Footprints

30 Apr

Two companion poems

Footprints

“You leave no footprints. No one is watching you, but you’re part of history.”  Lt. Bill Lee–Marine guard at JFK grave at Arlington Cemetery.

City streets,

throngs walking–

some with canes,

joggers, 

soldiers in military stride,

shuffling homeless,

stylish gal, stiletto heels,

button down suit,

uniformed nurses and nuns.

Step by step,

each one puts a foot down.

Track those footsteps,

count them—

beyond counting,

naming them even more

unlikely.

But those who passed

were there,

their steps

as real as if they were

cast in bronze.

They pass by

caught for a moment

then gone—

but each one knows they were there,

however history 

unfolds,

is written down,

or explained.

They hear the word:

“You are that history.”

 

Footprints-2

Potawatomi and Kickapoo,

Illiniwek and Miami walked their paths

around the swampy, marshy swaths

bordering the lake; Chicago

 

not even in the realm of dreams.

Paths left by the Ice Age sheets

served them as streets,

ridges raised above the streams,

 

else they’d have to slog through the muck.

Today those same trails carry us.

We pave over where they have trod. In car and bus,

and diesel powered eighteen wheeler truck,

 

we roar along their trails; now they 

bear our names: Ogden Street, Milwaukee

Avenue. But though their prints we’ll never see,

they’re here, their history is ours, still today.

 

(c) Phil Hefner   30 April 2018

Martin Luther King: Apostle of Non-Violence

5 Apr


Today we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis. King’s impact on our society was made through actions of militant nonviolent resistance in behalf of marginalized groups.  He said his movement was an expression of Jesus’s love, specifically as it was stated in the Sermon on the Mount, while the method of this love was provided by Gandhi.

Interestingly, all three of these non-violent leaders—Jesus, Gandhi, and King—evoked sharp disagreement over their strategies of non-violence. All three were killed by their opposition, Jesus and King before they reached forty years of age.

Non-violence rests on the audacious belief in a “double conversion”—(1) the conversion of the militant nonviolent confronters to a trust in the persons they are confronting. They take the risk that the opponents, the oppressors, will in turn (2) undergo a conversion that will enable them to respond in a reciprocal trust.  The nonviolent activists are converted to a desire to elicit the best from the ones they are confronting, while their opponents are converted to respond in ways that express own best selves. 

“Double conversion” is a risky strategy; it can fail.

King said that he wanted his opponents to be able to say after the confrontation, “I did what was right and good.” 

King had a keen sense that people need to be transformed. From the very beginning, the philosophy of nonviolent resistance
undergirded the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955-56. There was always the problem of getting this method over because it didn’t make sense to most of the people in the beginning.  He wrote, “We had to explain nonviolence to a community of people who had never heard of the philosophy and in many instances were not sympathetic with it. We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice.  It does resist.  It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence.  This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.”

He clearly set forth a spiritual basis for his movement:
“To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.  Hate begets hate, violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.  We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force.  Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”

He enumerates six traits that the nonviolent resister must internalize.

First, the non-violent justice resister is spiritually aggressive, since “his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong.”

Second, militant nonviolence “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.  “The end is redemption and reconciliation.”

Third, the attack is directed against forces of evil, not persons. “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”

Fourth, willingness to accept suffering without retaliation. “Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to be purchased with their suffering.”

Fifth, internal violence of the spirit must be avoided as much as external physical violence.

Sixth, nonviolent resistance is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. In other words, a worldview is involved. Barack Obama frequently says, “The arc of history bends toward justice.”

The discussion goes on today—is non-violence the most viable strategy for overcoming oppression, injustice, and discrimination? Does the arc of history actually bend toward justice? Or will we meet hate with hate, violence with violence, and thereby intensify the evil?

(c) Phil Hefner April 4, 2018

Life as Passover

1 Apr

I’m posting  Holy Week sermon notes that I preached this week. I hope it strikes a note for you.

Maundy Thursday
March 29, 2018
Montgomery Place
Exodus 12:1-14; I Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Passover in Christian Faith
Our first lesson sets the Passover theme of Maundy Thursday

6 moments—

1-God passes over the Israelites in Egypt.

2-Israel passes over the Red Sea and the desert wilderness.
THESE ARE OUR HERITAGE FROM THE JEWISH TRADITION

CHRISTIANS CAN ALSO SPEAK OF PASSOVER
3-Christ passes over from his life of passion/suffering to the resurrection.

4-We and all humanity share his resurrection, passing over from earthly life to eternity.

5-In the Eucharist, in this action we do now, Christ passes over from history to presence with us, and enables us to share his presence. Jesus is not simply a historical figure; he is with us, as intimately as the bread we eat and the wine we drink.

THE EUCHARIST IS ASSOCIATED WITH THE TIME OF JEWISH PASSOVER.

6-In the foot washing, we pass over from self-centeredness to service for others. “I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. Love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

Passover is an overarching theme—it interprets our service today and indeed our entire faith and life. It is a way of depicting our lives as in the hands of God. The journey is rooted in history, and it passes through to the days when we, too, will pass  into eternity.

Phil Hefner 30 March 2018

A Sleepless Christmas Eve

26 Jan

(I began to write this blog during a sleepless Christmas Eve night in the hospital. I have no idea what the connection is between my situation and the subject of the blog, but I wrote energetically—in the middle of the night.)

Crass materialism is a worldview and a way of life that has taken hold of our society in a troubling manner. Materialism has been with us forever, but in recent decades it seems to have become our public philosophy. This worldview narrows our perspective on human life, to what we can see, touch, and handle. It is a one dimensional view of reality that eliminates depth and larger meanings for life. Science goes against this worldview when it shows that the material world is more amazing and complex than it appears on the surface, but science cooperates with materialism in its focus on the natural world that we can manipulate and use for our own purposes.
Crass materialism is a worldview of the surface, not the depth. Herbert Marcuse offered a critique of this world view in his 1964 book, One Dimensional Man.

A second feature of crass materialism is that it measures human life and human beings in terms of their productivity and profitability. The two great world views of the 20th century, capitalism and communism, shared this way of measuring humans: their material productivity and their ability to contribute to the economic life of society. This is revealed in the changing manner in which the working force is evaluated in the life of business. No longer is the workforce a community of human beings, rather it is considered to be a business expense. And as with all other costs of business the point is to reduce it to a minimum. In his new book, Grasping the Hebrew Bible, Robert Butterfield writes about the significance of the seventh day of creation as the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a powerful testimony that humans are not exhaustively measured by their working life Monday through Friday. There is more to human life, and the Sabbath points to that “more.” It is no surprise that our economic system long ago erased the distinction between the work days of the week and the Sabbath.

Crass materialism offers a picture of humans who cannot and should not transcend the material world, and then it claims that this is the only world—this is all there is.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: “Once you give up survival at any price, then you learn the most valuable thing in life is the development of the soul.”

When I started writing this, I was tightly bound into the world of medical science, and I was hoping with all my being that it would succeed in helping me. Our healthcare system is based on the premise that our material life should be extended as much as possible. It teaches us that survival is the goal, and makes it very difficult for us to follow Solzhenitsyn’s wisdom.

Yet there must be voices that remind us that there is more than the material world—otherwise we lose our souls. There must be a “counter culture,” if you will. Religion is part of that counter culture. So are the concerns that go beyond the highly praised STEM areas—science, technology, engineering, and math. The humanities, poetry, literature, music and the arts point us beyond one-dimensionality. Perhaps my awareness, in the hospital, that my material body is weak and impermanent, is what moved me to write this.

The counter culture is beleaguered at the moment. Our economic system is ever-more pushed in the direction of what the French call “American ‘savage’ capitalism.” Religion is scoffed at. Some leaders argue that non-STEM studies should be discouraged in schools and colleges. But there is more than one dimension to our lives. Let the counter culture flower!

(c) Phil Hefner January 25, 2018

Reflections on life and the joy of Cajun food

16 Oct

This is the 55th installment in this blog—hardly possible, it seems to me.

I begin with two reflective poems, followed by commentary and a poem of pure fun.

* * *

The Philosopher’s Report

 “The truth is so unclear, 
our time on earth so short”—
the philosopher’s report
in brief describes with near
precision what frustrates
the quest that makes us who we 
are—to know with certainty
and properly respect our fates.

Yet along a path we walk,
free in spirit when the way allows,
oft constrained by circumstance.
As if the path itself could talk—
in its own strange way it shows
our life’s a not unpretty dance.

 

Get Ready

Molecules: Get ready, my little ones,
you tiny ones–
you were not together before we met,
you will not be together much longer,
you will find new friends,
you will travel to places you do not know,
and you will be part of something
very big and new.

Memories: Never bound in time and space,
you will be even more on your own,
reaching places never imagined.
You already know how to live in contradiction,
but it will be even more intense as years pass.
You will comfort some and bring strength.
Live with the fact that you will anger others
and disappoint.

Deeds: Etched, incised,
implanted where you really matter,
freeing and imprisoning–
anonymous as you are effective.

Me, I, soul, center, how shall I name you?
You will be carried to terra truly incognita
where your life will be
novel beyond present telling.

All transported,
carried in arms
as real as they are metaphor.

* * *

Writers are advised to write what they know, write their experience. My experience parallels that of the response I recently received to these poems:

“At age 85, I too am beginning to acutely feel the coming end of my life, with all of its accumulated memories and experiences. This awareness adds a new note of urgency to my motivation to contribute as much as I can out of my memories, experiences, reflections, and the like before passing the baton to those who will come after me and those who have shared in my life here. It’s a new phase of life with new kinds of experience. And it is a spur to meditation.”

Some people may say such thoughts are just for older folks, not relevant for younger people. My own experience leads me in another direction. After college, I studied in Germany, where I was attracted to Existentialist thinking. Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus—these were major thinkers. They were convinced that in confronting our death, we begin to understand how to live our lives now—as Kierkegaard put it, in every moment, we live “towards our death,” and how we do so determines our future. In that moment our lives make the existentialist leap, diving into the depths, floating over 20,000 fathoms of water.

Later, I encountered the psychologist Ernest Becker, who characterized our American culture in his term, “denial of death.” Turning Kierkegaard on his head, Becker insisted that many of us live as if we can deny death, and he described the destructive consequences of our denial. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Becker. Also, http://ernestbecker.org/).

* * *

However, lives that are lived toward death also include moments of pleasure, sheer fun—even for 85 year-olds. That can happen for me over a dish of great Cajun cooking.

My favorite Cajun eatery

And on the sixth day
the Lord God said
let there be gumbo
and jambalaya
fried pickles and red beans
and rice
etouffe and blackened
catfish
collard greens and grits–
and Tabasco

Then God turned to
Adam and Eve
and said
there I have kept my promise
your lives will be rich and full—
and zesty

 

(c) Phil Hefner   10/16/2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weltschmerz encounters Psalm 90

6 Oct

There are times when I have to kick back and let the world do its thing without my worrying. The Germans have a word for this feeling of anxiety caused by the ills of the world, Weltschmerz. It is often translated as world-weariness.

At such times, I often take refuge in a piece of literature—let its sounds and ideas flow over me as if anointing me—I see the Old Testament image of Aaron, the oil flowing over his head and beard—for a return to the fray.

Reading the 90th psalm is a good way to reflect on things. It starts out reminding us that we do have a haven, a refuge, that is truly home for us, a God who knows us.

You have been our haven, Lord, 
from generation to generation. 
Before the mountains existed, 
before the earth was born, 
from age to age you are God.

Mainly, the psalm focuses on “passing away” as a basic feature of earthly life, our passing away.

You return us to dust, 
children of earth back to earth.
For in your days a thousand years 
are like a single day: 
they pass with the swiftness of sleep.

 
You sweep away the years 
as sleep passes at dawn, 
like grass that springs up in the day 
and is withered by evening.
 
For we perish at your wrath, 
your anger strikes terror.
You lay bare our sins 
in the piercing light of your presence.
All our days wither beneath your glance, 
our lives vanish like a breath.
 
Our life is a mere seventy years, 
eighty with good health, 
and all it gives us is 
toil and distress, 
then the thread breaks 
and we are gone.

We are transients on this earth, our tenure here is not indefinite, and we are vulnerable while we are here. Furthermore, this is all God’s doing. We are in God’s hands all the while. We may be like grass that springs up in the day and is withered by evening, but we are grass planted by God.

This is the way it is supposed to be—it’s not happenstance that we are given a mere seventy years, eighty with good health, and it gives us is toil and distress, and then the thread breaks and we are gone. We may push back and live way past 70 or 80, but the toil and distress don’t disappear. And sooner or later, the thread does break.

These words bring anger and despair when we don’t accept our conditions and push back against the constraints. Much of human life is lived in rebellion. In fact, such rebellion may be a basic mark of being human. But even though some of our greatest human achievements may be enabled by our efforts to surpass our passing-away-ness, the psalmist reminds us we can never escape our situation. Our massive medical system, for example, works hard to put us past 80 years. It is remarkable, when you think about it, that one-seventh of the American economy, health care, is dedicated to counteracting our very nature, our natural passing-away-ness. Our brilliance is embodied in such efforts, but they are finally unsuccessful.

Who can know the force of your anger?
Your fury matches our fear. 
Teach us to make use of our days 
and bring wisdom to our hearts.
 
How long, O Lord, before you return?
Pity your servants, 
shine your love on us each dawn, 
and gladden our hearts.

I think of the movie, “Blade Runner”—biological robots have been programmed to self-destruct at a certain age. They threaten the bioengineer who created them, until he re-programs them so they can live longer. He tells them the bad news—in the process of reprogramming, they will die. That applies to us humans, in a metaphorical sense, not literally.

When God finishes the work of creation with the words, “It is good,” that includes our finite, passing-away lives. Understanding this is one of our major spiritual challenges. The psalm ends on this note:

Balance our past sorrows 
with present joys 
and let your servants, young and old, 
see the splendor of your work.
 
Let your loveliness shine on us, 
and bless the work we do, 
bless the work of our hands.

When we reach this point, we are still creatures of passing-away-ness, but we can be at peace. We are ready to re-enter the world that will weary us, again and again. We re-enter as transient conquerors.

(c) Phil Hefner 10/6/2017

Psalm translation, Liturgical Psalter 1974, Liturgical Press.
 

Jeremiah moments

4 Sep


I’ve been having Jeremiah moments lately.

In Jeremiah’s lifetime Solomon’s temple was destroyed and Jerusalem fell—both at the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah preached that Israel would fall to the Babylonians because of its unfaithfulness, its worship of idols, and general greed. God, he insisted, holds Israel responsible, the Babylonians carry out the divine judgment.

The government did not take this kindly to this message—after all, it weakened the morale of the armed forces. This preacher’s constant attacks got under the skin of the governing elites, resulting in his imprisonment.

I have resisted assigning God’s judgment to current events, because of the misguided and even false prophecies of some right-wing conservative Christians—Pat Robertson, for example. Nevertheless, I see many aspects of American life today that might well bring down the wrath of God—and these prompt my Jeremiah moments.

Here is what comes to mind: 200 years of slavery and deep-seated racism after slavery was abolished, rolling back health care for needy people, substandard schools and restricting access to colleges and universities, curtailing voters’ rights, the top ten per cent becoming ever wealthier, waging war, promoting militarism.

But there’s more at stake than a list of woes. The deeper point is that these practices have diminished people, often irreparably and in many cases destroying them. Slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination plundered the African Americans, deprived them of the benefits of their own labor. Whites accumulated wealth through the property they owned. Farmers invested their labor, selling crops, and increasing the value of the land. Except for the very poorest, workers saved money from their wages and earned guaranteed pensions. In the wake of the Second World War, social mobility and education lifted millions into the middle class and affluence. Whites were able to establish themselves. Native Americans were dispossessed of their lands, treaties have been broken, with a few exceptions, the people left in poverty. Blacks worked the land as slaves, but the fruit of their labor went to their owners. In the north, residential restrictions and selling houses on contract severely limited property ownership. Barriers to employment, combined with limited access to labor unions and poor schools were a drag on social mobility. Both Social Security and the Federal Housing Administration were designed to exclude African Americans.

These actions go deep, they dig into a person’s basic humanity, like seeds that germinate buried in the earth until they poke through the surface. They alter life-chances, and to deal with them requires more than apologies or changes in policy. These practices have diminished people, often irreparably, and in many cases destroyed them.  Slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination and lack of opportunity made it almost impossible for African Americans to profit from their labor and own property.

Discrimination against African Americans defined their lives for generations by denying them the life that whites take for granted. Whites say, “I’ve never discriminated, I’m not racist,” ignoring that the substance they live off is to a large extent the unrewarded labor of Blacks. The seeds have been planted and cultivated for generations, and those seeds have borne their fruit and continue to do so.

Much of the time, these evils go unattended by the larger society. There is a tendency to focus on the surface, rather than the deeply embedded seeds. Today, only a very few whites, for example, take responsibility for slavery, even though many families, companies, and institutions of higher learning owe their very existence to the unrewarded labor of slaves.

“Gentrification” is a symbol of our desire to separate ourselves from the evil that stalks us. Gentrification of urban neighborhoods has extended itself to a gentrification of minds (borrowing a phrase from Olivia Laing’s,The Lonely City), which in turn encourages the gated community syndrome that walls out the outcomes of the evil that has been sown. Our nation has a sad record of dispossessing groups who live outside the gates.

When I think about these things, I realize that I am face-to-face with genuine evil—and it has been inherent in American life from the beginning. Here, Jeremiah comes to mind.The evil that has been planted deep in American life carries the seeds of its own destruction, and inevitably it encounters the righteousness of God as wrath. In these moments, death and destruction will ensue. Of that much, we can be certain.

But there’s more to the Jeremiah moment. As the city was under seige and about to be laid waste, Jeremiah, also at God’s command, bought a piece of property. This prophet of doom invested himself in the very society that was under God’s wrath and thereby performed an action that  symbolized God’s action of showing love for the people on whom wrath had also rained down.

My Jeremiah moments are complex and difficult. It takes great effort to discern the destruction that God’s wrath will bring to America. It’s not a simplistic message, although some conservative voices might make it seem so. It takes even more insight to understand how God can show compassion for that which divine wrath destroys. The destruction is real—Jerusalem’s fall was not fake news. The possibilities of renewal and rebirth are also real. But they will come on the pathway of suffering and death—the way of the cross.

(c) Phil Hefner 9/3/2017