The Road Ahead

My first lessons about living under occupation came from Victor Lazlo. Victor Lazlo, Jean Matrac, Kurt Muller and Albert Lory (who was secretly in love with Maureen O’Hara, but then weren’t we all?). These were characters in the films that portrayed resistance to fascism with the cloying glow of cinematic courage and unquestioning resolve. Each 90+ minute drama, filmed appropriately in black and white, was unencumbered by the exploration of ethical shades of grey, and players had the luxury of moral certitude. “You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing we will die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” the man said. Collaborators, both petty and grand, were totally depraved, and even those whose actions were driven by need for survival were never excused or forgiven. Choose death or be deservingly consigned to the carnaval laid. My adolescent admiration of cinematic resistance to tyranny inevitably proved insufficient to address real world actions undertaken by nations (especially my own) and groups within nations that resulted in savage injustice. Upon reflection, there seems an almost unbroken line of such aggressions. Armed with passionate commitment born of black and white thinking, I marched and chanted, angry and insistent. The songs of protest, sung so often, still have a right to residence in my thinking. Deep in my heart, I do believe… Hey, Hey LBJ… The whole world is watching This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio… Stop children, what’s that sound? Everybody look… Eventually, I learned that tyrants can’t last forever and that the work left to ordinary folk, like towns hit by tornados, is primarily clean up and start again. And yes, there are always those destroyed in the meantime: the martyrs for justice and righteousness who died or whose families or relationships or finances or good names were forever broken as the juggernaut of uncritical certitude plowed forward. But I also learned that tyrants and demagogues arise only because there is something dark and inexplicably urgent in the human heart that makes room for their emergence, hopeful that they will eliminate those we fear or restore that which is familiar by means that we would rather overlook. But demagogues only emerge when the times provide an opening (it is said that after Jesus successfully navigated the temptation in the wilderness, the Devil left him for a more opportune time). In the same way that the body human succumbs to dysfunction when its fundamental needs are neglected in favor of sloth and malnourishment, the body politic has become flabby and uncritical, susceptible to partisanship and adversarial interchange. Only in a culture of corporate avarice whose primary purpose is to seduce with the newest, shiniest, sparkliest (all of which could be yours!) could a morally compromised huckster with a taste for glitz and kitsch gain an audience. To be honest, part of my emotional response is to revert to those first learnings about living in times of occupation – to take an extreme stance and insist on the dismemberment of the occupying force at all costs. But our times are not simple, and our government, while not the choice of the people, nonetheless reflects the beliefs and aspirations of a segment of our society. Surprisingly, those whose trucks and homes and lives are covered in rust, whose jobs have disappeared, whose dreams have dissipated in the volatility of global economics, who feel displaced in a world that is changing faster than their ability to adapt nonetheless look to the very sector that denuded them for their salvation. They may feel represented. I do not. Further, I feel that it is my obligation as a citizen to resist the nature and character of executive actions that have been taken in the fledgling days of this administration. It is apparent that I am not alone. But I have learned that the simplistic cinematic depiction of resistance I thrilled to as an adolescent is no resistance at all, only a post hoc imagining of what we would like to have been as a people. If, ten years hence, we hope to be proud of our response to current times, we must embark on a particularly steep learning curve, one that will be costly and unquestionably difficult. It may, for some, involve more marching with new chants and insistent songs. For others, it will necessitate engaging every peaceable measure available to raise opposing voices and proclaim, like the residents of Whoville “We are here!” Yet others will join hands in solidarity with those targeted for blame and elimination. For the responsible and discerning citizen it will entail a daily and active response to the...

Christmas and the Lovely Lies

Like the man Ebenezer became, I’m a Christmas kind of guy. I confess that I like it all – the gaudy, the kitsch-y, the solemn, the noisy, the excessive, the sacred, the truth as well as the lovely lies. The problem, of course, is that some of those lovely lies, which used to work for us, now work against us. When truth is too great to grasp, too astounding to convey in language, we revert to story – story that says in symbol what we cannot describe adequately in words. So much of the Christmas I love is just that – story that reduces to the embraceable that which cannot be conceived in mind or expressed by tongue: realities too great for simple statement of fact. The stories work in a way that factuality cannot by drawing out the deepest and most compassionate aspects of the human heart. The story evokes that which is most divine in our humanity where facts leave us uncomprehending, incredulous. The prospect of a young innocent in trouble, the miracle of birth in the humblest of settings, the astonished enjoyment by both the small and the great to the most ordinary of events, the savage pursuit by a murderous oligarch of an infant perceived as a threat to power, a couple in love on the run and through it all the certainty that something celestial, something other was impassioned, engaged, invested. The story matters to us because we are in ourselves an image of that celestial other, to whom it also mattered. But the truth of the story is so great, so unimaginable that to reduce it to the realm of thought threatens to remove it from the realm of wonder. One of the remarkable things about our “two nature” character is that things we cannot grasp in the mind may nonetheless be embraced by the heart. Thus it is, at least to me, with Christmas. There is a danger, however, in those stories. Narrative has power to transform only if one realizes that there is a larger truth behind it. This, too, is Christmas. By allowing the stories of Christmas to stand alone without their underlying power of unfathomable reality, nodal events in our spiritual heritage are consigned to the realm of infantilism. Rather than the embraceable mystery of the “dwelling with” of the divine and the human, Christmas is just kids’ stuff, a pleasantry to enrobe children’s annual experience of unboundaried acquisition. But Christmas has always been and must remain a uniquely adult wonder, although the enormity of its mystery has been obscured by the unquestioned embrace of its story, leaving behind the incredible reality behind the narrative. Of all the implausibilities in the Christmas canon (angelic interventions, politically driven infanticide, stellar message events and traveling Zoroastrians), perhaps the most incredible is also the most cherished – the image of a virgin, meek and mild, bearing a child accompanied by her confused and silent but unquestioningly supportive husband. A wondrous image, to be sure, and one certain to assure the reader of the remarkable nature of the child. However, it is an element which detracts from rather than enhances a mature consideration of the enfleshment of the divine. Biblical scholars have long been aware that the assertion Mary’s virginity was little more than a midpoint in the evolution of Christianity’s understanding the God-ness of Jesus. Imagine taking a point in American history, say the Civil War, and insisting that the beliefs which prompted it remain true of all Americans to this day. Certainly, there was a time when the church asserted Mary’s virginity as an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. But the truth about Jesus’ parentage was even more astonishing than a simple violation of the biological order. Following Jesus’s death and his followers’ experience of his continued presence, the Church tried to understand what his presence and ministry meant and how it came to be. In the first 100 years of their common life, they expressed it in a variety of ways until they came to an understanding that seemed to satisfy. The earliest preaching about the Christ-ness of Jesus asserted that God had designated Jesus as the Messiah at the experience we refer to as the resurrection. “God has made him both Lord and Christ,” Peter proclaims in Acts 2. Later, Paul seems to concur by stating that the resurrection was God’s “Yes!” to Jesus’ life and ministry (2 Corinthians 1:20). Paul’s only reference to Jesus’ origins comes in his observation in the mid-50’s A.D. that he was “born of a woman, born under the law.” (Galatians 4:4) a common euphemism in Paul’s time referring to...

Living in orchid time

Back in my prom-going days (half a century ago) the choices for providing flowers for one’s date were most often limited to reasonably priced and readily available stock: roses, daises, chrysanthemums and carnations. More exotic blooms like orchids were reserved for weighty affairs like weddings, their price being prohibitive for all but the most special occasion. In stark contrast, orchids have become commonplace today. Phalaenopsis, Cymbidia, Dendrobia and the like are widely available for purchase in sizes tiny to elephantine in colors both natural and enhanced. They sit nestled among plumbing fixtures in home improvement stores, alongside more conventional houseplants like philodendron, spider plants and tradescantia in grocer’s aisles and even show up prior to holidays in gas station convenience stores. As they have become widely available, their affordability has increased as well. Only a few cents more than a sawbuck will buy you a cute little phal in a four inch pot with a couple of blossoms and a promising bud or two while $15 will buy a dendrobium of seriously imposing size sporting dozens of flowers. The orchid’s popularity is due not only to its exotic appearance, but also to the flower’s longevity. It’s not uncommon for the blossoms on an orchid to last for upwards of several months, while purchasing one heavy with buds can mean six months or more of welcome and continuous blooming. In comparison to other popular houseplants this is an absolute bonanza of beauty. An African violet, for instance, whose flowers last at most for three weeks, can’t hold a candle to an orchid for long lasting decorative appeal. Until the blooming ends. My wife and I often have a recently purchased orchid placed prominently on our mantel, providing welcome color and cheer to an otherwise simple living room. In part this means that we have become slaves to a collection of orchids that stopped blooming months or even years ago. We have an impressive collection of orchids in stasis throughout the house – two or three broad leaves curled back from a center surrounded by serpentine roots that writhe above and around the clay pots in which they rest. Like our other houseplants, they are faithfully watered and fed according to their required schedules and are repositioned seasonally to take advantage of available light. However, unlike my African violets which dutifully provide a crowning cluster of flowers every four weeks or so in gratitude for the attention they receive, my old orchids just sit around requiring care but giving back nothing. Turns out that there is nothing in the plant world that is as inert as a spent orchid.  I confess that there have been times when I was ready to give up on an old orchid, having watered and fed it for a year or more but seeing no change other than the growing layer of dust on its leaves. I resolve to throw off the shackles of botanical obligation and trash it despite profound feelings of guilt that I am discarding a living thing, only to discover on my way to the compost bin a little green nub of a stem emerging from the center of the plant. Shouting “Keep hope alive!” I return it to a sunny spot on a window sill, excited that my patience is finally paying off. The shoot grows about as quickly as a canyon erodes. Three months later the stub has gained perhaps an inch in length. Despite glacial progress I stick with it and before a year has passed, buds form on the end of the stem. Another season passes, the buds open and I congratulate myself on having brought this lovely leech back to glory. I place it suggestively amidst eight or nine dormant orchids in hopes of spurring some competitive spirit, but they sit surrounding my triumph of gardening patience, impassive and unmoved. And I’ve learned that there is springtime and quality time and downtime and orchid time. When you’re in it, orchid time feels like forever. It won’t be rushed and it often proceeds at an inconvenient pace. Five years ago my wife bought me a small but truly magnificent Brassia with dramatically striped blossoms in tiger colors that sported long pointed “whiskers.” She must have acquired it toward the end of it’s blooming period because the flowers withered within a month of purchase. For the next two years I coddled it, tended it patiently, longing to see it burst into bloom. Finally, a small spike emerged from the center of the plant and I became excited at the thought that I would see these astonishing flowers again. The spike took months to grow,...

The Five Rejoices of Prayer

…with thanks to Loreena McKennitt, whose “Seven Rejoices of Mary” is required holiday listening in my home. Probably, not for everyone, but still… There is nothing more misleading in the popular perception of the Christian Faith than the practice of prayer. Church leaders of all denominations to urge their people to pray – to pray for the nation, to pray for an increase in kindness and tolerance among people, to pray for the sick and those denied justice, to pray for victims of disaster or oppression. The idea, I suppose, is that all those voices petitioning Heaven are likely to urge a fundamentally impassive God into action. But there is no pleasure in this kind of praying, no joy to be found in urging a distant God to conform to earthly will or desire. In truth, it isn’t praying at all, just a kind of hopeful celestial wishing. It’s lack of efficacy has never diminished its popularity, however. This kind of thinking about prayer hasn’t changed much since the earliest recorded beliefs about human interaction with deities. People have always sacrificed to their gods, prayed to them, sought their favor. There have been two remarkable shifts in religious thinking, however, as regards our relationships with the divine order. In the vast majority of ancient near eastern civilizations, polytheism was assumed and in most religious beliefs, the gods operated on two separate planes – the heavenly and the human. Gods in ancient civilizations had complex lives and adventures of their own some of which impacted human life in a “trickle down” manner. Those adventures, rhythmic in nature, explained the natural order of things like the regular cycles of fertility and seasonal change. If gods interacted with the human sphere at all, it was to maintain or restore the natural order which resulted from their adventures. When climatic disaster struck in the form of drought and resulting famine, people offered sacrifices to their gods to restore the divine pattern of things, urging them to a return to dependable order.* However, with the encounter of Moses on Sinai, a new idea about God emerges: that of a deity that is engaged with and responsive to the lives of humans. And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows (Exodus 3:7). While Israel’s religious beliefs asserted God’s dominion over the nations of the world, the primary relationship celebrated in the original covenant was that of God with the faithful of Israel and those who embraced Israel’s religious faith and practice. The establishment of the law and its interpretation emphasized the human behaviors required to maintain that relationship, a relationship referred to as righteousness. Here, for the first time in the ancient near eastern world, we have a concept of God whose primary function is the establishment and maintenance of a relationship with humans as that God’s beloved creation. But the teaching of Jesus expands the evolution of religious understanding further, for Jesus redefines the relationship of humans with God by placing the emphasis on the individual’s striving for sanctity through unity with God, rather than emphasizing God’s requirements for maintaining status as a member of a selected race. John the Baptist’s assertion that God could raise up children of Abraham out of stones (Matthew 3:9) constitutes a radical shift in focusing on divine engagement with a particular people to divine engagement with all people. Put simply, before Moses all talk of gods was about the gods. After Moses, all talk of God was about Israel. After Jesus, all talk of God in Christian thought was about humanity as a whole. But in the same way that Jesus’s insistence on the immanence of God has devolved in contemporary Christianity to the promotion of a members-only association, our understanding of prayer has become similarly reduced. Our thinking about prayer, having its ground in a shallow reading of the teachings of Jesus, seems to be primarily about wanting and getting, urging and convincing, making God aware of something that he or she didn’t realize or perhaps had forgotten. There are certainly Biblical precedents for such thinking from Moses horse trading with God about the number of righteous in the household of believers to the inability of apostles to cast out entrenched demons, their impotence ascribed by Jesus to an insufficient level of praying. However, the widespread and erroneous belief on the part of Christian people that the Bible says all there is to know about God rather than serving as an advertising primer for the deeper exploration of...

Old Armor

My wife and I so enjoyed the BBC/Starz production of The White Queen, based on the historical novels of Philippa Gregory, that I began a relative feeding frenzy consuming material about The Wars of the Roses: Thomas Costain’s monumental series on the Plantagenets, Al Pacino’s film Searching for Richard, Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, documentaries about the discovery of Richard III’s grave and the exploration of his limitations both physical and historical, even a visit to the Richard III Society’s website to learn more about the attempts to rehabilitate a sour reputation perhaps unjustly crafted by Shakespeare. Living in Britain in the mid 1400s was the political equivalent of navigating through a deadly house of horrors where the political ground beneath one’s feet was constantly shifting, the passions and intentions of the players driven by lust for advantage, the consequence of missteps or foolish alliances deadly. Lancastrians and Yorkists and Tudors all jockeyed for position, actions and allegiances colored by the influence and consequence of continental, specifically French, intrigue. The trappings of religiosity were ubiquitous: bishops and abbeys and anointing and papal endorsements, but precious little Christianity, at least as I understand Christianity to be. As I’ve explored the speculation and fact surrounding the era, a series of images kept occurring to me, no doubt a fiction in specific but likely true enough in concept: that of the aristocracy and landed gentry (titles, lands and privileges completely dependent on the tenuous hold of whoever wore the hollow crown), strapping on the old armor once again to attend to the skirmishes that characterized the pursuit of power by either the king of the hill or those who struggled to attain the summit. A few months or years of calm would occur as two kings and their courtiers plotted to consolidate power and advantage, then the call to muster would come again as the sides men chose demanded internecine combat. Unlike other battles in other places and times, the nobles frequently fared as badly as the peasantry, for while the tenants of an estate may have died in cobbled street or open field, their lords were often beheaded, the ultimate price for siding with the losers. St. Albans, Northampton, Towton, Tewkesbury, Bosworth – a bloody litany of places where old armor was strapped on to do battle once again. I am a child of the Sixties – that turbulent and unsettled decade when emerging yet untested values embraced by newly assertive voices in America clashed both ideologically and physically with a dominant culture that clung desperately to a clearly defined and comforting, if flawed, view of nation and world. The mantras sung by all participants echoed the songs of confrontation sung throughout the centuries: We must go forward! We must go back! It was a black and white time – the struggle for racial equality in those years was in many ways a metaphor for the character of our interaction as people –a time when beliefs and commitments and relationships were expressed in extremes and where positions of moderation were scarce. Perhaps the issues demanded “all or nothing at all” beliefs, perhaps that simply is the character of passion. A flawed President whose exercise of power was characterized by the strong arm called for reasoning together but, in truth, there was no reasoning. It was pressure and counter pressure, insistence and resistance. As a people, we were against one another, a house divided and antipathetic. Troops were withdrawn from a hated war, but only when another flawed President found it politically expedient to do so. Nobody really won the Sixties. We were more at the end of it, but we were also less. Concessions, both legal and cultural, were gained for some but attitudes and resentments were fired and grew among others. Mutual tolerance was the true victim of the Sixties as we began to see ourselves not as people together but as camps, holders of positions and ideologies intractable and inflexible, advocates of red roses or white. I suspect that the years ahead may be as turbulent as that troubled decade, not because of the election of any one political candidate, but because the national conversation surrounding the recent election has brought into sharp focus clear divisions among us as a population – differences that were present in other times and places, but became more clearly apparent more than half a century ago. Differences between both atmosphere and culture in that time and ours abound, and while one was neither better than the other qualitatively, the excesses of the current age have...

Heaven

Because someone I love asked, Late in the day, nearing five. Darkening. Wet streets from recent rain, glistening, reflecting street-, stop-, headlights in linear wiggles. People cowering in drizzle, hunched as though they can avoid the drops with shoulders stooped and head bowed, hands in pockets. A slight hop in their steps, not near a run, but quickening nonetheless. Days grow darker still, but with the lessening of light there is yet a promise ahead; a promise of smaller lights and larger gatherings, secrets and surprises, tissue paper and fripperies. The widening darkness, unwelcome and cheerless in itself, yet signals cheerful time ahead, a season of carefully crafted celebrations interrupting the unremitting pallor of winter. Refusing to yield when the darkest times arrive, we shift our mind to the brighter construct, drawing even closer to our love’s objects, filled with deep and silent satisfaction with our nearness to all we hold dear. I think it’s like that. After that, we cannot know, only hope, a hope shaped by our fear of loss, our desperate clinging to the certainty of our uniqueness and unrepeatability. I must continue in some form, we think. In that knowing and loving exist only through the experience of being a self, we hunger for the survival of those loves and acts that shaped all that went before. We hope that we will know and be known in a non-material state of clearly boundaried identity consistent with an enfleshed individual of a few decades’ passage through time. We hope that we are not disconnected from the lives of those still in transit, that we can urge the eternal and unknowable to intervene in the capricious and uncaring emergence of events in that little theater whose stage we have departed. We hunger for continuity between what we were and what we will be, for continued connection with the objects of our passion and adoration. We cling to the assertions of those who assure us that they see beyond the veil, the revived who floated at the end of a blue cord, the time of death weight measurers, believers who confidently describe heavenly rest supported by chapter and verse attributions. We want them to be authentically experienced, credible in their certainty, comforting in their promises. But in the quiet of the night, the depth of grief, the fear of end days, our doubting nags, the specter of nothingness lies close at hand. And we don’t know. We hope, we pray, but we don’t know. Science and human experience, however, provide us with some promises of certainty. Nothing that says, “bet the farm on it,” but a few assertions of truth that may point the way to interesting speculation. Our life energy, we are told, often dissipates into heat. Heat eventually departs from that which is heated, most commonly as a wave. Just about everything in the universe is a wave (which sometimes transmits as a particle). Light is a wave, sound is a wave, even the chair I’m sitting on consists of waves (albeit waves that are moving very slowly). Evidently everything that is (including, presumably, dark matter if they ever find it) is made of waves. Perhaps after we are freed from the confines of flesh we continue in wave form, and since waves can manifest in infinite ways, who knows what that might be like? While we have yet to produce a definitive definition of consciousness (although there are a number of fascinating attempts to do so), what we do know about the human mind is that the product of its electrochemical activity is a series of waves – delta, theta, alpha, beta. It seems that expressed through matter, we are still the stuff of waves. Our descriptions of interactions with the world around us translate into a language of connection based on our nature as wave forms enfleshed: we say that we resonate with someone, that we are in sympathy with a person or idea (sympathy being a state of response, e.g., oscillating magnetic waves being in sympathy), we speak of living harmoniously with others, or that our hearts beat as one. It turns out that rather than being impersonal, wave activity is at the very core of life’s expression and interactivity. Okay, it’s not pure science, but I always liked Jung’s postulation of the collective unconscious, although I find his definition somewhat limiting. Rather than being confined to individuals within a species, and rather than simply being a subliminal database of all experience within the species as well as archetypal representations, I would like to think that it is a dynamic, if elusive, level of connection with all living...

Fonzie and Faith

The descent of Arthur Fonzarelli from street smart and slightly shady supporting character into an outsize principal on the 1970s and 80s television comedy Happy Days may not be a nodal event in television history, but it is illustrative for my purposes in this essay. At the beginning of the show’s run, Fonzie was portrayed as the quintessential bad influence, a high school dropout shaped by his upbringing as the only child of a single parent family who was consigned for a time to foster care. Not quite Eddie Haskell, but close. In those pre-motorcycle jacket days, Fonzie was a gritty loner who danced on the edge of the dark side, a soon-to-be loser who felt most at home in the men’s room of a drive in hamburger stand. His was the questionable voice in Richie Cunningham’s Greek Chorus, a counselor who dispensed worldly advice born from hard knocks. He bore a hint of menace that, on at least one occasion, uncoiled into physicality in rescuing Richie from certain harm. But then he became popular with viewers and began to morph into a cartoon of his former self. In addition to gaining more significant script time, Fonzie was accessorized to reflect the viewing audiences’ stereotype of a 1950s hoodlum, absent the threat of hair trigger violence – a Wild Bunch Marlon Brando with a velour bunny soul. He quickly became something of an American icon. In a time of both domestic and international political instability, the eventual Fonzie was strangely reassuring, saying, in essence, not everything that looks dangerous actually is. While Fonzie continued to grow into an outsized character, his innate goodness and fundamentally non-threatening nature were developed more fully. He liked Ike. He reconciled with his estranged parents. He was an activist for the disabled. He became parental, offering both guidance and discipline for a young cousin. He was universally respectful of women and was drawn to mothering figures such as Marion Cunningham who calls him Arthur throughout the show’s eleven year run, as though she peers deeply through the carefully crafted personality that he projects into his true self. His presumed grandmother calls him Skippy. It’s hard to feel threatened by a Skippy. Essentially, Fonzie becomes every parent’s dream date for their daughters, absent the Halloween James Dean costume. In that transformation, he became something other than what he originally was. Not true to himself, but rather true to what we wanted him to be. Some would argue that characters must be allowed to grow, to adapt to the new realities of both the culture in which they are placed and the transformative power of self-discovery. I would agree. But I would also posit that Fonzie’s evolution was driven more by popular taste than his inner exploration. I’m not complaining. I liked Fonzie. So did you. So did everyone else in America, leading to his being named number four on TV Guide‘s Greatest Television Characters of All Time. But while what happens to a television character doesn’t matter at all, what has happened to Christianity does. I would argue that Fonzie’s growth into a bloated version of self is a perfect metaphor for the state of Christianity in the 21st century. Christianity started out as one thing and, over time, has become something else entirely. While it isn’t completely divorced from its original identity, it has developed in such a way as to make it almost unrecognizable to those who helped propel its popularity in the first century. It would take volumes to describe the manner in which those who claim the name these days distort the message, using Christianity to exclude, manipulate, intimidate, condemn and marginalize. It is a near-impossible task to analyze the ways in which institutions have attached onerous legislative, ceremonial, and obligatory accretions to the Gospel like weighty barnacles on the hull of a ship. Far too many contemporary expressions of Christianity are less like the Gospel than they are like the Gospel. And while there are some (like Marion Cunningham looking through the inflated Fonzie to the real Arthur underneath) that strive to stay consistent with the life of Jesus, a far greater number act out the last line of The Oak Ridge Boys song, Nobody Wants to Play Rhythm Guitar Behind Jesus – “It ain’t working out at all the way we planned.” Not that everything is bad with contemporary Christianity – there is plenty that is of value, just as there was a lot to like about Fonzie after he morphed into The Fonz. But, far too often, ignorant and ugly out shouts the lives of simple devotion that come closest to the mark....