It says, I only care about my group, my demands, my welfare, my party, my nation.  The emotion behind provincialism is that if we can make our circle small enough, life will seem safer and neater—our own little island of life.

Empathic universalism, on the other hand,  is an attitude which sees and feels that it is a part of the whole.  It identifies not with some small group or circle but with the totality.  There is no sense that it is us verses them—it is “for everybody.”  We do not have to be for one interest group at the expense of another.   Just because we feel deeply for one faction does not mean that we cannot feel deeply for both—and work for unity instead of conflict.  Love remains at the heart of all things!

Friday, November 11, 2016

The “Senior” Cop-Out

Several months ago I found myself saying that at the age of three-score and ten plus three that whatever was to be in the future was “in the hands of the young.”  I’ve said it a number of times since then and I’m ashamed of myself.  What a cop-out!  

There is a prevalent feeling expressed by those of us who have reached senior maturity to resent the work of time upon our human spirit.  We look upon age as something of an insult.  We refuse to use the appropriate words to describe ourselves, words such as adult, mature, experienced, yes, and even venerable.  Instead we refer to ourselves (and no doubt others refer to us as well because of this attitude) with words like elderly, frail, stuffy, antiquated, worn-out, senile, or decrepit.  Feeling this way suggests that we find no value in the future or ourselves.  Time has robbed us, so we think, of being of any worth in the world.  So we cop-out by proclaiming our pseudo-faith in the future, “which is in the hands of the young.”  We lay upon the next generation the failures, burdens, and responsibilities we no longer want to carry.

Having rescued ourselves from our failures,  burdens,  and responsibilities  for the world as it is by dumping on the shoulders of the young, we seek our escape from the relentless reality of age into a fantasy of youth.  We go back and live in our childhood ideals and dreams and from these we construct our myths (everything was better back then) which provide us a hiding-place.  The truth is, when we retreat into the past, we are actually saying that we have no faith in the future. 

“Except,” Jesus said, “you become as little children” is sometimes used to justify this  escape into childishness.  We all know, however, that most children look forward to growing up.  As Dorothy Sayers writes, “Except you become as little children, except you can wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, ‘you cannot see the Kingdom of God.’  One must not only die daily, but every day one must be born again.”  There is no cop-out for us.  We are alive and while it is day, we must do the work that is ours to do.