Category: Sunday Dinner

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

Embracing the secular

My friend Don named John B. Cobb, Jr. (born 1925) as a person who has helped shape his thought and life. Cobb is a “process theologian.” His website is Process & Faith. Building on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), Cobb believes God is intimately involved in, or engaged with, human life, including its structures and processes.

This is an extension of the idea of incarnation, (personified in the Christian tradition by Jesus) that God has become (and is becoming) flesh and lives among us. I think of it as God being continuously engaged with every aspect of creation, including humanity as a whole and humans as individuals. Cobb helps me think of God as not a static reality “out there” somewhere, but as dynamically, fully engaged with us.

In the next few posts, I plan to reflect on Cobb’s 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action. His theme is nuanced–a rejection of secularism while affirming the process of secularizing, about which faith has made many positive impacts. Cobb defines secular as “this world and its real values and its real problems.” The secular is where the action is–and Cobb sees God in that action.

From “About Us,” by John Cobb, Process & Faith

Love and suffering

Richard Rohr reminds us that “love and suffering, and especially suffering” are “universal paths” to change. Suffering is a common thread of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

A Jewish teaching, from Midrash Samuel, states that “Everyone undergoes some suffering in life. Only one who can keep it from distracting him will succeed at Torah study.”

The suffering and death of Jesus is central to Christianity. Theodore Runyon said everyone suffers, thus everyone has a point of connection with Jesus: “The uniqueness of Jesus is his universality.”

Four Noble Truths of Buddhism deal with suffering: (1) suffering exists; (2) it has a cause; (3) it has an end; and (4) it has a cause to bring about its end.

From “They Say Suffering Will Make You Stronger—But It’s Not That Simple,” by Paul Bloom, Time, November 29, 2021

Glad and generous hearts

We have the daunting, exhilarating privilege to live in a difficult, challenging era that is both confusing and clarifying. An essential skill for this moment is to be attentive to little things, such as our daily habits, while being mindful and attentive to big things, such as loving our neighbor. A gentle, almost imperceivable act of kindness can be a fulcrum for big change.

To a friend whose congregation is struggling with “theological” issues, I said, “These are difficult times, painful but clarifying.” For a community of faith or a political party in times of great confusion and division, the easy path is to think small and act big, as in Dobbs. The tougher path is to think big (as in human rights and inclusiveness) and take small, steady steps forward.

I’m encouraged by seemingly simple yet transformative steps, like the ancient faith community that cultivated “glad and generous hearts.” They discovered–in their own difficult, challenging era– the essential ingredient for great love: joyful generosity. That ingredient, and the great love that flows from it, is available to us today. Think big, be simple. Cultivate a glad and generous heart.

From Goodreads

They probably never even knew it

I saw my four college years at a state school as a gift–from parents, taxpayers and donors. Three years of seminary were made possible by donors, including a scholarship. Congregations I served during those years provided income. At my church-affiliated graduate school, tuition for the new quarter was posted at the student center for the Schools of Dentistry, Law, Medicine and Theology. The theology tuition was considerably less, which someone noted by writing on the announcement, “Jesus saves.”

Kyle Whitmire’s AL.com opinion piece (cited below) was for me further evidence that love is the energy of the universe, often expressed through our collective generosity (or willingness to pay taxes). From a faith perspective, it’s all grace. Our son, who sent me Whitmire’s article, has struggled with a disability for over a decade. He calls beneficence unmerited favor. By whatever name, it’s a gift to be graciously received and “paid forward” so others can enjoy the fruits of generosity.

Whitmire cited comments by some in Alabama’s Congressional delegation who criticized President Biden’s student loan action. Whitmire said in 1980, Alabama student tuition covered 27% of the cost of higher education. Today’s students pay over two-thirds of the cost. Tuition has risen 485%. State appropriations have risen 8%. Whitmire wrote: “Back then, you didn’t have to hope for a bailout on the backend. These guys got their subsidized schooling upfront, and they probably never even knew it.

From “The hidden subsidy behind those old ‘bootstrap’ students,” by Kyle Whitmire, AL.com, August 26, 2022

Always present in subtle ways

Yesterday, I began reading Sarah Appleton-Weber’s 2003 translation of Pierre Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon. Appleton-Weber (1930-2013) wrote: This translation is dedicated to the memory of Ida Treat Bergerer, paleontologist, journalist, and writer, who was my teacher at Vassar College and in whose home in 1952 I first saw a photo portrait of Teilhard and first heard his name.

Brian Swimme’s Foreword mentions his mid-career “search for wisdom” that directed him to Aurelio Peccei’s statement that “Our best hope is Thomas Berry.” Swimme expressed to Berry his “misery and confusion” about the destruction of the planet. Berry gave him Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon, saying: To see as Teilhard saw is a challenge but increasingly his vision is becoming available to us. I fully expect that in the next millennium, Teilhard will be regarded as the fourth major thinker of the western Christian tradition. These would be St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Teilhard.

Swimme’s Foreword concludes:

…what is needed now for the universe’s unfolding story is not a new galaxy or a new star. What is needed now is a new form of human being.

Begin your study of Teilhard with the confidence that … the creative intelligence of the universe … is always present in subtle ways. … and … swooped into your life with the aim of transforming you into a power that can participate in our great work of building a vibrant Earth Community.

When Teilhard’s sculptor friend Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966) sent him a photo of her bronze Elemental Man statue in 1939, he had completed his original French manuscript of Le phénomène humain. He told her that he hoped a photograph of her “Man emerging out of the elemental forces” statue would be on the frontispiece of the book, which he planned to publish after World War II ended. The Jesuit order (and the Vatican) did not allow it to be published during his lifetime. Hoffman’s statue is on the campus of Syracuse University.

Abby

After reading the latest “Trump did what?” article in Friday’s Washington Post, I ran across Cathy Free’s article, “A dog was missing. Cavers found her two months later 500 feet underground.” I don’t remember the Trump article. They all run together after awhile, but I’ll remember Abby’s story.

I’ll also remember Gerry Keene, a 59-year-old spelunker, who was exploring a cave 500 feet under Missouri. He saw Abby curled up on a rock in total darkness. She was too weak to wag her tail or whimper. Keene took a photo of the dog and climbed out of the cave to get some help.

Caver Rick Haley, 66, heard about it and went with Keene to help carry the dog out. Meanwhile word spread that a dog had been found. The two men put her in a padded duffel bag, with her head poking out, and hauled her out of the cave. Abby had been missing for two months. She’s 14-years-old.

Abby was reunited with her grateful family–a story with a happy ending. No search warrant. No political posturing. Just a lost dog and two guys with soft hearts and a love of spelunking. This week, let’s look for more stories like this. From now on, if Abby sees Gerry or Rick, I’m sure she’ll wag her tail.

From “A caving project became a rescue mission after a dog was found 500 feet down,” by Wynne Davis, NPR, August 12, 2022

Faith–the challenge of inclusion

Historically, religion has focused on achieving, maintaining and enforcing group (or national) purity codes. This encourages allegiance to the group and conformity to prevailing group standards.

In An Introduction to the Old Testament (2003, p. 9), Walter Brueggemann wrote:

In the traditioning process of telling and retelling in order to make faith possible for the next generation, each version of retelling … intends … that its particular retelling should be the “final” one, but each of act of traditioning is eventually overcome and in fact displaced (“superseded”) by a fresher version.

The velocity of change makes enforcement of group standards increasingly difficult. But, long ago, the Jewish faith introduced an even greater complication with which it and other religions must deal: The continual expansion (or re-traditioning) of the meaning of “group.” We are all brothers and sisters.

We’re in a time of “us versus them” regression, but the world will eventually return to an ever-expanding awareness that we’re in this together, and ultimately there is no “them,” only “us.” This week’s theme is the challenge of inclusion in an era of renewed racism, tribalism and authoritarianism.

From “The Right’s Rising Authoritarian Ally,” by Elaine Godfrey, The Atlantic Daily, August 4, 2022

Hope

During a Friday morning conversation with friends about ever present signs of hope amid relentlessly depressing news, I decided to devote some posts to hope. In Friday’s conversation, one of my friends cited an Ian Millhiser tweet via Heather Cox Richardson: “This was a good week for the United States of America and I may be coming down with a case of The Hope.”

On Friday afternoon I learned about Select Specialty, a network of hospitals with a location on the Brookwood campus in Birmingham, where a long-time friend is a patient. The trademarked words “Let Hope Thrive” are appropriate for an extended care facility for patients with serious illness. As one staff member said, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Let’s begin this focus on hope with a reminder that life is a marathon, not a sprint. My goal is to be more diligent about looking for signs of hope, especially when evidence is to the contrary. The human community has a deep reservoir of hope at our disposal and sometimes it’s necessary to remind each other about the undying hope that is within us. How can I, you, we embody hope today?

From a virtual tour of Select Specialty Hospital, Birmingham

Borders

Some friends occasionally invite me to lead their Sunday School class. Today is the fourth of five classes scheduled for 2022. Some of these dear souls are 15-20 years my senior, so I approach these engagements with respect, admiration and tenderness. It’s a relationship that began 31 years ago and I continue to marvel at the depth of their intellect and faith.

I’ve been pondering the importance of boundaries, or borders, in our lives. Jacob’s memorable dream at Bethel featured angels descending a ladder, or stairway, promising him land and progeny. Much of the ensuing Hebrew story was about the settlement of that land and their return there after a time of slavery in Egypt and, centuries later, after a time of exile in Babylon. Borders are important.

My Tennessee aunt receives mail at our house, including a card from a candidate for the state legislature. The first of his three promises was to “always vote to preserve legislation that protects our state and national borders.” I understand national border integrity, but I’m trying to find out if there’s a problem with one or more of the 8 states that Tennessee borders. I’ll let you know what I learn.

Borders are important, but some things transcend borders. Leviticus 19:33-34 captures a biblical theme that will be the launchpad for our class conversation today: When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Note the tie. There are red states, blue states and one solidly orange state, as in “Go, Big Orange!”