Ties that bind

After a blissfully grueling 30-day trek in a small camper, we picked up another passenger, my 91-year-old aunt. The final leg of this vacation was a 5-hour drive for her to have an interview this morning at her potential new home–a memory care facility much closer to her still-breathing family.

We three old folks spent last night in a motel with a curious but flexible canine companion. As we moved toward sundown yesterday, my dear aunt explained to me that my parents (her sister and brother-in-law) are not deceased. I have their death certificates, but I didn’t buck my aunt.

She said my parents were with her parents back in Jellico (their hometown). It reminded me of the biblical phrase applied to several people, including Issac. When he “breathed his last, he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days, and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.”

My aunt’s loss of short-term memory can be exasperating, but it has a whole other dimension that I have observed in her and other people, but do not fully comprehend. In the next few posts, I plan to share some reflections about the institutional and informal ties that bind us together.

Jellico United Methodist Church (Tennessee)

Two fears

I have two great fears. One is that I may succumb to a creeping sense of entitlement, that I deserve the freedoms I enjoy, that I’m entitled to fast service even when stores are short on staff. The other fear is that I may succumb to a dullness, or–even worse–an absence of gratitude.

I try to read several free sources via email each day to cultivate gratitude and to avoid entitlement. These sources keep me on my toes. Every day at least one of these sources speaks to my heart and mind. On Monday, all of them did. That’s always a home run. I’m passing Monday’s gems on to you.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation “A Universal Connection” was one of his best. He puts the Big Picture into sharp focus in ways that inspire, illuminate and challenge.

Heather Cox Richardson’s October 2 installment of “Letters from an American” (emailed on October 3) put the daily mix of sublime and ridiculous news into a historical context that I can understand.

Robert B. Hubbell’s Today’s Edition Newsletter for October 3 was “Citizenship is an act.” He parses the legal and political issues with precision, clarity and a “can do” spirit of hope. He inspires me.

Joyce Vance, the latest addition to my daily inbox, writes Civil Discourse. Her October 3 communique’ was “The Week Ahead,” a synopsis of the critical legal issues in the news this week. She always ends her blog with, “We’re in this together.” And so we are!

We stayed, with gratitude, at three Harvest Host locations on this trip. One was Mohican Farms in New Jersey. That night, two camper guests stayed at the hillside edge of their cornfield with a beautiful view of the New Jersey countryside. We were in Big Al, the red and white camper on the left.

Warriors’ Path

The more I learn about American history, the more I realize that I dont know very much. Our next-to-last camping destination on this trip was the Warriors’ Path State Park near Kingsport, Tennessee. It’s named for a warrior and trading path that was in use for centuries by Native Americans in the Virginia and Tennessee region. It was a path used by wildlife and by Cherokee in the south and Shawnee in the north who were hunting wildlife for food.

The full scope of the The Great Warriors’ Path extended from Pennsylvania to Georgia. The path’s history reminds me of early European settlers and their descendants (such as Daniel Boone) who led the great European migration westward from Virginia, North Carolina and other eastern colonies. The history of interaction between Europeans and Native Americans includes periods of strife and periods of peaceful coexistence.

As we ponder the natural beauty of this region, I acknowledge the injustices visited upon the original inhabitants of his land by our European ancestors. On this day, I choose to focus on stories of gentleness and neighborliness. Our checkered history motivates me to work for justice and reconciliation. The need is pervasive. Every culture has its stories of virtue and less than virtue.

I’ve done a little reading about justice initiative related to the native people of Australia. I want to put my weight behind “the arc of the moral universe,” which is long, but “bends toward justice.”

From “Native American History on the Appalachian Trail: 9 Iconic Places,” by Kelly Floro, The Trek, October 12, 2020

Saratoga

One of the towns we enjoyed on this trip was Saratoga Springs, New York. We passed through the town on a Sunday morning and were greeted by multiple church bells ringing simultaneously. It wasn’t like “dueling banjos,” but more of a collegial announcement that an hour dedicated to prayer had arrived. It was inspiring to see people walking to various downtown churches.

Saratoga is another place familiar to students of the American Revolution. The troops of British General John Burgoyne were attempting to wrest control of the Hudson River valley from the Americans. They had been roughed up in the Battle of Bennington (Vermont) and at Saratoga (New York) Burgoyne’s shrunken army was defeated by American General Horatio Gates’ troops.

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October, 1777 completed the turning point that was begun at Bennington and persuaded France to sign a treaty with the Americans against Britain. French financial and military support eventually led to a decisive American victory four years later at Yorktown (Virginia) that effectively won American independence.

As we drove through Saratoga Springs, we saw references to upcoming annual commemorations of the Battle of Saratoga. I thought of Benjamin Franklin and others who negotiated the Treaty of Alliance with France in February, 1778. Some day, Ukrainian history students will reflect on today’s events and the support Ukraine is receiving from the US and other nations. The quest for liberty continues.

Ironically, today is the Feast of St. Francis, a man impacted by war as a solider who became synonymous with peace. May the nonviolent spirit of the gentle man from Assisi be with you–and all the world–today.

From The American Battlefield Trust

Hallowed Ground

We noticed “Hallowed Ground” signs on the highway. A bit of research led to the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area,” from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 180-mile long and 75-mile wide area contains many historic sites, with numerous events throughout the year.

I gravitate toward all things historic, but we didn’t stop at Gettysburg on this trip. Many years ago I stood where Pickett’s Charge began and looked across the broad field toward the Union line. Lee and everyone involved later agreed it was a bad idea. I put myself in the place of those soldiers, and those who awaited them. I don’t need to go back there. Once was enough.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln said, “…we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have hallowed it far beyond our poor power to add or detract.” I get it, I feel the sacrifice, the honor and the tragedy, of battlegrounds. Yet, in a greater sense, all ground in the universe is hallowed, or holy.

Places in Ukraine where some Putin advisors want to target “low-yield” nuclear weapons are holy. War desecrates already holy ground, even as it illustrates valor, creates heroes and gives those who follow a sense of the holy. War’s desecration and the consecration of an ensuing peace provide the ultimate human paradox. It’s worth pondering.

From HallowedGround.org

Bennington

We’re in the home stretch of a month-long journey, towing a small camper across the eastern US. The 21 campsites include state and national parks, private campgrounds and Harvest Host locations in 9 states. This is our first long trip in the camper, which is a cozy ten feet long, seven feet wide and 7’8” high.

We’ve travelled 3,900 miles in 27 days, with 600 miles to go. We’ve compiled a lengthy list of dos and don’ts for future trips. A month seemed like a very long time away, but one of our major learnings is that we’ve tried to cover too much ground in too short a time. There’s much to see in North America.

We’ve avoided the Interstate Highway System. Our “retro” camper seems fitting for the highways we’ve traversed, often two lane, often taking us through small towns we otherwise would have by-passed and never experienced. Bennington, Vermont is a delightful town in the southwest corner of that state.

A 306-foot tall obelisk Battle Monument was erected in 1891 to commemorate the 1777 Battle of Bennington, which was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. This journey reminded me that much of our national identity is associated with that war and the Civil War. During the final week of this journey, I’ll share some reflections about the “battleground” states we’ve crossed.

From Bennington Battlefield Monument

A sign of hope

A recent trip through southern Pennsylvania on the Lincoln Highway to Gettysburg was followed by some miles in Virginia on the Lee Highway to Appomattox. It was a peaceful, direct, one-day journey that took the survivors of Lee’s retreating army 20 months of more bloody battles. About 75 yards from Appomattox Court House, a modest room in a family’s residence was the site where Grant and Lee, each seated behind separate small tables, signed papers acknowledging the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The restored little village is part of a National Historic Park. A lone American flag is prominent on a pole at the entrance to the village. It’s a quiet, appropriate reminder that we are—at least officially–one nation. The little village reminds us that it was, and is, a costly oneness. Each day news events remind us that our oneness is still a work in progress, a unity yet to be fully realized 157 years after the surrender documents were inked. The park at Appomattox is a simple, somber witness to hope rising from the ashes of war.

A sign greets travelers that Appomattox County is “where our nation was reunited.” A more accurate statement would be, “Where our nation’s reunification began.” Big ideals, by their nature, are always works in progress, as in “liberty and justice for all.” But I wouldn’t change the sign that welcomes travelers. Leave it as it is, a reminder that though we’re an incomplete, unfinished project, something really important happened there. Our nation was reunited, even as we continue to discover the potential of a truly united nation.

From National Park Service

Secular prophets

Today’s post wraps-up several reflections about John Cobb, a “process” theologian who seeks to sharpen our prophetic hearts and voices to challenge our “lesser angels” that promote attitudes and positions that are less than healthy and sometimes destructive to the planet and to relationships.

Cobb is skeptical of secularism because it leans only (or too heavily) on our contemporary, cultural reasoning and values, to the exclusion of the rich traditions of world religions (which Cobb prefers to call “Ways” instead of “religions”). However, Cobb believes the act of secularizing is essential for healthy societies and for healthy faith.

As I understand Cobb, he consults what Richard Rohr calls “the perennial tradition,” the collective wisdom of the world’s great faiths and philosophies–the common gems of insight and healthy community that are drawn from these traditions, to form a value system or worldview (my words, not Cobb’s) to enable each Way and each person to engage in ongoing self-critique.

We are in a time of heightened religious consciousness, religious competitiveness, religious schism, and religious activism. People today (more than in the past, I believe) are not hesitant to claim for their political preferences an air of divinity. Michael Flynn famously said, “America needs just one religion.” My faith community (United Methodists), which is also Cobb’s tradition, is experiencing widespread “disaffiliations” by persons and congregations. Many other faith groups have, or are, experiencing similar divisions. In this fractious period of heightened religions self-consciousness, it’s important to engage in secularizing self-criticism, which examines and (when needed) strips away the religious veneer that surrounds our political preferences, our social prejudices and our personal proclivities.

Cobb believes we need secular prophets who engage in this important work, much as biblical prophets did long ago.

Sometimes a “Way” or a tradition can keep the secular world from crashing on the rocks. Sometimes insights from the secular world can keep religious traditions (or “Ways”) from crashing on the rocks. Head Harbour Lighthouse, Campobello Island, New Brunswick (photo Cathey Leach)

The problem with secularism

The previous several posts may lead one to think that John Cobb favors secularism. While he believes the process of secularizing is a healthy and much-needed activity for (literally) the world’s survival, he sees dangers in secularism. This may be a subtle distinction, but I believe it is very important.

In Spiritual Bankruptcy, Cobb acknowledges that “the secularizers have kept the traditions fresh and alive. But as humankind faces the need to make dramatic changes, and seeks the wisdom to guide it, the dominance of secularism is today an even greater obstacle than religiousness.”

I invite you to think about politics in the US; the global rise of authoritarianism, tribalism, and various injustices; the climate crisis; and the role (or absence) of religious communities in these matters. Against this current backdrop, hear this paragraph from John Cobb:

Secularizers in any traditional Way seek to draw knowledge and understanding from the best thinkers of their day. Today experts in all fields are encouraged to be secularists. Secularism builds up its knowledge and understanding out of presently available sources rather than by critical appropriation of a tradition. The result in modern history has been the amassing of vast quantities of information, but in a way that is barren of wisdom.

What wisdom from your Way (Cobb’s term for a religious or non-religious tradition) helps you address one or more of the difficult problems now facing our world?

From “John Cobb on David Korten: An Appreciation of David Korten’s Change the Story, Change the Future,” April 12, 2018 (photo by Thomas Oord)

Healthy self-criticism

John Cobb, in his 2010 book Spiritual Bankruptcy, notes that sometimes those who practice a particular religion may tempted think that their way is “the only way.” The great church historian Roland Bainton noted that “the worst wars are religious wars.” Extreme competition can be deadly.

Against this backdrop, Cobb offers a refreshingly different view, speaking for those of varying faiths who are engaging in the process of secularizing:

We are secularizers who believe that the deepest element in our traditional Ways focuses on actual betterment of conditions in this world. We believe that we are most faithful to our own Ways when we are most open to the wisdom of others as well. We believe that we are liberated by our tradition to evaluate critically every aspect of it. We believe that through secularizing our traditions, we can contribute to the urgently needed responses to the threat of disaster that becomes ever more imminent.

How would you describe “the deepest element in our traditional Ways?”

From “The Worlds Major Religiousities,” by The Best Schools, August 30, 2022