What language do you trust?

29 Jan

Three events have spurred these reflections. The first comes from my days as a seminary teacher, in a seminar discussing the Bible.  One student spoke up: “I grew up in a Soviet society; we knew that we could not trust what the government told us; much of the time we could not trust each other. But we could trust the language of the Bible.”  The speaker was Anne Kull, who is now a university professor in her native Estonia.

That seminar took place forty years ago. Just a few weeks ago, Michiko Kakutani’s new book appeared, The Death of Truth, an analysis of political talk in the United States. The dust jacket features a snake attacking Truth.

The third event, which forms the background for my reflections, is my daily reading of the Hebrew Psalms. Several verses stand out:

Psalm 140—

Rescue me, Lord, from the wicked,

save me from the violent.

Their tongues strike like a serpent, 

their lips hide deadly venom. 

Heap hot coals upon them, 

plunge them into the deep, 

never to rise again.

Let liars find no place to rest 

let evil stalk the violent

and drive them to their ruin. 

Psalm 12—

Everyone lies to their neighbor;

they flatter with their lips

but harbor deception in their hearts.

Psalm 149–

May the Lord silence all flattering lips

and every boastful tongue—

those who say,

“By our tongues we will prevail;

our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s;

the poison of vipers is on their lips.

Deep fissures of alienation run through American society today. Our public discussion focuses on our political alienation; ironically that discussion is itself often alienating—marked by name-calling, hypocrisy (as the antagonists insist each upon their own ideological purity), division within communities and even within families. Although certain individuals are pictured as the primary agents of alienation,  the body politic itself is alienated; in actual fact, “we the people” are its agents.

This being the case, it is not surprising that we are alienated in and by our language. Politics is a realm of alienation, and so are the news media  (Fox News versus MSNBC); in some instances, even sports has been politicized and thus also become a domain of alienation.

The three events I have referred to span three millennia. I am shocked sometimes by how relevant the ancient psalms aren’t the current scene—I think particularly of “they flatter with their lips  but harbor deception in their hearts.” Language is a great gift, without it we would not be human—and yet our tongues are as sharp as a serpent’s, and the poison of vipers is on our lips. Our language is demonic—following theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of the demonic as “the good turned against itself.”

What are we to do? Language, in both writing and speaking, pervades our living spaces, like the air we breathe. Like Anne Kull, each of us has specific language-places that are our safe places, our refuges, from demonic language. Sections of Scripture, favorite poems or novels, pieces of music and songs—all of these can serve to remind us of truth that does not kill; they can be language-oases for us.

I am interested in the safe places of language that serve you. What language do you trust? Send me your responses, and we can stage our own life-sustaining language event.

(c) Phil Hefner 1 February 2020

Two Stories

18 Jan

It is not unusual that events in my daily life prompt reflection. On an afternoon in January here at Montgomery Place a service remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. was followed by a Jewish Shabbat service. 

I was impressed that each service recounted two stories, they were on parallel tracks. One story tells of the miseries of the human condition—injustice, brutality, exploitation, The other story is centered on the ideals that picture human life as a quest for justice, kindness, deepened sense of community, and sacrifice for others.

The two-story structure underscores a theme of the King service: “the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine, is that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.” 

One resident left the service in tears, feeling the years-long weight of the evils of racism. We all know the truth in her tears—the “isms” that mark our lives, often so pervasive that we are blind to them: racism, sexism, classism, ageism. These are ways we label people as “other” from us because of race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic-social class. Barack Obama warned us against this “othering” we so often engage in—against those “others” who look different from us, who speak, think, love, vote, or worship differently from us. “We must not permit ourselves to go down that road,” he said. But we have gone down that road, and we continue to do so. 

There is something in those tears that can awaken vision in people, the vision that we can take a different road.

The Shabbat prayers spoke eloquently of this “half divine” dimension: “Looking inward, I see that all too often I fail to use time and talent to improve myself and to serve others. And yet there is in me a yearning to use my gifts for the well-being of those around me. Renew my vision; help me understand those about me. Let me remember that I depend on them, as they depend on me; quicken my heart and hand to lift them up.”

Two stories. One drives us to despair, anger, and tears. The other gives us vision to strive relentlessly for a world that does not yet exist, except in our hopes.

These two stories make us human.

(c) Phil Hefner January 18, 2020

 

King’s College Service of Lessons and Carols 2019 Christmas Eve Opening Prayer

24 Dec

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child; and let us make this Chapel, dedicated to Mary, his most blessed Mother, glad with our carols of praise:

But first let us pray for the needs of his whole world; for peace and goodwill over all the earth; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in the dominions of our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth, within this University and City of Cambridge, and in the two royal and religious Foundations of King Henry VI here and at Eton:

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the throne of heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught usOur Father…

Sent by Phil Hefner 24 December 2019.

This prayer was written by an Anglican priest who had experienced firsthand the cruelty and suffering of World War I. He wanted to emphasize the Christian gospel of love. The prayer is amazing in its out reach—history, the evidence of Place and particularity, including the chapel in which the service takes place, its college and university, as well as the city of Cambridge, while praying also for the poor and suffering of the entire world. And those who are not Christian.

 

Walt Whitman, Democracy, Empathy

20 Dec

I have thought and read quite a lot about empathy, but I was startled when I read recently about empathy as the essence of democracy:

“Democracy is a way of being: in particular, it is a way of being with others. It has much more to do with how you approach your fellow men and women. Do you respect them? Do you acknowledge their dignity? Can you identify your interest with theirs? In short, do you love them?”

These are the words of Walt Whitman, the quintessential American poet, whose 200th anniversary we celebrated last year.

Customarily, we discuss democracy with terms like, “equality,” “power rests with the people,” “one person, one vote,” or “grass roots initiative.” We think in terms of politics or sociology; we don’t use the rhetoric of empathy to describe our democracy.

Whitman speaks of radical empathy towards all others: respecting them, acknowledging their dignity, identifying with their interest, loving them. And he defines democracy with those attitudes.

This is so radical that it is difficult even to imagine. Merriam-Webster defines empathy as understanding and vicariously experiencing experience of another person. It ranges from intellectual “knowing” another’s situation to sharing and entering into another’s experience. For me, the most vivid image of empathy are the Latin American curanderas—folk healers who actually enter into the fear and despair of those they treat.

This is so radical that it is difficult even to imagine.
I read Whitman’s words for the first time when. I was recovering from illness in the rehabilitation unit of the retirement community in which I live. I thought of my fellow residents and also the caregivers, nurses, doctors, wait staff, maintenance workers, and the many others I had met in the hospital and rehab environment. I had been in touch with a true cross section of American society—working class men and women, highly skilled professionals, retired academics—people who cover the spectrum of urban America.

I tried to picture these people as individuals. Did I enter vicariously into the experience of these people? I gave myself a rather low grade on this score. Then I turned to Whitman: Do I respect each of the persons I mentioned? Do I acknowledge their dignity? Can I identify their interest with mine? If, as Whitman suggests, these are the elements of love, do I love the individuals that I meet in hospital, rehab, and my fellow retirees?

The social class system in academia (where I and many of my fellow residents have lived for many years) and in the United States generally, the political alienation that marks our life in this country, and also the prejudices and discriminations that have been so prominent in the worlds where we live and work—these factors make it difficult at times to truly respect each other and to acknowledge their dignity. To be honest, these same factors make it impossible at times for me to identify my interest with the interest of the cross-section of people I live with.

Whitman’s proposal tells me that it is difficult to practice genuine democracy with my fellow travelers. It is not a question of whether I am good or bad, moral or immoral. Whitman is moving us to a different level: Can we practice democracy in America? Can we truly make America what America claims to be?

I hazard the guess that most have recited the pledge of allegiance from the days we were in elementary school: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Walt Whitman digs into the specifics of what this pledge means.

This is an ideal: I ran across Whitman’s words in an issue of Poetry magazine. Ideals and poetry both are meant to prod us, deepen our understanding.

Not a bad agenda for a new year.

(c) Phil Hefner 20 December 2019

The Gift of Thanksgiving

26 Nov

A sermon preached at Montgomery Place retirement community 

Nov. 26, 2019

My reflections this evening will be very personal. My wish is that they will deepen the bond of thanksgiving among us all.

The attitude or emotion of Thanksgiving is a gift. To be able to give thanks is itself a blessing. To give thanks means we have received something. 

We might count our blessings, and give thanks. But then again we might actually feel more needy than prosperous. I am a very needy person—I say thanks many times a day, because I receive care from many people each day: wife, Neva, caregivers, nurses, doctors, lab technicians, family, friends, staff and fellow residents of Montgomery Place. I can’t get out of bed or leave my apartment until I have received other people’s caring. I could not be here this evening except for the care I have received today from others. The presence of these people and their care enables me to say thanks—and I have said “thanks” many times today. Being able to say thanks is their gift to me. Thanks is not so much a formality or obligation as it is an enablement bestowed upon me by those who care for me.

They may care for me out of love or out of obligation. They may even wish they  could be doing something else.  I might sometimes wish they cared for me in different ways. But their care is a gift. How miserable if there were no one to say thanks to!

Everyone of us here is needy in some way and requires  care. Some of you are needier than I, some much less. No one of us came here because we thought it was so much fun, we came because we knew we needed some kind of care.

Saying thanks is the privilege to acknowledge  that we are cared for in ways we could not do for ourselves. Here and also among the strong, those in the prime of life, we live in a caring network that precedes us.

Psychologist David DeSteno wrote a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times about the benefits of gratitude. Gratitude counters materialism, it motivates us to do more and to be more generous, for example. In other words we will actually benefit in important ways if we feel grateful. He even quantifies the chance of benefit—being grateful means there is a 50-50  chance you’ll cheat less often: and 12 percent chance you’ll give more to charitable causes. 

DeSteno offers a  transactional view of Thanksgiving, in which we give something and we receive something. I’m talking about giving thanks because we have already received something; even if our lives are miserable—we’ve received care. In technical theological terms, the gift of thanksgiving is prevenient.  It comes to us before we even think of it. This prevenience was inculcated in me when, as a boy, I recited every week in Sunday School the words of 1 John 4:19,  “We love God because God first loved us.” We are able to live because we have first been cared for. 

How good it is that we can give thanks!

(c) Phil Hefner 25 November 2019

Waiting

16 Oct

Waiting

How much our lives do we spend just waiting? On the highway, in a traffic jam; waiting to see the doctor or for a report on our latest examination; waiting to be picked up or for a bus or taxi to take us where we want to go; standing in line to check out our groceries or to buy our stamps in the post office; fidgeting until we are served in a restaurant—everyone can add to this list.

Most often, we simply consider waiting to be down time, time that is wasted when we could be doing something more useful or more enjoyable. The other day, after what seemed to be an interminable time of waiting, I asked myself whether I could offer a more useful view.

Several conclusions came to mind—I call them a “reflective approach to waiting” or even a “spirituality of waiting.”

First of all, waiting reveals to me that my life is a network of dependencies. I am not fully in control of my life, because I am a dependent person—on other drivers on the highway, on the doctor, on the bus driver and the grocery clerk and the waitstaff. I’m not the self-reliant “Marlboro Man.” I live in relationships, and I’m dependent on a network of other people. 

Waiting tells me that my life is not a static thing, but rather a dynamic process. I am on a journey to someplace else, to a new situation. Every waiting is a transition. As a buffer between our past and our future, waiting is actually a blessing—even though we may not recognize this in the moment. But at those times when change comes instantaneously, without a buffer space, we are often traumatized by the sudden transition.

In the waiting period, we can sort out the possibilities,  both the positive and the negative, and imagine our alternative futures.

In other words, there is a lot more to waiting than “down time.” In fact, an entire world of meaning is embedded there—and that is my spirituality of waiting.

(c) Phil Hefner     16 October 

Do Lives Matter?

9 Aug

Do Lives Matter?

(Inspired by a poem by Claudia Rankine)

Claudia feels sadness because

Billions of lives never mattered.

CHORUS:

We all want our lives to matter,

think they should matter,

believe they do matter—for someone.

 

Columnists write about the people’s 

lives that matter.

Irv Kupcinet said to the cab driver,

“Instead of a fare, 

I’ll put your name in my column—

you matter.”

The cabbie said, 

“I’d rather you pay the fare.”

CHORUS:

My life already matters—

 

Blacks marched to upscale

North Michigan Avenue, 

announcing “Black Lives Matter.”

Some Whites responded, “White Lives Matter”—

meaning, “Our lives mean more than yours.”

Other Whites asked, “Why don’t they

stay in their own part of town and march and shout?”

CHORUS:

We all want our lives to matter, think they do matter.

 

Her mother’s funeral was this morning.

Afterwards, she said that her mother was

her closest friend.  Now her life is 

a blur of mourning.

CHORUS:

Her mother’s life mattered.

 

Workers are not people,

they are a business expense.

Obviously, that expense should be

kept to the minimum.

CHORUS:

Workers’ lives don’t matter.

 

Sobornost—a Russian Christian’s way of saying,

“God never forgets anyone—even the sparrows.

CHORUS:

In God’s never-forgetting,

billions of lives do matter.”

(c) Phil Hefner    8/9/2019

 

Cotton—also as Art

4 Aug

 

Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art: Virgil Abloh 

Picture the familiar “Cotton” logo: in white letters, the word “cotton” surmounted by a white cotton boll, all against a black background; with the husk of the boll outlined in black, against the white of the boll itself. 

Holding this logo in your mind, recall that the cotton was picked by black slaves and sharecroppers—for profits enjoyed by white owners.

Now note that the Cotton logo is the property of Cotton Incorporated, which in turn was established by The Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966 to conduct research and promote the use of cotton.

This logo is included as a commentary on race in the United States, by an artist who is also a fashion designer—and the son of Ghanaian immigrants.

My micro description of one display may give an idea of the richness and complexity of the retrospective now on exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, entitled “Figures of Speech.” The artist, Virgil Abloh, is 38 years old, with a biography that is as breathtaking as his art. Graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering, going on to a  Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he followed his talents into fashion design. Soon, he started his own fashion house, Off-White, headquartered in Milan, Italy, but opening its first store in Tokyo. He then partnered with IKEA to design furniture and in 2018 became head of menswear fashions for Louis Vuitton. This current exhibit includes clothing, shoes, sculpture, installations, and architectural models.

Abloh’s work cuts across media, connecting visual art, music, graphic design, fashion design, and architecture. One critic has said that Abloh brings hip-hop into fashion (think of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s bringing hip-hop to the musical, in “Hamilton”). To get your mind around this artist, it helps to keep in mind that he begins with streetwear and turns it into fashion; and that his work—much of which focuses on race and racism—is intentionally subversive. 

A final example of Abloh’s art—a black hand sneaking up behind a white figure, giving the “peace” symbol. All of this beneath a neon sign that reads “You’re obviously in the wrong place.”

 

 

Cotton at Museum of Contemporary Art

inspired by the current exhibit

White on Black

Black on White

Cotton boll soft and white 

against the calloused black hands

that picked it

black hands and aching black backs

within the white world

that lived off black backs

Cotton Incorporated

a world perpetuated

still white

I feel most black when I am 

against a white background

I feel most white when I am 

against  a black background

(c) Phil Hefner, 4 August 2019,  with respects to Zora Neale Hurston

It isn’t supposed to be this way

29 Jul

Danny Glover speaks this line in the 1991 movie, “Grand Canyon.” Glover is a tow truck driver, who has driven into the heart of a Los Angeles black ghetto, where Kevin Kline’s car has broken down. A group of gang bangers arrives at the same time and threatens Kline. Glover challenges the gang leader, insisting that the gang back off and allow him to tow Kline to the garage. The gang leader protests and in the course of the exchange, Glover looks squarely at the gang leader and says, “It isn’t supposed to be this way. We’re supposed to be able to go about our business.”

Why have these words have remained with me all these years? Because they carry a powerful message of confidence and hopefulness. Confidence, because Glover was saying, “this city we live in, at this very moment, is grounded in possibilities of peace—rapacious violence is not our destiny.” As a longtime Chicagoan, and a Southsider at that, with the issues of violence, poverty, and injustice that face all cities, Glover challenged me to see the city as God’s creation and, as such, founded in an intention of goodness. “God looked upon creation and said ‘it is good’.”

There is also a message of hopefulness—that the gang and the whites who have oppressed them can actually fulfill their created goodness.  As I look out over the south side of Chicago from my ninth floor apartment, I am challenged to say for myself, this city, created in the image of God, can fulfill its creator’s intention.

Danny Glover is making a statement of faith—in the face of empirical evidence contrary to his belief. So am I. 

Our world is indeed full of evil—unspeakably so. But it is not destined to Hell and damnation. Its destiny is goodness. There is no situation anywhere that is beyond the reach of love, including God’s love.

“It isn’t supposed to be this way”—a belief that is deeply rooted in human life and human history. Traditions of apocalyptic cry out, “It isn’t supposed to be this way.” When the cosmic monster of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation is slain, the message of hope is at work. 

Traditions of eternal life focus on God’s will to  transform the world. We also read in the New Testament “In accordance with the promise, we wait for new heavens and new earth or righteousness is at home.” (2 Peter 3:13).

Both of these traditions—the apocalyptic and the yearning for eternity—consider the miseries of living in this world to be temporary, provisional. They do not represent the “really real.” Things are not supposed to be like this.

How are we to live our lives in this “between the times,” when things are not the way they are supposed to be? In the movie, Danny Glover negotiated with the gang leader for safe passage for Kevin Kline. Judaism teaches “tikkun olam”—work however we can to repair the broken world in which we find ourselves.

Franklin Clark Fry, who was presiding bishop of our church during the 1960s, my theologically formative years, said:

“All that we Christians are called upon to do, all we can do, is to be an open watercourse for the divine love. We do not create any part of it; it would be an arrogant illusion to think that we did. We must not blockade it; if we did, we would be the adversaries, not the children, of God. We are simply to reflect it, back to God and out to God’s world. Our calling is to give it free flow.“

(c) Phil Hefner,  28 July 2019

Preferential Option for the Poor—Part III

19 Jul

My blog posting on poverty engendered two responses that reframed the issue, particularly redefining the term “poverty.” I conclude the discussion with excerpts from these responses. Each response was much longer than what appears here—I have edited their material substantially, I hope, without distorting their intention.

From Stewart Herman—theological ethicist, college professor, retired. herman@cord.edu

I’ve never been smitten by the idea of a ‘preferential option for the poor’, no doubt mostly out of moral insensitivity, but partly out of confusion.  How to define poverty? I think of poverty dynamically in terms of inaccessibility—the inaccessibility of resources.   That is, I am poor when I am unable to acquire and use what makes for a healthy, materially comfortable life.   This line of thinking gets me to two terms that struck me from Kurt Hendel’s prophetic reflection: oppression and hoarding.  These are actions that make resources inaccessible.   So poverty is not only relative but relational.  It is relative in that what counts as being poor in one setting may not in another.  I have seen many contexts where people without much in the way of material possessions still seemed to have fulfilling lives.  But poverty is also relational in that it exists where people are prevented from, or simply not enabled, to secure the resources needed for a decent human life.   Call this a dynamic definition of poverty—pointing to the dynamics involved.

From Mark Hoelter—retired Unitarian-Universalist minister and therapist. mhoelter528@gmail.com

We do better to speak of “people who are experiencing poverty” or “people who are poor” rather than categorically of “the poor.” In the USA the largest number of people who are experiencing poverty are people of color. So I submit that we do well to use “Black Lives Matter” as a current translation to “preferential option for the poor.” It is what that movement has been about.

Engaging people around the issues of fairness using John Rawls’s thought experiment is another avenue, noting that Rawls at one time contemplated becoming an Episcopal priest, so there is some Christian moral thinking in the background. To simplify his exercise: Imagine you are not yet born; you are about to be born into a world with societies and disparities much like our own. You do not know into which country you will be born, with what color of skin, with what degree of family wealth or poverty and social support, as what gender or sexual orientation. Assume that you will not be born as you find yourself now; you could be born into wealth and privilege, but by statistical reckoning you well might be born into poverty; you could be born to white parents and a white family, but you might well be born as a child of color. You do not know into what religious milieu you will be born either; maybe it will be Christian or Jewish, but maybe it will be Muslim or “None” or Buddhist or Hindu. Given all this, what laws and structures would you want to be guiding the society (and world), to give yourself and everyone fair opportunities and protections?

We know all too, that awareness and enlightenment do not lead automatically or easily to actual change. There is in fact the phenomenon the social scientists, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, call “immunity to change.” It happens at the family level, as family therapists well know (see the works of Murray Bowen and Edward Friedman); it happens at the corporate and society level (see the works, of Peter Senge and his group). Both the divine and the demonic, god and the devil, are in the details. To go back to Christian texts, Jesus’s use of what was probably a popular aphorism in his day still fits: “Be innocent as doves and wise as serpents,” where “wise as serpents” means equipping ourselves with as much social-scientific knowledge and community organizing savvy as we can for effective social transformation.