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Making All Things New—

2 Feb

“See, I am making all things new” Revelation 21

I.

But I feel so old—

something new would 

wreak havoc in so many

bones and joints

redo sinews and nerves

rearrange my body chemistry

Is this really what you have in mind?

Something new means turning back the years

back to the time when all my parts

were so at peace that I was unaware of them

I simply called them into action

and they responded to the signal

Or do you have something else in mind?

II.

Is newness really a different body

perhaps no body?

in a different world

Will brains work differently 

in this new world?

in my present world 

brain is the engine 

that drives my being—

who I am

Will there even be brains?

Or is this not your point?

III.

Is newness 

something I wait for

sitting passively 

expecting it to fall upon me

Or must I prepare for it?

must I perform some work

before I am made new?

Must I open myself?

Is it within my grasp 

to be made new?

Is newness some kind 

of self-help?

Dare I hope

this is not what you have in mind?

IV.

Does it mean that what seems 

unheard of now

beyond our ken

inconceivable to our present minds

will be possible?

Say goodbye to status quo

and status quo ante alike?

Put poor ones on the pedestal

with princes, let the barren bear fruit?

It is my prayer

this is what you mean

V.

In making all things new

an invitation is issued

to enter into the unbelievable

to enter into that which does not exist

to enter with into the shadow

the cloud of unknowing

Because believing is found in unbelieving

being in non-being 

light in darkness

knowing in unknowing

If this is your meaning 

prepare me for the journey

(c) Phil Hefner   1/30/2021

My Hope for a New America

22 Dec

The calendar turns to a new month and a new year. Six months ago, there was a lot of talk about how things would change after the pandemic, that we would not go back to the “old normal.” 

There was reflection on what we were learning about America and our society: (1) That African Americans and Latinos are marginalized in ways most Whites had not even imagined. (2) That our society in general and we ourselves personally are dependent on the multitude of people we call “essential workers” who we also call “heroes.” (3) That these essential workers, both people of color and whites, are largely underpaid and overworked—this includes nurses and nurses’ assistants, personal caregivers, school teachers, grocery store workers, janitors, and a host of others.  (4) That even though we have made progress toward gender equality, when our economy slowed down and schools closed, women most often had to assume duties of caring for children and families and also working in “essential” occupations.

We talked about how these revelations would demand new ways of doing things.

Now, however, I don’t hear so much talk about these things. Now there is much said about the new vaccine and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I remember there was a lot of talk about the end of the tunnel during the Vietnam War—when we finally exited the tunnel, things were not as we expected; there was conflict here at home and upheaval. There was a “new” normal at the end of the tunnel, and it was not always easy for us.

I hope we find a new understanding of America when we emerge from the tunnel. I hope we see that our nation is more than the story of the Mayflower and the European settlers. I hope we see America as a Euro-African-Latino nation. Millions of immigrants entered at Ellis Island, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. But millions more came on the slave ships from Africa, beginning in 1619. Still more millions arrived at the southern border as Hispanic-Latino immigrants.  

Asian Americans first arrived in Louisiana in the late sixteenth century, but major immigration came in the nineteenth amd twentieth centuries. These immigrants came through California. There are now estimated to be 21 million Asian Americans.

And of course several million native Americans arrived far earlier than any other group.

The words of the founding fathers about striving for a “more perfect union” take on a new meaning when we consider an actual profile of who the Americans are.

My hope is that we will imprint a new image of America in our minds and a new idea of a more perfect union—an image that embraces all our people, cutting across social class, gender, race, ethnicity, and geography. 

There are many challenges for us as we reach the end of the tunnel. We will also want to memorialize the nearly 400,000 Americans who died by the coronavirus, perhaps erect public monuments to them. All of us who survive are represented in the number of those who perished.

But please do not think of returning to an old normal—it will be nonexistent.

(c) Phil Hefner 12-21-2020

Science says—-

23 Sep

Let us be clear at the outset: scientific research is a fundamental necessity for life today, and the conclusions of science can be ignored only at our peril. The world we live in requires scientific understanding, particularly since it is so permeated by technology; every person in our nation lives in the context of scientific medicine; we instinctively ask for the scientific view on every important issue we face today. 

Much of our current discussion of the Coronavirus pandemic revolves on “what science says” about public health, about the virus, about vaccines and antiviral drugs, and the like. The discussion frequently becomes simplistic and ideological. Political motives permeate most of what we get in the media.The role of science in our lives is not so simple. Three basic questions are central.

 Who is a “scientist”? My working definition is: a person with a scientific education, who earns their living for doing scientific work in a scientific setting (government or industrial lab, academic department of a college, university, or museum). Everyone else has scientific knowledge at second-hand. Since a great deal of scientific knowledge is expressed originally in mathematical equations, math knowledge is essential. Scientific presentations in the popular press, magazines, and TV are often fine, but they are translations from scientific language into English. Most of us, myself included, are dependent for our understanding of science on talented journalists who are scientifically educated. And this is not necessarily “real science.”

Where do we get our scientific knowledge of Coronavirus? My first response was: from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, but my investigation of the Task Force changed my mind. Because fewer than half of the members are scientists.

By my count, there are 27 members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Only nine, one-third—have a science education, mostly medical. Five are lawyers, the rest come from backgrounds in politics, finance, and government administration.

Why is this important? It means that the pronouncements of the Task Force are not necessarily scientific. The scientific materials considered by the Task Force are filtered through the understanding and the interests of the non-scientific members. Hearing Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Francis Collins, or some other epidemiologist on TV is a better source of scientific knowledge than a Task Force pronouncement. Advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) should be top priority, except for the fact they are edited by non-scientists, some of whom have their own agenda.

The best source of scientific knowledge about the virus may well be your local medical center and personal doctor. I will decide about getting the upcoming vaccine for myself when it is recommended by the University of Chicago Medical Center and my doctor.

How do we move from science to everyday life? “Relying

on science” is not simple, because the line from science to everyday life is not simple. For example, we are told by our doctors that we will benefit from a certain drug; there are risk factors involved, but the benefits outweigh the risks. The benefits and risks are science-based factors. That one outweighs the other is a judgment call, not science. Another example: that close crowds are risky for being infected is science-based. To decide whether or not to attend an event (protest, church service, family gathering, or eating in a restaurant), thus taking a risk, is a personal judgment. 

It is the aim of scientists and society to distinguish between the scientist (and other persons involved in science) and the scientific knowledge of the “world out there.” That is, in the final analysis, impossible.  Scientific knowledge can be used for good or ill. The human factor makes all the difference. Science has flourished under authoritarian regimes, including Communism and Nazism, and also free market democracies. It all depends on what shapes our judgment. Specifically in the case of the Coronavirus, our judgments may serve the larger common good, but they may also be selfish and destructive of the common good. We have already seen both altruism and selfishness at work. Formation of judgment is another huge topic of its own—to be discussed at another time.

The major judgment call we face is whether to remain closed-up or to open up the economy (or schools) or some hybrid mix of the two. The decision, unavoidably, becomes political. Human judgment is always ambiguous. Accepting and living with the ambiguity is a challenge. If schools open up, teachers and families will be infected; if schools remain closed, children will suffer. Neither part of the equation can be ignored or labeled “unscientific” or “insensitive.” 

We need to know the real science involved in our judgments—and then acknowledge that decisions will be fallible and ambiguous. This is the fundamental challenge of our current situation.

(c) Phil Hefner. 9/22/2020

Born to Reach

18 Sep

We see trees reaching 

as they stretch themselves 

to touch the sky.

Stumbling toddlers 

hoist themselves to reach what’s 

beyond them—it’s essential to

their childhood.

Runners at the finish

stretching to break the tape,

reach for the gold redemption.

Lying flat on the scaffold 

Michelangelo stretched his hand 

toward the plaster that loomed above 

and limned for all time afterward

what reaching is about—

God reaching earthward

stretching Adam into life,

reaching in his Maker’s image—

the image we see copied

in all the world.

(C) Phil Hefner. 9/18/2020

John Lewis’s Body

27 Jul

Your body crossed the Alabama

yesterday one last time. 

Led by two black horses

pulling your caisson over the bridge

with its despicable name—

the Edmund Pettus bridge—your life

a battle ‘gainst all his peak’d hat proclaimed.

The horses carried you this time;

on Bloody Sunday sixty years ago, 

spurred by troopers, 

they charged you,

maimed your body.

This day troopers ushered you in silence

over the bridge, hushed mourners praying

a benediction.

Your mind never faltered, stayed 

its course—all about love, you said.

Your spirit sustained you 

from sharecropper boy in Alabama

to lunch counters in Nashville 

and Lincoln’s monument on the mall.

You led with your  body, absorbed its pain. 

In the end,   

horses carried that body to glory.

(c) Phil Hefner.    7/26/2020

We need artists today

23 Jun

In a recent essay on “Creativity,” Eric Kaplan writes that creativity makes something new and that it is a form of love. This helps us understand why art is important in our days of COVID, social protest, and economic hardship.

Newness is something we need at this moment. Brought to our knees by a virus and pummeled by an economic downturn, many people, see nevertheless an opening for transformation. 

But even though we hear talk about a “new normal,” we also see many people demanding a return to the “old” normal. Enormous numbers of marchers have filled the streets of our cities, demanding transformation of our attitudes and behaviors towards African Americans and other people of color. 

Smaller crowds, equally passionate, some bearing arms and making death threats, are demanding that the “old” normal be reinstated. Clearly, we are not united as a people in wanting transformation, and even among the transformers there is not a consensus. 

The creativity of the artist is urgently needed, to assist in birthing the new ways of thinking and living that our times demand.

Sometimes the artist points to newness by emphasizing the negative. Picasso’s “Guernica” has been called the greatest religious painting of the 20th century, because it depicts war’s destructive consequences as the very depth of evil—and thereby speaks of peace

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings often portray African Americans in  settings that are familiar to white Americans and also in homage to the classic tradition of western art. He puts African Americans into the social scene, as in his painting of blacks vacationing on a lake. At the same time, he comments ironically on how African Americans are excluded, as in his “4th of July.” Frederick Douglass made the same point in his historic 1852 oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Novelists frequently contribute to our journey toward newness—in utopias (H. G. Wells), dystopias (Orwell’s 1994), and in their portrayals of the human condition. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the architects and city planners who envision new things in individual human living, as well as revisioning cities.

Imagining new things and changing our lives is unique to humans. 

Kaplan insists that this creativity expresses love. The artists are in love with their subjects. The street art in Minneapolis has recovered the basic humanity of George Floyd, including panels with “Love Minneapolis” writ large.

This may seem strange, given the sometimes ugly and horrific shape the world takes, but if we are to take the world around us with genuine seriousness, we must grow to love it. Not love at an emotional level, but in the sense that we care for it—whether it’s the natural environment or some aspect of social relationships. We must care enough to want to change things, to protect something, and that means creating something new that will serve the interests of our love.

It is an illusion to think that by changing a system, an ideology, or our external circumstances, things will change. The profound problems of life and society will be solved by love, and love alone.

Artists are immersed in the world and they are caught up in the living love that transforms and renews everything they do. We need them today.

(c) Phil Hefner.   22 June 2020

Where Is Hope?

8 Jun

Where Is Hope?

I.

Hope lies limp

in the arms 

of mercy’s angel.

She wipes the brow

and cleans the wounds

and listens for a breath.

II.

Hope gathers force ,

lives strong

among those who

have lost the most.

III.

Our hope 

rests on thoseq

we have despised.

They are our hope.


(c) Phil Hefner 6/7/2020

Sophie’s Choice and the Presence of God

30 May

 

The landscape has changed since I last wrote. I shuddered when, in March, the Centers for Disease Control predicted that 100,000 people would die of COVID-19 by June. I estimated that is at least 3,000 deaths per week. As I write this, we have reached 100,000 and beyond. The New York Times, on May 24,  devoted its entire front page to listing the  names of just 1 per cent of the dead—1,000 names. On Memorial Day, when we commemorate the thousands who died and were injured in wars, we face the irony that the number of deaths in all the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries are less than the casualties of the novel Corona virus in the last five months.

What is now clear is that we’re in a total, multi-dimensional crisis. A  plague-caused  public health catastrophe is linked to a devastating economic downturn, with impact across our society—education, arts, sports, and mental health. The result is a Sophie’s Choice situation—we have to make decisions, and whatever we decide will unavoidably result in deaths. Some decisions are better than others, but none of them can escape Sophie’s dilemma.

We are called upon to shape our future in the face of events that are beyond our control.

I have devoted most of my life to theology, trying to understand life in its relationship to God—in this blog, I will begin to share my theological struggling.

Where is God in our present situation? 

The world is God’s. God made it and sustains it—this is basic Christian belief. Freedom is built into creation. We know freedom  must be precious to God, because God initiates freedom, responds to it, bends it, but does not destroy it. It may seem an oxymoron, but God determines the creation to be free.

Our lives take place in this mysterious and frustrating mix of God’s determining will and our freedom. The current pandemic is a case in point. We did not seek out a devastating corona virus and ask for a plague. God did not send the plague upon us as a testing of our stamina or a punishment for our sins. 

Our free action is woven into the plague, however, and its virus. Whether the virus originated in a wet market (which is a human commercial enterprise) or in a sophisticated high-tech lab, or both, human action was an engine for its propagation. Not only our action, but our free action of which we are so proud—entrepreneurial business activity and awesome biological science.

On one hand, God does not stifle our freedom; but on the other hand, God does not save us from the consequences of our freely chosen actions. When those consequences promote human flourishing, we consider them to be gracious.  But when they bring suffering and misery, we call them the wrath of God.

God is equally present in grace and wrath. Harmony with God’s will is grace. Wrath is the signal that we are out of synch with God.  

So, where is God in our situation?

God is graciously present as suffering and consoling God. Think of the Pieta sculptures—the dying Jesus taken down from the cross and resting in Mary’s arms. Both figures are present in our situation today—dying Jesus with all those who died and their suffering loved ones, compassionate God represented by Mary sustaining us all in this crisis.

God is present in grace inspiring actions of love among doctors, nurses, caregivers, workers of all sorts who are pouring themselves out for others, making life better than it would be without their efforts. Grace is also available to those who govern, plan, and bring expert knowledge to bear. God’s spirit enlightens and enables compassion, courage, and competence.

God is also present to us today in wrath. When grace is ignored or twisted for personal interest, egotism, or the desire to dominate, the consequences of human action turn wrathful. Wrath does not mean God is absent; on the contrary, God is very close in wrath—but it is the closeness of hostility.

Wrath is God’s response not only to evil, but also to ignorance, stupidity and incompetence. Our unwillingness to acknowledge the pandemic and our ignorance of the virus’s effects—these do not get a pass, their consequences assail us, to the point of suffering and death itself. I observe that there is much denial in America of the Sophie’s Choice dimension of our present experience. Denial will not make it go away, it rather makes the death more pitiable.

Our social turf has been seeded with grace and wrath for a long time. Our science and technology has been building for a hundred years or more, and God works through it. The racism and economic inequality has also been at work—since the origins of slavery in North America in 1619. The devastation wrought by the virus is interwoven with slavery, displacement of native Americans, and poverty. Brilliant, dedicated doctors and nurses cannot erase the long-term effects of American racism and savage capitalism.

In some ways, the pandemic seems far removed from the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this week, but they are interrelated in the Pieta image that describes our life today.

There is much more to be said, theologically, and I will continue these reflections in future installments. In the meantime, please let me hear your responses.

(c) Phil Hefner 5/29/2020

Eyes: Hubble & Corona—2

6 May

Eyes: Hubble & Corona

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched April 24, 1990

Thirty years later, the COVID-19 plague is raging

  1.  

Orbiting above the earth 

where time and space 

are one

Hubble sees backwards

almost to the beginning 

of everything

How did it reach

that perch

how did it acquire 

sight did some

god with power 

hurl it into space

No, it is what it is

through the lurch

of human genius

mortals set it in its place

gave it eyes

programmed its gaze

And who is this mortal

genius but a cosmic speck 

upon a cosmic crumb 

that swings in course

round a star that is itself

a marginal body in the sky

What does it mean 

that a corpuscle 

floating in a sea of galaxies

explores that world

and formulates its

history 

and takes the measure of

its underlying laws

II.

Yet this mortal speck

harbors in itself

a cosmos rivaling the

world that Hubble sees

Our skin holds fast

the world of nano*

billions of creatures 

who go about

their destined round

as surely as the galaxies

obey their orbits through 

light years of emptiness

no intruders they’ve been 

companions from days 

of primal soup their eyes

as fixed as Hubble’s

on the cells 

they’ll penetrate

The crown they wear

is not a friendly sign

they would depose us

their hosts 

a microscopic

invader bids fair

to leave our world

a ruin

III.

Can the genius that 

set Hubble in its orbit

grasp the more

challenging world within

The journey through that world  

is the harder

more tangled 

more uncertain

the stakes  much higher

the very life of all

The mind is beggared

that nano* barely to be seen

outpuzzles 

giga**

and lightyears***

And we who

are underway

cannot turn back

we hang in the balance

    *nano=one billionth

                                        **giga=one billion

 

Phil Hefner 5/6;2020

Eyes: Hubble & Corona

2 May

Eyes: Hubble & Corona

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched April 24, 1990

  1.  

Orbiting above the earth 

where time and space 

are one

Hubble sees backwards

almost to the beginning 

of everything

How did it reach

that perch

how did it acquire 

sight did some

god with power 

hurl it into space

No, it is what it is

through the lurch

of human genius

mortals set it in its place

gave it eyes

programmed its gaze

And who is this mortal

genius but a cosmic speck 

upon a cosmic crumb 

that swings in course

round a star that is itself

a marginal body in the sky

What does it mean 

that a corpuscle 

floating in a sea of galaxies

explores that world

and formulates its

history 

and takes the measure of

its underlying laws

II.

Yet this mortal speck

harbors in itself

a cosmos rivaling the

world that Hubble sees

Our skin holds fast

the world of nano

billions of creatures 

who go about

their destined round

as surely as the galaxies

obey their orbits through 

light years of emptiness

no intruders they’ve been 

companions from days 

of primal soup their eyes

as fixed as Hubble’s

on the cells 

they’ll penetrate

The crown they wear

is not a friendly sign

they would depose us

their hosts 

a microscopic

invader bids fair

to leave our world

a ruin

(c) Phil Hefner 5/2/20