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Ashes to Ashes

22 Feb

Neva and I devoted two hours yesterday afternoon making arrangements for our cremation. I spent the rest of the day reflecting on the fate of our physical bodies when we die. I’m surprised at the richness that derives from thinking about my body after death. Although some readers will find this gruesome and read no further, I encourage you all to think along with me, and go even further. 

The religious traditions provide rich reflections. The Hindus go through extensive rituals to burn the bodies in the sacred river Ganges. An Indian Christian who recently died in my retirement home was cremated, and his relatives will make a trip to India, to deposit his ashes in the Ganges.

Jews believe the body should be intact for burial; they also remember that in the Holocaust, Nazis cremated Jews in the death camps. Some Jewish mystical traditions hold that the soul separates only slowly from the body; burial in the ground provides the time and space for this separation

For medieval Christians, there was a widespread belief that the body should be without blemish if it were to be acceptable to God. Presumably, handicapped bodies or those with artificial joints would not make the grade. In the Creed, we express belief in the resurrection of the body, while remembering that St. Paul confessed that he had no idea what that body would be like. He wrote in Romans 14:8, “For whether we live or whether we  die, we are the Lord’s.” These words grace the wall of our local congregation’s churchyard, where ashes are buried or scattered. The theologian, Joseph Sittler, chose this motto,  and his ashes are there. Ours will be there, too.

My mother dreaded the thought that her body lying in the cold, cold ground would provide a feast for worms and other critters. She insisted on cremation.

My father’s body is a special case. He died in our third-floor walkup apartment, and since neither a doctor nor a hospice worker was present, we had to call the police take his body. Two officers responded,  and they were clearly uneasy about taking my dad. They wrapped him in a body bag, and as they took him down the stairs, they dropped him. I empathized with their confusion and embarrassment. The friend who was with me, a clinical  psychologist, remarked afterwards that those cops would need counseling when they got back to the station.

Although my close friend, Ralph Burhoe, assigned his body for medical research, his ashes reside in the impressive mausoleum in his church, the Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, Chicago. His marker is flanked on either side by his two wives, Frances and Calla, who preceded him in death.

My own belief is that decomposition, whether  by burial in the ground or cremation, is essentially the same process. Cremation is simply much faster. 

The Japanese film, “Departures,” deals with death and cremation in a society that has no belief in God. The body is carefully washed and prepared. The man who cremates the body sends the dead person off with a fond farewell on a journey that we know little about.

I affirm the universal religious belief that the body of the dead must be treated with respect. In whatever form, the body remains in God’s hands. While I appreciate the widespread practice today of celebrating the lives of those who die, I also think it is important to consider the body. Our bodies do not just disappear; they undergo a process, even after death—whether slowly or quickly. They do not simply die. They truly pass away. Our bodies originated in the stardust of the Big Bang, and they end up, finally, as stardust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. . . .

(c) Phil Hefner 2/22/2019

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

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