My Natural History

12 Jul

I look out at Jackson Park.

Where elms and oaks, locusts and maples 

now stand arching over grassy spaces,

guarding beds of daffodils and pansies and petunias,

coleus and daisies.

This was water not so long ago.

When Lincoln’s funeral train traveled on the tracks

a few yards to the west, 

—on its way to Chicago, where he lay in state—

it traversed a bridge over the water.

We have photographs to prove it.

Landfill, we call it.

I’m looking through the window 

of a grand hotel, built in the 1890s

to greet the hordes that came to a World’s Fair.

The Fair was reason enough 

To transport soil from Lake Michigan’s bottom

to form the park 

and erect the buildings where I live today

and house the cafe where I sit now to reflect,

with the dogs and squirrels and grasshoppers,

who play beneath the trees.

My park, my companions,

my natural history.

(c) Phil Hefner      11 July 2018 

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

13 Jun

When film maker Steven Spielberg was a teen-ager, he was badly shaken by his parents’ divorce. In the process he created an imaginary alien friend, “a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.” This imaginary alien turned out to be E. T., the central figure in Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which I recently saw here at Montgomery Place, where I live.

Several themes underlie this film’s story. The main one is that aliens are not enemies, but friends. E. T. has been inadvertently left behind on earth by a team of alien botanists, who were conducting a study of plant life on earth. E. T. desperately wants to return to his home base. Most of the adults he meets on earth want to kill him.

Ten year-old Elliott, finds ET and conspires with his older brother and younger sister to hide him from their mother (the father is absent throughout the entire movie). Elliott and the alien establish an uncanny instant relationship. When, for example, ET comes across a cache of beer and overindulges, Elliott shows signs of drunkenness, too. The two think and feel as one person.

ET puts together a Rube Goldberg communication device that enables him to communicate with his home planet and express his wish to come home. The film comes to a climax that is both fantasy and suspense as ET, Elliott and his siblings, on bicycles, evade pursuing police and other adults. ET works his magic to enable the bike riders to ascend into the sky and make their way to a waiting space ship.

ET pleads with Elliott to come with him, while the boy urges the alien to remain on earth. Before they part, ET lays his finger on the boy’s forehead and says, “I will always be with you”—in your head.

We are left with a powerful message: the alien can be friend, not enemy. Thirty-five years after its release, the message has, if anything, gained in force. Of course, aliens today are not thought of only as extra-terrestrials—they are even more men, women, and children from other cultures, non-citizens.

Spielberg suggests very strongly that children, not adults, have the better grasp of this message. Before we dismiss this suggestion as “cute” or simply “family entertainment,” we might want to ask ourselves: Do children in fact have an insight into life that blasé adults overlook or dismiss? I entitle this article with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. It refers to a vision that may be more real than we admit—that enemies need not be hostile opposites: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard shall lie down with the young goat, The calf and the young lion together. And a little child shall lead them.”

Children figure large in several of Spielberg’s films, particularly children who are on a quest—facing adults who espouse opposing values. A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is one of my favorites: the boy is a human-like robot, who seeks to learn how to love, so that he can become genuinely human.

War Horse (2011) follows the life of a horse and an English boy who witnesses the horse’s birth. Both the boy and the horse end up in the British army during World War I. When the horse is captured by the Germans, the boy, now a young man, goes to heroic lengths to save the animal’s life and return him to England.

How many of us adults believe that the alien, “the Other,” is our friend, not our foe? Or that the essential human nature is love? Or that other animals are worth protecting, even at our own risk? Spielberg poses such questions to us—they are worth considering.

(c) Phil Hefner 6/12/2018

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