Jacob wrestles in the shopping center

24 Aug image

Sometimes deep contrasts–even direct opposites–show themselves at the same time, in the same place. Take the Hyde Park Shopping Center as an example. It’s a delightful urban oasis–for me especially because the Bon Jour French cafe graces its central courtyard. I’ve spent many pleasant hours there.

Children laugh and play as they run and skip around the court yard fountain. Watchful mothers chat over coffee under the shade trees. At the tables are those who read their daily paper. Earnest students read and write for their projects, while still others are writing letters or engrossed in a novel. Jazz musicians come in the summer, filling the courtyard with their music. Annual crafts fairs and garden shows dot the calendar, as well. Most, like me, simply enjoy the ambience on a summer day, the coffee and the bakery’s output of tasty goods.

But if those of us who enjoy the delights of this space look carefully at our surroundings, we see a small sculpted figure perched above the fountain in the center of the courtyard (see photo above). Entitled “Jacob and the Angel,” it refers to the story found in the Bible, Genesis 32:22-31. In this story, Jacob wrestles through the night with a strange man. Although the man refuses to reveal his name, Jacob believes he has been wrestling with God. This encounter changed Jacob–he received a new name and a permanent limp.

The sculpted figure of Jacob is caught up in intense struggle. All his weight is balanced on a single toe; his other foot seems to be cloven, like a hoofed animal. The sculptor, Paul Granlund (1925-2003), suggests that the struggle is also interior–Jacob is wrestling with himself. Granlund himself observed, “I’m always trying to say two things at once.”

I would like to know how Jacob ever got to the Hyde Park Shopping Center. Curious, too, that the sculptor–son of a Lutheran pastor who spent his entire career in Minnesota, much of it at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter–should place his Jacob in a self-styled secular setting.

His presence at the French cafe does stand in a venerable tradition. As early as the 1700s, the coffee houses of Vienna and London were places of both light hearted joy and serious thinking by artists, philosophers, and musicians. Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore–the two legendary cafes on the Left Bank in Paris– became famous for their glittering array of deep-thinking patrons over the decades, including Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Julia Child, and James Baldwin. You might say that it’s the rule, not the exception for cafes to be venues of seriousness, along with their pastries and coffee.

Popular philosophy might think that we build pleasant places as safe spaces where we can be free from wrestling with angels, ourselves included. In reality, the wrestling takes place anywhere, perhaps especially in the pleasant spaces, when our antagonist is least expected.

You might call this a serious everyday spirituality. Are the denizens of the cafe so self-aware?

(c). Phil Hefner. August 23, 2016

For more on the sculptor, see:

Walking on water with Christo

8 Jul image

Christo’s art is “wrapping” things–buildings, coast lines, monuments, and more. In 1969, he wrapped the two-story Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and its lower-level gallery. My wife and I and our three daughters (ages 8, 6, 2) accepted the invitation to lie on the floor wrapped in canvas and roll around on it. We connected with this work of art. We’ve followed him ever since. You can see this at: http://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/wrapped-museum-of-contemporary-art-and-wrapped-floor-and-stairway.

On June 18, almost fifty years later, people walked on Christo’s monumental installation on Iseo Lake, 60 miles from Milan, Italy. Some 200,000 floating cubes create a runway nearly two miles long, connecting the village of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola on the lake, for a 16-day outdoor installation–entitled “Floating Piers.” See the photo above.

For me, the brilliance of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude (the art is a collaboration until her death in 2009) is the way they bring earthiness and transcendence together. What’s earthier than rolling around on a canvas covered floor? You feel the floor. You “see” the work of art with your whole body. The artists deny any deeper meaning to their work. They simply create for joy and beauty and offer new ways of seeing. But at the Museum, it wasn’t just a floor–it was a work of art. Artists invited us to roll on their creation! Ever after, I realized that a museum is not just a place where we view art; the museum can itself be a work of art. The total experience transcends the act of viewing a canvas-covered floor, but the transcendence requires the rolling, the participation. And the 2 year-old participated as much as 40 year-old adults.

Art critic David Bourdon says that Christo’s wrappings are “revelation through concealment.” We have to discover what things really are–first encounters are not enough. Scientists know this very well. Meticulous, time-consuming experiments and observations pry open natural phenomena. Poets and novelists say the same thing: that they have to twist and squeeze words to discover their possibilities. Ursula Le Guin speaks of words as stones that the poet must chip away at in order to crack open their meaning.

When was the last time that you examined a building by physically rolling on its basement floor? Christo talks about the people walking on his floating piers–they will experience the actual surface of the lake, walking on the cubes as they float with the movements of the water. They are discovering the water.

Just as the canvas reveals the museum floor, though it appears to cover it up, the floating piers do not cover the water so much as reveal the water in ways quite different than it is revealed in swimming or by walking over it on a pier or a bridge.

Christo speaks of the art as a journey. “The journey is the work of art. And the most beautiful part of the floating pier is to see that the entire project is about the people walking nowhere. About the feeling of the surface of the land or the water. And your feet actually–many people walk barefoot. And they walk, they walk. It’s not like going to shop, not going to see your friends. It’s going really nowhere.”

In that nowhere the revelation takes place. Religion often works in this same way. When you get right down to it, there is no “nowhere” for Christo. Artistic experience can be everywhere–even on basement floors. Religions know as well that there is no fundamental “nowhere.” Martin Luther, who stands tall in my tradition, taught that God is both hidden (“absconditus” in Latin, the absconded God) and revealed. But God only seems to be “hidden”–God is actually present everywhere, but in ways we do not see at first–we must discover the presence of God.

Discovery is tactile, hands-on. We are familiar with the mental aspects of experiencing the world, the “thinking.” Art is material–pigments put on a canvas, metal shaped in a forge, meaning and beauty painstakingly pried from words. Religion is the same. Deeds, interactions with other people, our own inner emotional life, goodness and evil, faithfulness and betrayal, the lust for power, self-sacrifice and selfishness–these are the concrete materials of everyday life, and also the stuff of religion.

The stuff of the world–whether it’s color, bronze, or emotions–does not bend easily to our dreams. There’s a give-and-take required. Christo and Jeanne-Claude engage the world of buildings and bridges, as well as rivers, coastlines, lakes and canyons. Those who come to the art are part of the give-and take–they’re rolling on floors and walking on water.

If you’re very lucky, you can check out a Christo near you–sometime. In the meantime, travel by Google:




Christo and Jeanne Claude: Prints and Objects. Edited by Joerg Schellmann. New York: The Outlook Press.

(c) Phil Hefner. 7/8/2016

A necessary litany

18 Jun


Reflecting on Orlando, June 12, 2016

So many ways to say we’re other
different clans, not my tribe
not normal, don’t look like me
not conforming, don’t act like us
dangerous, don’t believe like me

We have special words
them, not us

We have special ways to act
put you on a reservation
offer bad schools
move you out
beat you into senselessness
make you use a different bathroom
lynch you
gun you down
je suis Orlando
je suis Omar

So few ways to say
we belong
we’re one
we’re family

Let me try

Started out
in the same
Big Bang
stardust every one

Clambered out
of the primeval soup
as one

Shinnied up the
tree of life
absorbed the same
Chimpanzee stock

Migrated out of Africa
together refugees
from the Savannah

The same good God
breathed life
into our clay
in the image of that God


The same Jesus
reaches to us
from a cross

We fell into otherness
just as early
already as Chimps
tribes came easily to us

But family must come first

Slave ships
Wounded Knee
Mother Emanuel

This necessary litany of blood and shame

Must transmute
family celebration


(c). Phil Hefner. 17 June 2016

Who is this re-invented person?

1 May

More of you responded to my last blog, on Sally Field’s spirituality of re-inventing ourselves, than to any of the previous thirty-two installments–it obviously struck a chord.

Your responses express a range of perspectives. They raise the question for me–just who (or what) is this “self” that may be re-invented? But I’ll return to that question after I describe the range of responses.

Some people have been reinventing themselves throughout their adult lives. For some, this means a frequent change in jobs, but more than that. A woman who has moved around in her lifetime, writes: “I reinvented myself every time I moved. The people I met in the new place had no idea who I was in the old place. I moved to different neighborhoods or different states at least eight times in my adult years. You can tell the new people about who you were in the former place, but they still don’t know you “that way”. So the moving reinvention is both a challenge/opportunity to be someone new and a disappointment that you do not have the reputation/expectations that you had with the people of the old place.”

An independent business man follows a calling to theology, while maintaining the business. After receiving his doctorate, he moves for some years into college and university teaching, only to find his way blocked by several factors. He then turned to law, specializing in civil rights cases. He recently began cutting back on his law practice to take on teaching online courses. He writes: “I’m in the process of reinventing the next phase. Life is full of possibilities still–an adventure as Whitehead reminded us all.”

There’s excitement in these words. Others feel pain and uncertainty in reinvention–they find it demoralizing. For example, reinvention hits with a jolt when a spouse dies–there’s no alternative. The close interaction, the symbiosis, comes to an end–sometimes unexpectedly–and life has to be reinvented–from scratch for many people, traumatic especially for many older people. People experience the same kind of loss when a partner falls to dementia.

Some are cautious about the idea of reinventing. Two women, both high-achieving women and over 70, responded with impressive accounts of the activities they carry on–the same activities they’ve been doing for years. I know others–men as well–for whom re-invention is not on the agenda. I was one of these until a very few years ago. I recall attending a retirement workshop 20 years ago, at which a counselor said to me, “If you aren’t prepared to create a new life for yourself, you will have a difficult retirement. I scoffed at this advice then–“What’s wrong with carrying on with the interests and activities that have been central for so many years–at least as long as you are able?”

“As long as you are able”–that may be the key. Things happen–good things and bad things–over which we may have no control; we simply must adjust. The world around us is key to our re-invention.

In her new book, Barbara Bradley Hagerty waxes eloquent about re-imagining life, as the title indicates, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. From a recent interview, I concluded that she is unrealistic when she speaks of midlife as a time to drop everything and simply reorient one’s life. She finished by saying, “I think my book may apply only to upper middle class persons.” Dropping everything and reorienting require a level of luxury–time and money–that most of us do not enjoy.

The world around us and our health prod re-invention. Re-inventing is adapting to what happens in us and around us. If it is true, as one of you suggests, that re-invention will be a way of life for millennials–as it has been for the theologian/businessman-become-lawyer I referred to earlier–it is caused by the changing nature of jobs and employment as much as anything else. Shakespeare caught this over four hundred years ago, his play As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.”

For me, as I said earlier, the big question that emerges is: Just who is this me, this self that re-invents? Philosophers have written a good deal about how difficult it really is draw connections between our various stages of being ourselves. Twenty years ago, I had a few free days by myself in Denver, my hometown. I rented a car and visited every house I had lived in, every school I attended. I walked the neighborhood that I lived in for fifteen years–the alley where we played Kick the Can, the vacant lot where my dad and I had a huge vegetable garden during the Second World War, the drug store that had a soda fountain where I enjoyed cherry phosphates, and many other childhood and teenage haunts.

I was amazed, that I felt no real connection with the boy whose life was shaped by those places. I still see no continuity, except the connections I create in my mind, with that boy and the man who traveled to other parts of the world and spent half his life in Chicago, earning a doctorate, teaching in a Lutheran seminary, and retiring–still in Chicago–on the shore of Lake Michigan. I’ve been re-invented so many times that continuity is blurred. I’d be interested to know if others share this experience.

Sally Field, whose comments prompted these blogs, said that since her new, 70 year-old, self has not yet appeared, she awaits the revelation who she will be. In his response, Rick Busse speaks in terms of his process of re-invention. One of you asked, “Does reinvention or the need for it cause depression–a sadness for what is lost? Can reinvention give new motivation and enthusiasm? What determines how a person reacts to this need to reinvent?”

My conclusion: there is mystery at the heart of who we are, always changing and growing, defying prediction, always deeper than we can fathom.

Who I am
where I’m going
only I can say
I form the image
draw the map
paint the picture
from the scraps
and puzzle bits
that surround me
no one can put them
together for me

(c) Phil Hefner. 30 April 2016

Re-invention: The Wisdom of Sally Field

18 Mar

“My 70th birthday is coming up soon–I’m an old woman,” Sally Field recently told an interviewer.

“No you’re not,” comes the response. “You’re not old.”

“It’s okay to be old–it’s natural,” Field insists. “And I’ve earned my years–there’s a value in those years that wasn’t there when I was younger.”

She follows up with thoughtful reflection on her situation, delivered with a deceptively light touch–this is not Gidget or the Flying Nun talking. The Sally Field who is turning 70 later this year may have done a turn as Gidget when she was just 19, but she went on to win leading actress Oscars in “Norma Rae” (1979) and “Places in the Heart” (1984), and play roles in several other major films. This month she opens in the film, “Hello, My Name is Doris,” as an older woman who romances a younger man.

She is unusual among Hollywood actresses in that she has secured roles through her 60s–in an industry that is known for its discrimination against aging women. She has sixty-three films and television programs to her credit, as well a screenplay and several stints as director and producer. She is sharply critical of the Hollywood system–including the fact that women who dissent receive the worst treatment and are frequently shoved aside. Her mantra: “I kept my head down and found the work wherever it was.”

What attracted me in the interview is Sally Field’s vision of her own life. As we live our lives, we move through stages–childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturing, old age. This is familiar territory, set forth by developmental psychologists for many years. I would add, for parents, the empty nest phase and, for many others, the phase in which one occupation disappears and another must be invented.

Field believes that in every stage we must re-invent ourselves–the adolescent into an adult, the mature adult into an aging person moving toward death. Rather than viewing this endless challenge with dismay, she chooses to highlight the excitement of re-invention.

Field closes the interview on a very high note. The interviewer (who, I think, never really got the point) asks, “So, what’s next?”

“This is my challenge. There is something there that I can’t see yet, and I won’t be able to see it unless I am willing to let go of what I have been and move into the future.” This is re-invention.

These words are inspiring, at whatever stage of re-invention we find ourselves. For me, moving into a retirement community is a direct confrontation with the challenges of a new stage of life. There is a strong urge to regret that we cannot resuscitate the bygone phase. Admitting that re-invention is necessary comes hard. What are the guidelines? What resources do I have? Most of us introduce ourselves to others in terms of that bygone phase, and people may respond to us accordingly.

What if I introduce myself, henceforth, in terms of what I have not yet become–a person in the process of re-invention? A person I cannot yet see?

Are you in the midst of re-invention? Or do you have a few years yet before you face that challenge?

If we compiled the stories of our re-inventions, it would make for inspirational reading. What is your story? Share it here. I include portions of a poem in which I pondered my own re-invention.

A Parable

I will turn my mind to a parable. Psalm 49

I asked my self to reveal myself to me:
“Disclose your depths, tell me what you see.”

Whether in the mirror or the eye of my mind,
I see but little; there must be more that I do not find.

Perhaps I am not my self at all
not a self
that could be found.

I may be a parable–
all the pieces of my life
a story to be sung.

Phil Hefner 17 March 2016

Beyond Seeing, to Beholding

5 Feb

In the King James Bible, Jesus’ words are, “Behold, the lilies of the field…” Joe Sittler reminded us that it could have been “Look at the flowers.” But that wasn’t what Jesus meant. “Behold” points deeper; it means to take in the image we see, inwardly meditate on it, and let it resonate.

My last posting–about killing and transformation–is about seeing and beholding. It was a hard message–focusing on the epidemic of killings today in our own nation, in my city, and beyond our borders. I closed with the words of local journalist Jamie Kalven that we must keep the images of killing in our minds–not let them go, because in an unexpected way they open up a possibility for transforming our killing culture. Kalven is saying that we must behold the killings, as difficult as that might be.

A reader responded “I found this one distressing! It’s a truth that digs but does it transform?” I don’t claim to have the final answer, but it’s a question that must be explored.

What do we behold when we see people being killed? When we look at the bodies–or the faces–of the victims? When marchers protesting the shooting of Black men appeared on Chicago’s elite Magnificent Mile, journalists interviewed shoppers. One woman said: “Why don’t they stay on the South Side–that’s where the violence is!” From another: “Are these people lost? Don’t they know where Englewood (a south side neighborhood that is wracked with shootings) is?”

These comments are a clue as to what we behold far too often when we look at people being killed. We behold someone we have no relation to–somebody “other” from us.

No relationship–that is the key.

Jesus told a story: A man from the wrong side of the tracks crosses social boundaries to care for a man who has been mugged in the street and left for dead. If we read the story in its full New Testament context–Luke 10: 29-37–we see that Jesus told this story as the answer to a question. He was asked,”The law says, Love your neighbor as yourself, but how do you define the “neighbor”? The courageous man and the mugging victim provide the definition.

I am referring, of course, to the New Testament Parable of the Good Samaritan. The victim was a Jew; his rescuer was a Samaritan, a member of a group despised and marginalized by Jews. To make the point even clearer, the story has two respectable Jewish figures, a priest and a Levite, look past the victim and leave him behind.

A look at the language of the story helps us probe more deeply. “Neighbor” translates the Greek, plesion, which means the “one who is next to us.” The German Bible mirrors the Greek, in using the term, “der Naechste,” the one who is next to us. A German dictionary defines the term as “Mitmensch,” literally, a “with-person,” a fellow human. The Mitmensch involves community–all of us are in community with all our fellow humans.

We begin to see how radical Jesus’ story is. The shoppers on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile do not recognize the black victims of shooting as members of their community–and these shoppers reflect all of us. Every nation has a clear sense of who does not belong: from the Japanese gaijin to the “you’re not really American” that is heard so often in the U. S. The many refugees from the Middle East hear this in nearly country to which they flee. Hostility and violence toward those from another group are ancient, going back to prehistoric times.

In his story, Jesus is asking us to rewrite the script of human history. The protestors on North Michigan Avenue, representing the Black Lives Matter movement, are asking for the same thing. They are asking us to reverse thousands of years of human evolution–little wonder it is so difficult.

Some of the most moving and beautiful stories of recent weeks have been about those ordinary people who left their every day tasks to care for the refugees who crossed into their countries and who were in very great need. One friend of mine, a pastor originally from Hungary, took leave to spend several weeks there to aid the refugees. She had expected that she would offer them spiritual consolation, but when she got there, she spent most of her time giving shoes and socks and dry clothes to the desperate people who came across. She and her coworkers went against the tide in a country that has since erected a border fence to keep refugees out.

Transformation is our focus–it happens when we truly behold, when we take into ourselves what we see and let it resonate, reverberate within our souls. We must not relegate the killings of Chicago and Columbine and San Bernardino and Aleppo to the fading drift of the news cycle. Only when we behold these dead as Mitmenschen–members of our own community–only then, will we be able to purify our culture of killing and redirect the vicious substrate of our long human history.
(c) Phil Hefner. 2/4/2016

A moment of killing and transformation

13 Jan

For the past two weeks a number of images have been jostling in my mind, in search of a thread that ties them together. Instead of forcing a connection, I will set the images side by side to see whether links develop. Perhaps you will see what I’ve missed

Image 1–
It’s something of a jolt when each year, just three days after Christmas, the church year brings up the images of the slaughter of the holy innocents. Thus we remember King Herod’s killing of Bethlehem’s infants and babes in a vain attempt to ensure that King Jesus could never challenge King Herod. Several prayers and hymns in the Christmas season also refer to Jesus’ journey to Golgotha’s cross. They are precursors of the Lenten season, which begins five weeks after the Feast of the Holy Innocents–the season that culminates in The Three Days–from the cross on Friday to the empty tomb on Sunday. The Christian liturgical year brings these events before us every year–they never go away.

Image 2–
Violence and killing are all around us, it seems–the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States. Here in Chicago, we are swamped by waves of killing–four fatal shootings over the New Year’s weekend and one hundred gunshot victims during the first ten days of 2016. Marchers in the streets protest the killing of black men at the hands of the police; others lie prostrate on the ground to portray the bodies that have been gunned down.

Image 3–
We don’t really see those who have been killed, because we protect ourselves with euphemisms and abstractions: casualties in war are referred to as “body counts”; civilian deaths are “collateral damage”; the wife of a man who is serving in Afghanistan recently objected to the term “boots on the ground”–her husband is a person, she said, not a boot. At home, the term is “victims.” Our language blocks our view.

In 1955, fourteen year-old Emmet Till was murdered in Mississippi, his body horribly disfigured. HIs mother insisted that his body be returned home to Chicago for a public funeral where the open coffin would reveal to all the condition of his body. She knew that no description in words could convey the effects of the beating and torture he had endured.

In December of 2009, photojournalist Lynsey Addario was embedded with a medevac team in Afghanistan. One night they got the call–a gravely wounded marine, his face macerated. Despite frenzied work by doctors and nurses at a field hospital, he died. Addario took photos of the soldier and the medical staff as they worked to keep him alive, and contacted his family. When he saw the photos, the father cherished them, almost tenderly. Two older sisters, in their late teens, said they did not want to see the photos, because they wanted to remember their brother in his happier times. The youngest sister declared that she definitely wanted to see the photos–“I want it to be real,” she said. “I want my brother to be real for me.” See– http://thirdcoastfestival.org/library/1827.

We know instinctively that killing is not impersonal and abstract. That is why, when the bodies of fallen soldiers are returned to the United States, loved ones are on hand to receive them at Dover Air Force Base, and why the President of the United States visits privately with them. There were widespread protests in earlier years when the government banned photographers and reporters from covering the return of bodies from the Iraq war.

The current uproar in Chicago was occasioned by the release of the videos that show the unspeakable agony of the killing of Laquan McDonald and Philip Coleman. A picture is neither abstract nor impersonal. The picture tells us something profound about the situations in which seeing–with the eyes–takes primacy over words and hearing.

Image 4–
I’ve read recently about Wes Craven, who died last August. I never paid much attention to him, and I don’t know whether this blog reaches any of his devotees. He was the premiere director and writer of horror movies in the last half century. His legacy includesThe Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm on Street, and Scream. Although horror movies have never much appealed to me–since I was scared out of my mind by The Spiral Staircase when I was 13 years old–I’m brought to the realization that, in Craven’s hands, there are profound dimensions to these films.

When he was interviewed in 1980, Craven reflected on his work. Here is an excerpt:
“In my own mind were the mass of media inputs from the Vietnam War so that we were seeing reality of violence on our television sets, going into our theaters and seeing distorted, filtered reality. I set out to say simply, let’s not cut away and let’s not do violence that is entertaining. And I didn’t, you know, I simply did not cut away. And one stab did not do it and one shot did not do it. Once the violence began, the violence was treated as absolutely real. The audiences were, in a sense, tricked. They went in to a movie expecting to be entertained in the pure action or horror sense, where the blood is ketchup and the violence is simple and cartoonish. And instead we said, now that we’ve got you here, by the way, this is what violence is really like.”

Image 5–
Jamie Kalven, a freelance Chicago journalist, successfully pressed for release of the Laquan McDonald video. It was this video that resulted in the dismissal of our superintendent of police and calls for the state’s attorney and the mayor to resign. Kalven spoke here at Montgomery Place last Friday. He urged us to remember the current killings, not to forget as we move on to the next news cycle. “If we keep them before us, this moment of crisis can be a moment of transformation for the culture that allowed these deaths.”

I believe there is a linkage between these images–a truth to be acknowledged and a moral mandate to be acted upon. I’ll appreciate your comments.

(c) Phil Hefner 12 January 2016