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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

 

What’s your picture of God?

26 Jul

What’s your picture of God?

It all began when I sent around this poem by Francisco X. Alarcón:

Prayer

I want a god
as my accomplice
who spends nights
in houses
of ill repute
and gets up late
on Saturdays

a god
who whistles
through the streets,
and trembles
before the lips
of his lover

a god
who waits in line
at the entrance
of movie houses
and likes to drink
café au lait

a god
who spits
blood from
tuberculosis and
doesn’t even have
enough for bus fare

a god
knocked
unconscious
by the billy club
of a policeman
at a demonstration

a god
who pisses
out of fear
before the flaring
electrodes
of torture

a god
who hurts
to the last
bone and
bites the air
in pain

a jobless god
a striking god
a hungry god
a fugitive god
an exiled god
an enraged god

a god
who longs
from jail
for a change
in the order
of things

I want a
more godlike
god

(C) By Francisco X. Alarcon
(Translated by Francisco Aragon)

The first response I received was from a Jewish friend: “I think if I were a Christian, I’d really love this, Phil!  I sure get the thoughts behind it.  As a Jew I believe that that this is what God expects US to do…!!”

The second response was quite different: “Most of us have always wanted a personal anthropomorphic God who cared about our lives (and others we know of) as the one that seems to be wanted by this poet. Who/what do we pray to when we outgrow that belief (if not the need)?”

While I appreciate these responses and think they are both valid, I’m coming at the poem from a different perspective. Emotionally, I’m back with Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd’s 1956 book of prayers, Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Does anyone still remember the amazing impact of that book?

At the intellectual theological level, the Japanese theologian, Kazoh Kitamori, came out ten years before Boyd with his Theology of the Pain of God (English translation, 1964). A few years later, Juergen Moltmann followed with his The Crucified God, writing, “When the crucified Jesus is called “the image of the invisible God,” the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS.” Feminist theologians—Sallie McFague and Rita Nakashima Brock, for example—reinforced this theological trend in the 1980s.

In the meantime, the classic dogma of the Two Natures of Christ is increasingly understood to speak of God in human nature. When I was in graduate school, it was said that Christ was both human and divine, but if you emphasize the humanity, you may be termed a heretic. That is not so true today. We recognize that both humanity and divinity must be given equal weight, which is admittedly very difficult.

Alarcón deals with these issues, brilliantly if unintentionally, in the ending of his poem. After rehearsing the human qualities of God, he closes,

I want a
more godlike
god

God’s “godness” is not diminished by being jobless, striking, hungry,
fugitive, exiled, and enraged—rather that makes God “more godlike.”

I agree that we should not make God anthropomorphic and also that we should be God’s presence in the world—through our good deeds, our mitzvoth, as Jews say. But I also think Alarcón has got it right.

One responder raised the related issue: Who/what do we pray to when we outgrow the belief in an anthropomorphic God? A Jewish friend here at Montgomery Place asks me, “Just who is this God I believe in?” I tell her, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God who said to Moses, I am Who I am.” To which she responds, “but that doesn’t help me!”

It all depends what your picture of God is—what’s yours?
Who do you pray to—if you pray?

.
Phil Hefner 7/25/2017

 

The art of dying

27 Jan

The art of dying

This art is made
While one is waiting,

Else it’s not art,
Just a falling over dead–

And that’s not ballet,
No pas de deux.

Waiting in a large room,
And though we’re not alone

We practice our art–
Inwardly and outwardly, both.

We see each other, but
Mostly miss the signs that

Each is creating
An art of dying,

Never knowing when
The project will be complete.

It becomes more difficult,
More tangled,

When the voice in a white coat
Rings out, “You’ve been granted

More time.” No matter that
The artistic process is riven–

The time can’t be declined.
Like a great cathedral

Altered, added to
In every age,

The beauty of our art lies
Not in what we once conceived

But in the unmistakable
Add-ons time lays upon us.


When I sent an earlier version of this poem to a group of friends recently, the responses prompted revisions of the poem and further reflection. The discussion that followed will be included in my next installment–coming very soon. I’d like you to read the poem with your mind uncontaminated by after-thoughts!

The discussion raises points that were not in my mind as I wrote. In fact, the poem poured out, and I had no idea where it was going. The discussion enriched me, however, even if it wasn’t part of my original experience.

I’ll appreciate your responses.

(c) Phil Hefner 1/26/2017

More than Wealth

24 Dec

I sometimes try to read the news with a Bible near by. I read these two items during the day yesterday, and the psalm was part of my evening devotional reading.

I’ll put these items side-by-side. They speak for themselves. Nevertheless, I will add a brief commentary.

The amount of wealth possessed by Trump’s cabinet members, at least $9.5 billion, is greater than the 43 million least wealthy households in America.–News report.

Donald Trump defended his selection of millionaires and billionaires to join his administration:
“I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump said.

The amount of wealth possessed by Trump’s cabinet members, at least $9.5 billion, is greater than the 43 million least wealthy households in America.–News report.

Donald Trump defended his selection of millionaires and billionaires to join his administration:
“I want people that made a fortune because now they’re negotiating with you,” Trump said.

Psalm 49.
Why should I fear men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches? For no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. He cannot buy life without end, nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must both perish and leave their wealth to others. Do not fear when a man grows rich, when the glory of his house increases. He takes nothing with him when he dies, his glory does not follow him below. In his riches, man lacks wisdom: he is like the beasts that are destroyed.

Commentary–

The point that wealthy successful people may find ways to improve living standards for rank-and-file Americans might be true, and I hope it is. However, there is more at stake–a worldview that is projected. Material well being can make lives better in many ways, but there is more to life. That “more” is what America needs most at this moment in our history. Christmas is a message of the “more” we need.


(c) Phil Hefner. 12/23/2016

A King’s College Christmas Eve: Rumor of Transcendence

10 Dec

Our daughters, Sarah and Martha, then in high school, count December 24, 1977, as a high point of our year in Cambridge, England, because it was their chance to attend the celebrated King’s College Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. King’s College boys’ choir is a musical piece de resistance in Cambridge (although there are those who count the Saint John’s boys’ choir to be superior). The choir is composed three fourths of boys from the choir school (which is a regular private school) and the rest undergraduate men from the college. Everything in King’s College chapel is monumental in size. Its imposing interior contains more square feet of stained glass than any other church in Britain–truly a fitting place for this great service. A huge ebony-colored wooden screen divides the chancel and choir pews from the rest of the chapel. In the center of the choir is a huge lectern, of wrought iron and brass. The reader mounts the step to read the large lectern Bible, which is held in metal brackets, lighted by a candle on either side. The first lesson being finished, the lectern is rotated until it moves a full half circle, and in front of the reader stands another Bible, open to the second lesson.

The Christmas Eve service is a major event in Cambridge. (It is broadcast every year in Chicago on WFMT). Since it is intended to be a community event, only a fraction of the seats are reserved for college dignitaries and their guests. People stand in line (they “queue up” as the English say), to get their seats on a first come, first serve basis. Our daughter’s classmates suggested that they begin queuing at 3:30 a.m. for the 3:30 p.m. service. We bundled them up with sleeping bags, a thermos bottle of hot drink, sandwiches, blankets and other gear for their wait in the 30-degree weather. They had originally intended to ride their bicycles the three miles from our house to King’s Chapel, but a terrible windstorm had arisen during the night, so father had the privilege of driving them into town. At that hour, they were only 15th or 16th in line! At noon the rest of the family drove back to the chapel to bring the girls more to drink and eat, and to collect the sleeping equipment. To my surprise, by that time the college quadrangle was filled with people. Around the periphery of the huge quad, on all four sides, were the people waiting for the doors of the chapel to open. There were others there, however–friends and-relatives who had come, as we had, to bring fresh supplies to the queuers and to chat. My first thought was that this might be a typical tourist gambit, but as I looked around, I saw familiar faces of University dons and other families that I recognized as Cambridge residents. This was a community custom! Even those, like my wife and I, who had no intention of going to the service ourselves, could be part of the festivities. The rituals have changed since we were there–for example, now singers in the quadrangle entertain the queuers while they wait.

The music was grand. Sarah and Martha confess that they dozed only a few times. That might be a good measure for judging any choir: Can it keep its audience awake, when they have been standing (lying down, sleeping) in line for 12 hours?

(c) Phil Hefner. 12/10/2016
(Based on my diary )

Photo: King’s College quad, Cambridge

The truth is. . . Poetry explained

2 Dec

My last blog included three poems on the theme, “The Truth Is. . .,” which in turn was inspired by a news item reporting a survey taken during last summer’s political conventions in which people were asked to complete that sentence about what is truth.

I received more response than usual, and I delight in the widely differing interpretations from readers. Some readers are wondering just what the three poems are up to, so I’m taking an unusual step to clarify, briefly, what was in my mind.

What is truth? My starting-point was my own religious tradition, which I think has meaning beyond its own boundaries. Truth is in words, the theme of the first poem–sacred scriptures are vessels of truth for many religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, as well as Christianity. There are many non-religious approaches to truth as words, as well: our American constitution and constitutions in other countries, laws, contracts and legal traditions, literature, especially poetry. One thing all these hold in common is that they often need interpreters. Rabbis, biblical scholars, and lawyers. Words cannot exist without interpreters, even though the words are the base, the “scriptures.” The question arises whether we find truth in the original words or in the interpreters. And of course, this means which interpreter persuades us. My relation to the words of truth is triangular–me, the words, and the interpreter.

Truth is also associated with places, sometimes called sacred space. Jews refer to the Holy Land; Yahweh dwells in Jerusalem. A Catholic theologian once said, “However you think of the Church, for Catholics, it passes through Rome.” The Desert Fathers and Mothers, from the third century onwards, considered the desert to be a place where the Holy is present. As I write, Native American Indians are defending with their lives what they consider to be the sacred lands of North Dakota–against intrusion by an oil pipe line. For Hindus, the Ganges River in India is sacred and hence the place for their bodies to be cremated after death. The list goes on and on.

In the second poem, I reveal the land of my own spiritual home–the Great Western Plains and the mesas of New Mexico. This is the only truly personal disclosure in the poems.

The third poem takes note of truth embodied in individual persons. Many religious figures come to mind: Gautama Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus Christ. Other persons have elicited a kind of religious status, because they embody truth–think of Che Guevara, Mother Teresa (and indeed all saints), Vladimir Lenin, Abraham Lincoln. My own particular Lutheran tradition emphasizes that God’s Word of truth is Jesus Christ. The dogma known as the Two Natures of Christ and the tradition of the theology of the “communication of attributes” (in plainer English, “the co-existence of divinity and humanity”) are centuries-long discussions of how Jesus can be God’s truth.

I wrote the first draft of the poem with a male “person”–you’ll note the names I listed above are mostly male). However, the “Christa” tradition was also in my mind–the effort of some artists to represent Christ as a woman–Edwina Sandys’ 1975 painting is an example (See above). So, I decided to add this nuance.

I asked for comments as to whether the poem’s gender would make a difference. Interestingly, readers were not clear on this, but several suggested it was a personal matter for me. 

My relation to all three sources of truth–not just words–may be dependent on interpreters and tradition. There are dozens–perhaps hundreds–of interpretations of Jesus, for example. Even if living persons, or direct acquaintances are treated as truth-bearers, there is often–though not always–interpretation through media, staged performances, and the like. Similarly, people have to be taught about the community’s holy places. There are personal holy places, like mine, that we have direct experience of. Perhaps that is why I expressed my personal experience only in the second poem.

There is a profound and complex relation between what we experience as truth and what we are taught about truth. One reader asked, “What about the situations in which we ourselves feel prompted to speak ” truth”? We are the truth-bearers?

“The truth is . . .” Each of us has to complete the sentence for ourselves. And the same with my poems–what I had in mind as I wrote them is not necessarily the “correct” interpretation. As Paul Ricoeur wrote, they mean whatever they can mean–in anyone’s mind.

(c) Phil Hefner 12/2/2016

The truth is. . .

28 Nov

I reflected on a news item, which in turn prompted these three poems:

“The booth, the size of a small house trailer, in the shape of a cartoon word bubble with “TRUTH” in bold letters on its side, serves as a video confessional. It will be set up at several locations, including at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Visitors are asked to sit inside and finish the politically and metaphysically loaded sentence that begins, “The truth is …” (New York Times, July 18, 2016). I thought of three ways people seem to think of truth.

I.
The truth is …: Word

A word. . .

in sacred language,
we do not understand

requires learning
translation

we speak those words aloud
understood or not

by ourselves
and together

Sanskrit Hebrew Greek
Latin Arabic King James English
the constitution’s colonial rhetoric

our accents as variable
as we are

the truth they say
is in the recitation

words require interpretation
that’s what rabbis are for

never just one rendering
of truth

we must choose
which words persuade us

which rabbinic eloquence
or logic

the truth is. . .


II.
The truth is …: Place

A place

for the solitary monks
two millennia back in time

empty desert wastes
were truth-bearers

resonating to
lives emptied of things
and fancies

the great western plain
is such an empty vastness
like the sea when the shore is
left behind

emptiness is overflowing fullness

when I’m alone
my vessel
small barely visible
against the wastes
that have no boundary
is filled by a vastness
not mine

for me
this place is both
beginning and end
where arrival and starting out

are one


III.
The truth is …: A Person

Her eyes,
that’s what it is,
Piercing, yes–
but even more,
the world that lies behind her gaze
and projects outward.

Her voice
echoes with the resonance
of God.
Pulling me into her world,
I know that she
is truth for me.

She sees straight into my heart,
tells me who I am
who I can be
and who I must be.
She gives me my direction
and my mission.

She bodies forth the truth
and my truth,
not from afar
nor from a higher place,
but here, before me
at eye level.

Eye-to-eye, I can see
she’s more, better, than
I could ever be, but she is
very like me. I say fully like me.
She eats and drinks,
loves and struggles

to a degree that surpasses me.
But she cries,
fears death–
shouts out her abandonment.
So fully me I ask myself:
Can this be truth?


I considered writing a fourth poem about how all forms of truth are filtered through us–our vision, our minds, our judgments. No matter how we anchor truth in something objective outside us, we judge what is true. I would not say the truth is me and my judgment, but there is no truth for me apart from me.

Query: would it make a difference if the Person were male?

(c) Phil Hefner 11/27/2016