As If—

16 Jan

Ann is Ann Sexton, her poem, “Rowing toward God”

Occasioned by Neva’s Covid positive.

As if 

Why must it always be faith?

Why do you pose

masked as 

the great As If

Ann called you a card sharp

played your game and rowed away

as if it is a game

as if the rowing is real

Your game for me plays out

locked in your embrace

more dance 

than journey 

held fast and tricked

at once

you’re always changing steps

I do not follow

but am drawn

along the way 

you’ve chosen

I’m free you say 

the dance does not feel free—

free to call it dance

not mindless crapshoot

or aimless lurch

I’d rather say

it’s empathy—

for the steps

for the others




it’s not a dervish 

move symmetrical

graceful spinning

reaching out

to where you are

not predictable order

as marks the minuet

this is no square dance

caller shouting out

 “bow to your partner”

and “time for do-si-do”

more a blind

stomp and stumble—

as if it really is a dance

as if the dance is yours

(c) Phil Hefner 1/14/2022


To friends who have died

15 Dec

Three of my seminary colleagues have died in recent months. I think of them frequently. Out of my reflections, this poem emerged.

To Friends Who Have Died


You belong—

you whose bodies lie

in the earth covered

with sod

names chiseled

in stone—

You belong to all

those who carry

you in their hearts

but no less to me

you inhabit my mind and my soul

not gone to some

far away land.

In each moment

I call forth

your being-here

into my present

for conversation in which

it is true you listen

but seldom speak


You have received

the blessing

that you need not

walk through the present

desert—we shared a

wilderness walk

of our own together.

Our walking a template

even as now I go

another course different

from what was set for us.

We learned what you

know well—the trek

in the wilderness

does not end with

forty years.


God’s best work

is done in the desert—

so it is said.

Let me say

we were formed as friends

on a wilderness trail—

that is what I miss—

old companions

in a changing desert.


Why did you leave off?

Why am I left bereft?

Is God’s winnowing

not finished—

I need more desert time?

We said the desert

is a place for dancing—

we can dance today,

but the old moves

passed away with you

(c) Phil Hefner   12/13/2021

There is a time for everything to rest in peace

27 Oct

There is a time for every thing to rest in peace.

There is a time. For everything to rest in peace 

       requires a certain time,

       a special pace

       to create suitable

       conditions that enable 

       rest in a grueling race.

There is a time for everything. To rest in peace

        that is true shalom,

        the entire world must

        share the stillness.

        It is a covenant at heart,

        a resilient bond of trust—that

there is a time for everything to rest. In peace

         things hold together,

         form a nest 

         for the human spirit,

          where the depths within it

          gather force to attest—Indeed

there is a time for everything to rest in peace—

        A time we know 

         Shabbat is real.

         Today our work is whole,

         our struggle has received the seal.

         The sense of things we now can toll: 

This is the time for everything to rest in peace.

(c) Phil Hefner.  10/24/2021.  

Reflections on These Days

21 Oct

How can you bear it?

You had high hopes

for clay, didn’t you?

How can you bear it?

You breathed spirit 

into clay—but in what 

proportion? We may

live up to spirit 

but at this moment

we disgrace the soil

we came from

—what lies lower 

than clay? 

Dare we say it,


Are you never exasperated

with those you created

in your own image?

You have said so many times

that the poor are your preferred,

they shall not go hungry,

yet the poor persist—not

hungry, we now say

they are food deprived.

We are comforted

by your words:

“The poor you will 

always have with you.”

Guns don’t kill, the

saying goes, people do.

It’s true—created 

in your image we’ve

launched a 


of killing.

The ones you’ve blessed

rant endlessly

cross into spiteful 


then descend to perfidy

that brings you to pain

and us to hell.

How can you bear 

the clay you 


Is this our freedom’s 


God’s Cry for a Mutilated World

my world lies wounded 

good creation smeared

can you love a mutilated world

whose soul is torn and bruised

the earth a Pietà slumping in disarray

reaching for supporting arms

waters choked with offal

earth ripped scraped for profit 

creatures evicted reshaped tortured

eradicated no longer seen

homeless ones rejected 

turned aside or barracked 

gunned down children

their homes invaded

while creation groans

my brooding spirit draws near  

waiting for you to love

my mutilated world

How can you be calm

when the center does not hold?

Kipling had a recipe for living 

in such times—“Man up!” 

he said, Refuse to let

the chaos suck you in.

Yeats saw beyond 

the rugged loner—he eyed

the Second Coming—the

slouching beast he called it.

I’m with Yeats.

The agonizing whirlpool pulls

down and down are the 

pangs of labor, a new birth—

a New Age coming forth, 

shaking off the old

familiarity. In place of comfort

new incivilities. Hostilities  

frequent and too lethal.

Even the good are overtaken.

No one acclaims the slouching

beast’s enabling progress 

toward a New Jerusalem—

what is that?—no one 

imagines the possibilities

of such a destination. 

A weird rejoicing

—not calmness—

is in order.                                          

(c) Phil Hefner 10/20/2021. 

The Gospel and Our Situation —part2

13 Sep

II. Othering: The Human Condition


The term othering points to a fundamental element of our dis-ease—the social dimension.

We were created in a condition of oneness with God and all of the creation. Tillich called this the condition of “dreaming innocence.” Matthew Fox called it the “ original blessing.

Whatever those terms refer to, it did not last. Perhaps it refers to the pre-human stages of evolution, the un-selfconscious condition of most (but not all) non-human animals. Humans are characterized by self-awareness. If the myth of the Fall makes any sense at all, it is because it refers to the transition into self consciousness. Tillich provocatively called “the fall into selfhood.”

I agree with Tillich, who was my first theological mentor, but I want to add a different nuance. Our emergence as Homo sapiens and our entry into selfhood is also a fall into otherness.

We define ourselves over against our world. This is nowhere more evident than in our relations within the human community and even with other living things. Over-againstness is another way to describe this basic human condition of othering. Our individual existence, as well as our social existence is a lifelong attempt to negotiate this over-againstness. That we struggle so to negotiate is a testimony that our pre-human oneness is deeply embedded in our being, it holds the primacy in human nature.

At the individual level, this negotiation is a matter of human 

human development—from infancy through adolescence to adulthood, aging, and dying. At the social level, it is fundamental to both intra- and inter- group development.  Inter- and intra- over-againstness was a challenge to pre-historic humans and it persists. At some points, we make gains, mutuality blossoms where hostility once ruled. Many persons have devoted their lives to the effort to reconcile differences between individuals and groups, some at the level of ethnic groups and nations. But the lack of synchrony, asynchrony, if you will, never goes away. Its deep rootedness is an indication that it is intrinsic to  our nature as we emerged into the human phase. The theological tradition names this phenomenon as “original” sin—not the “first” sin as Augustine wrote, but the “sin of our origin,” as Gregory of Nyssa explained.

The fall into otherness is a deviation from the truth that all living things and all humans emerged within the same evolutionary process within the same planetary ecosystem. It is  a condition characterized by fundamental dualisms. Over-against ness is a primal dualism. We  begin by defining ourselves as humans over against other animals. Dualism between humans and nature, between humans and other animals is deeply ingrained in our condition. The term “other” animals is deeply offensive to our dualistic outlook. We consider ourselves to be over-against an intrinsically different set of creatures that are qualitatively different from and inferior to us humans.

Othering marks, as well, our relationship with other ethnic groups, with other cultures, with other sexual orientations

There are a number of reasonable explanations of our social othering. 

Turf wars

Turf wars have characterized human history from prehistoric eras to the present. The history of the United States was significantly shaped and tarnished by the confiscation and exploitation of land on which natives lived—a gigantic turf war. This same confiscation and exploitation marked in general  the period of  colonization by European powers in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America in the so-called “Age of Discovery and Exploration,” from the 14th to the 19th centuries. The so-called “discovered” lands were already occupied. In nearly every instance, the native occupants were othered and in some cases considered not even human.

Consider the current battles over the Crimea and the Ukraine, for example, and the dispute between China and India over territory in the Himalayas.

Hatred and Assertion of Supremacy

We also talk about hatred and the desire to make ourselves and our group supreme over others, “white supremacy,” for example,  as it is spoken of today. Underneath racial supremacy and hatred, however, there lies the lack of a sense of fit, of being out of sync, a fundamental discomfort at the idea of living with “others” and sharing equally with them.

Racial hatred aims at keeping the other away and subordinating them. It imagines a threat from the other. In cases where the others are considered less than human,  they are consigned to subhuman living conditions. Theories of racial supremacy are formulated to justify the hateful treatment of the other. Sadistic cruelty is justified by these theories.

We can be instructed by considering the encounter of the Spanish conquistadores and the natives of Americas in the 1500s. They faced a dilemma, they thought, because they were uncertain whether or not to deal with the natives as humans. If they were human, they could be converted to Christianity; if not, they could treated as animals. They asked Spanish theologians for a the judgment.  Bartolomé de las Casas, was one of the first Spanish settlers in the “New Lands”; he became a Dominican priest and the first bishop of Chiapas. He not only argued in behalf of the indigenous people, he was instrumental in the enactment of the New Laws of 1542 that protected these peoples from abuse. The Spanish settlers, who insisted on enslaving the peoples, pushed back against these laws with such vigor that he was forced to return to Spain.

Strategies of enslavement, segregation and anti-miscegenation have the same intention: to keep the others apart. The idea of otherness is undermined if the other can participate equally in the dominant society, intermarry, have biracial children, and become leaders in the society.

Sexual and gender othering

The condition of othering is nowhere more prominent than in sex and gender relationships. In this context, I employ the term  “sex” as a biological marker, while “gender”  is a social construct. In recent decades, our ideas about sex and genders have changed dramatically. Conventional ways of thinking have been blown to smithereens. Othering  and overagainstness characterize this present situation, while at the same time some cultural forces seek to overcome the tension.

Even though men and women seem to be natural pairs, who can experience deep intimacy together, their relationships have been marked by othering from the outset. History and mythology are replete with description of this mutual otherness. Woman was associated with Moon amid Earth, accentuating fertility. Man was depicted as Sun, King, Warrior, Trickster. However interesting, even charming, these images may be, they remain strategies of stereotyping and othering. Our contemporary strategies, revealing some roots in these older archetypes, have evolved in their own ways.

Our understanding of sex and gender in Western cultures has tended to be binary—straight and lesbian/gay. The phenomena of non-binary thinking and transgendering reveal the inadequacy of traditional thinking. In  an explosive way, they call into question the othering import of traditional ways of thinking about sex and gender.

In all situations othering frequently takes  the form of aggressive hostility, the desire to dominate, the desire to hold fast and refuse to share with others—often involving cruelty. Today, strategies of othering are being challenged by individuals, groups, and larger forces that resist, refusing to allow themselves to be othered. 

The binary thinking about race is proving to be equality inadequate in the face of significant interracial mixing.

(c) Phil Hefner 9/13/2921

The Christian Gospel in Our Situation

31 Aug

I’m beginning a new series of blogs. This may be a preview of a new book of theology. I’m especially interested in your comments. This installment is long, over 900 words.

Gospel and Situation 


I turned recently to the book that started me in the study of theology in the 1950s, volume 1 of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. One of Tillich’s major points is that the Christian Gospel takes on meaning as a response to the deep questions posed by our culture. He interprets the early centuries as asking the question of mortality, perishing, to which the Church responded by proclaiming Christ as the “medicine of immortality.” The medieval period asked questions of guilt, to which the Gospel was preached as justification of guilty persons by grace through faith. Tillich perceived the twentieth century as seeking answers to alienation, and so he framed the response in therms of the new being in Christ that overcomes alienation with reconciliation.

The Gospel takes the shape that meets culture’s questioning. Joseph Sittler made a similar point when he said the Gospel plays a melody, but always within the counterpoint of its cultural setting. Counterpoints change, and even though the Gospel does not change, its import depends on the counterpoint in which it is played.

I have been asking myself, what are the deep questions raised by culture today? What Gospel shape responds to our culture?

Tillich probed to the deepest layers of culture to discern its questions. Culture takes many forms, but what underlies its shape and its questioning?

A powerful sense of uneasiness pervades our present cultural situation. By uneasiness I mean a lack of fit between us and our world—an uneasiness in face of uncertainty and apprehensiveness as to our place in the natural and social worlds in which we find ourselves.

We could speak of a situation of the absurd—the absurdity of existing at this time, in the apprehension caused by feeling our lack of fit. This is real cognitive dissonance for us as  persons in the world. We don’t mesh with our world.

Take a look at some cultural manifestations of unease/lack of fit.

II. I’ll at ease in the natural world

The natural environment. We seek a just and sustainable

relationship with nature. But that requires a fit between us and nature, a synchrony between human culture and the natural systems that form our environment. However, that synchrony is missing, and that is the cause of an underlying apprehensivess, because we know deep down that nature does not tolerate non synchrony. We know “nature bats last,” just as we know that despite our best efforts, we cannot escape from natural processes—planetary warming being the most prominent today.

Over the course of their long existence, humans have tried mightily to escape from the rigors of natural processes, or at least to bend them in our favor. At her most recent time at bat, nature has dealt us climate change—a stunning event that shows us how small and vulnerable we are, even as it places demands upon us to act in ways that can ameliorate certain aspects of its impact. Our cities, our agriculture, and our accustomed ways of living are a poor fit with nature.

Human history is filled our optimism that nature can be tamed, handled in ways to make it friendly. Dissonance has revealed itself, and with it has come a multi-layered human response. At one end of the spectrum is denial of nature and refusal to act in new ways. But the spectrum also includes half-way gestures that take nature into account, in clearly inadequate measures. Some individuals and communities are taking drastic actions to achieve a synchrony with nature. Planners are devising responses to climate catastrophes. Running through all of these responses is a faint hope that a future generation can achieve synchrony. And a lurking fear that catastrophe is inevitable.

Our behavior toward nature is frequently and rightly characterized in terms of arrogance and recklessness. But these are expressions of something deeper—a sense of being overwhelmed and out of joint over against nature. We frequently speak of warfare between us and nature; we proclaim victories and sometimes defeats. Medicine is often depicted as part of the battle, and our victories are wildly cheered. Nature is portrayed as the Other, resulting in traditions of separating humans from nature, rather than recognizing that we are part of nature and have evolved as animals within the continuum of natural evolution.

Medical research and practice bring a particular focus to our dissonant relationship to nature. Medicine constitutes one of most massive collective enterprises in history. It’s an enterprise dedicated to countering the natural processes of evolution. Genetic intervention, surgical procedures, transplants and implants, pharmaceuticals, and behavior modifying  are the strategies of contemporary medicine—to  cure disease or alleviate its progress, to deal with accidental injury, and to counter the processes of aging. 

Medicine has been enormously successful, and yet at every step it, too, walks the edge of fear and unease. The testimony of medicine is clear: Unless humans accept their situation as victims of natural selection, if they seek a different role, massive strategies must be employed to “fix” them; synchrony must be re-defined. Since the “natural” synchrony of humans with evolutionary nature is not acceptable, we attempt to fashion a new synchrony.  The price we pay is an ongoing dissonance between us and our world.

This blend of successful redefinition and painful dissonance is nowhere more visible than in the process of aging and communities of elderly persons. Life expectancy has been extended successfully, but the care and maintenance of the elderly pose problems. How is care of the elderly to be financed? What the elderly living for? Are the elderly taking resources from other important areas? The life of many elderly is marked by deep unease.

(a) Phil Hefner. 8/30/2021

Alexa and the Pirates

30 Aug

This a fun piece I wrote for the monthly magazine published by residents at Montgomery Place, where Ai live.

Alexa and the Pirates

What creature goes “99 clump, 99 clump, 99 clump”? Answer, “a centipede with a peg leg.” But what comes to mind when you hear “peg leg”? A pirate, of course! Because pirates have peg legs, right?

The other night, I talked to Alexa, the artificial intelligence unit who lives in my smart TV. She gave me half a dozen tips on how to talk like a pirate. I had no idea that Alexa knows more about pirates than I do!  I was also a little disappointed, because I think Alexa could devote herself to more useful and uplifting pursuits. But Alexa always tries to please, and when I asked the question, she worked very hard to please me.

How much do you know about pirates? You better get ready for pirates, because September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Where did such a strange day come from? If you Google it, You will discover that in 1995 two young men who had too much time on their hands and too little ambition to do bigger things, are responsible. You’ll also discover that the greatest pirate of all time was a Chinese woman Ching Shih. At the beginning of the 19th century she commanded a fleet of thousands of ships, marauding the South China Sea.

Alexa told me that pirate-talk includes sprinkling your conversation with the exclamation, “aaar.” “Shiver me timber’s” is always good and addressing  friends as “matey”; call people you don’t like “scurvy dogs.” When you greet someone, say “Ahoy!” and when you’re surprised or caught off-guard, yell, “Avast!”

What’s the point? Well, back in the 1990s, some young men liked to strike a macho pose. Macho was good (maybe it still is?). When you have a peg leg, macho comes easy—you just “clump” in a swaggering way. Nothing impresses a girl like a clumping peg leg. And then swig from a bottle of rum with a parrot on your shoulder. What could be more macho!

The possibilities are enormous. But what I want to know is how Alexa came to know all this—and why? I would prefer that she stay clear of macho young men pirates.

Perhaps, like me, she enjoys screwball comedies—you know like Lucille Ball or Cary Grant. Talking like a pirate is like putting yourself in a screwball comedy and I can think of no other reason I would write a wacky article like this one.

Some evenings, after a long day, participating in a screwball comedy would be fun. Maybe Alexa feels the same way.

I think I’ll ask her.

(c) Phil Hefner 8/30/2021

Beset by gods

30 Aug

 Beset by gods

Their idols are silver and gold,

    made by human hands.

Those who make them will be like them,

    and so will all who trust in them—Psalm 115

Coin was her god, 

she became like a coin.

Everything depreciated 

so everything appreciated

and then it makes a profit.

Work was his god;

he became like his work.

His soul was absorbed, 

he was declared irreplaceable

before he was expendable.

Admiring cheers made him Adonis—

ah! his running and jumping 

his catching and throwing

and hitting the ball with such skill—

until his fickle body betrayed him.

And there’s the god

of buying, exhorting us:

“Spend for the common good,

‘til you become consumer kings 

and queens—making others rich!”

America—the greatest god of all?

Its myths, its legendary heroes.

its sacred castes—invoking the real God

to sanctify its sins—enlisting us

to march in its parades.

We are beset by gods,

each one out to win us.

It’s our souls they’re after,

to suck the marrow of our bones, 

to drink away our lives like Draculas.

It’s healing we seek,

the wholeness of our parts,

when we give all we have.

The gods take it all 

gladly—not caring 

that we’ve emptied ourselves.

We’ve given ourselves away

on unsatiated altars—

to divinities who devour

the gifts and the givers alike.

(c) Phil Hefner 8/29/2001.    

Marks of Patriotism

9 Jul

I have been wrestling lately with questions of what it means to be patriotic. These three poems have been part of the struggle. I distributed some of these earlier, but the first poem is new.

Becoming America

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.q

—Langston Hughes

America’s always becoming.

America is a becoming,

inhabited by us—all of us—

who are becomings,

always on the move to

becoming something 

different, perhaps greater,

than we are today.

America is not a was,

because its  was

was not good enough.

It did not respect,

did not encourage

everyone’s becoming.

and that’s not

good enough.

The American natives

were becomings, too,

but the future they could

become was blocked,

slaughtered—an entire race,

of becoming, a future that

could happen—by intruders 

who could imagine

no future but their own.

The black man’s becoming 

was twisted to conform

to the white man’s future.

The black becoming 

served well and cheap

the future the whites

were becoming.

Enslaving enabled the future

of one, emasculated 

the future of another.

Women served well, too.

Men’s becoming rested nicely

in the bosom of labors

provided by a more

pliant sex.

Was is a pleasant house

for those who are

anesthetized by

stories of the past,

but intolerable

for those who face


The present is a way station.

a pause on the path l

a foretaste of

America’s becoming.

We are the way station:

America’s becoming 

will pass through us 

on its way to the future.

You can’t teach an old dog

An ode to one-half of America

You can’t teach an old dog

new tricks—

not because the old dog

can’t learn

the dog has no desire

to learn something new

the memory of past 

comforts is so sweet 

it ought not be disturbed

pulsates still, warms the blood

hating old enemies 

and fighting old wars 

is most satisfying

just as gnawing on an old 

bone best excites the taste buds

on the superannuated palate 

the best companions

eschew as well the novel ways

let’s rally them to join in

sailing the waters of nostalgia

They set their sights so low

“My name, my personal brand,

is worth millions, I can’t let it

be cheapened!” 

He spoke earnestly to the interviewer.

They set their sights so low—

When your name’s on a tombstone,

what is its worth?

Fame and celebrity

seem to count for a lot,

even seem to rub off 

on those who touch

the sleeve of fame.

So many arse lickers

(as some would say)—

more than one imagines.

They set their sights so low—

Fame is like

yesterday’s newspaper—

a handy wrapper for today’s trash.

As If

A Prose Poem

Lives of denial carry on—

As if it isn’t of highest priority that our nation work to repair an imperfect union of many cultures and persons.

As if it is naive to believe the paths of power and truth should coincide.

As if it is of no consequence that all people are created equal.

As if it makes no difference that at our best we go forward two steps and backwards one.

As if it is not worthy of rational thinkers to hold that the profoundest law of nature, the basis of all things, is the Reality of Love.

As if it is a trivial question whether we are part of a world that is proceeding toward completion and fulfillment.

As if it is irrelevant that we are created in the image of God.

The engaged life is a wager that As If is a signal of the real world.

 (c) Phil Hefner 7/7/2021

Re-learning the American Story

9 May

James Baldwin, in his recently reissued essay, Nothing Personal, observes that Americans are afraid of their past history, and as a result cannot understand their present and are deprived of their future. 

Why are we afraid of our past history?

I think of several reasons. Like all groups, our nation tells a primal story about itself, we put it in our school books and teach it to our children. We call our story “the American Dream”: We were persecuted people in Europe, coming to a New World wilderness. We found freedom and worked hard to turn the wilderness into a fine place to live and work. Our story parallels in many ways the biblical story of the ancient Israelites, and we frequently consider ourselves God’s chosen people. We say we are a nation of immigrants, and that we welcome others to join us.

This primal story was written and passed on mainly by the settlers who came to New England, with some input from those who settled the other original thirteen colonies.

As the years went by, we learned more about our nation’s origins and realize there is more to our history than the exploits of the original northern European settlers. Africans came at the beginning, imported against their will as slaves and mostly not through New England, but through ports in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; Chinese arrived in California; Japanese went first to Hawaii and from there to the mainland. Since we took over, in the Mexican-American War, the areas that Spain had claimed, Latinos came into the United States by annexation. Huge numbers of immigrants came in the nineteenth century from many regions of Europe, not only through Ellis Island, but also through ports on the Gulf Coast.

The story we learned in school, centering on New England doesn’t work anymore, because we know many American communities have different stories to tell.

Stories of origin seldom tell the underside, the failings of the founders, but as time goes on, those flaws come clear. The founders tolerated slavery, limited the rights of women, and dealt with native Americans in totalitarian fashion. Today, although some of us want to include this negative side in the story, many others resist. Most nations ignore or deny the negative element—they project it on “outsiders.” 

Even though most Americans today are quite “fundamentalist” in interpreting our Founding Fathers and the Constitution, there are powerful forces for updating our story and our national life. The founders were opposed to democracy, so they established a representative republic,  which gave us the Electoral College. Today many of us want a democracy. Much of our current struggle today is between those who insist on democracy (and want to expand voting rights) and those who prefer the founding vision (and limit voting rights).

The “founding fathers” were affluent and well-educated. Their new  nation favored people like themselves. Since their story leaves out more than one-half of the American people, it is understandable that our story has to be expanded to include everyone.

Why are we afraid of our past? Some are afraid because they are left out of the official story of our past and suffer accordingly. Others are afraid, because they fear that what the true story reveals will be to their disadvantage. Our story is not neutral, it depicts “losers” and “winners,” and re-learning our history will change the win-lose balance and upset the apple cart in ways that cause fear. Since how we tell the story determines both our present and our future, they strike fear, as well.

The great contribution of the American founders was the principle that all people are created equal. It’s the engine driving the effort to re-learn our history. The story of America involves constantly re-writing our story, but that requires honesty in facing the historical record and courage in accepting revision.

James Baldwin experienced the trauma inflicted by the American story. He understood the story can explode with tragic results. Our task is to re-tell the story and try to avoid the explosions.

How would you re-tell the American story?

(c) Phil Hefner.     5/8/2021