Category: Universe

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

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

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

Faith in practical process

An old friend had two sons, an attorney and a pastor. He liked to say that one practiced and the other preached. He knew, of course, that both his sons practiced their faith through the processes of their vocations every day. Like law, faith is an evolving process. The Ten Commandments were said to have been written in stone, but the application and interpretation of those “Ten Words” are more fluid.

John Cobb, in his 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, calls one of Protestant Christianity’s contributions to the world the process of secularizing. From the book’s Preface: There is a strong tendency among people everywhere to divide the world into “us” and “them.” This division has proper and necessary secular functions. …

In the actual course of human affairs, however, the we/they distinction has not been so innocuous because it takes on a religious character. “We” have the right ideals, the right practices, the right traditions. “They,” by their errors in all these respects, are inferior to “us” and are often experienced as a threat. To secularize is to break down this absolute distinction, to understand both “us” and “them” in a broader perspective.

Today, I read Cobb’s words with an awareness of bitter divisions in numerous religious tribes as I watch them break into smaller tribes. Secular, more objective and less parochial “outsiders” might help wise leaders in every camp understand how outsiders may view our internal divisions as a sign of pettiness, not greatness. Cobb wrote: ...the rigid distinction of “us” and “them” … is particularly dangerous in a pluralistic world (so) it is important to secularize the sacred. That does not mean that we should disparage or belittle what has been experienced as sacred, but does mean that we should subject it to critical evaluation.

From Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action, by John B. Cobb, Jr.

OT and WOW

The Old Testament, according to a Jewish rabbi I heard speak long ago, maintains that the benchmark for an ethical community is how well it treats those without rights. In ancient Jewish society, the three major groups without rights were widows, orphans and wanderers (aka homeless, refugees).

Empires consolidate power by taking away rights, as in Putin’s Russia and his war against Ukraine. Who are the “widows, orphans and wanderers” in American society today? An era of rights-expansion begun by Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) is being reversed by today’s US Supreme Court, by various state legislatures and by leaders of the national Republican Party.

I’m grateful to the Christian communities who have touched my life by keeping this OT quest for justice alive. I’m grateful for the exposure I’ve had to Judaism through the OT, through several synagogues over the years, and through numerous Jewish rabbis, Jewish scholars and Jewish friends.

From The Home for Little Wanderers

OT in evolution of theism

A discussion topic among theologians today is theism. It’s part of the evolution of faith. Our understanding of deity has progressed from ancient, fear-based understandings that led to attempts to appease or placate the gods, to a more intimate, love-based, relational understanding of the divine.

The Old Testament was, and is, an vital part of this history. A key OT story is Moses’ breakthrough understanding in his call to return to Egypt to lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom. Moses’ dialogue with the divine Voice is both quaintly charming and profoundly revolutionary.

Moses asks, “What is your name?” Or, “Who shall I say sent me?” In a time when many gods were worshipped, it was important to invoke the correct name. The Voice responds, in essence, “I am nameless.” The deity of Israel could not be so easily described and was without a “handle.”

The divine Voice in the Moses story was more verb than noun–no idol to be adored, but rather the creator of the universe, to be experienced in the relationships and in human history: Say to them, “the God of your ancestors has sent me.” This was a pivotal step from local gods to a universal God.

The challenge today is to retain a divine objectivity that exposes the moral bankruptcy of prejudice, tribalism, injustice, and every form of discrimination, while not objectifying the Voice, which is inherently relational and made known through the dynamic process of creation and human history.

From “What is Theism,” by the Marcus J. Borg Foundation, March 20, 2018

Pilgrim people

Pilgrimage is a significant Old Testament theme. Abraham and Sarah, first generation migrants, moved (at age 75 for Abraham) from Ur to Canaan. This was the first of many migrations that took place for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they were welcomed, sometimes they were viewed as illegal immigrants. To think biblically includes put oneself in the situation of a migrant–or to at least having empathy for those who journey from one place to another.

Some pilgrimages were permanent life resettlements. Some were occasional or annual, such as journeys to Jerusalem for Passover. In the OT, Psalms 120-134 were sung as pilgrims made their way to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. The one biblical story of Jesus’ youth was about his separation from parents during a pilgrimage of Nazareth folks to the Jerusalem Temple. Pilgrimage can be a way of remembering our roots and i can be a journey to new and better days.

As part of a month-long camping trip, much of yesterday was spent at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, just across the Maine border in Canada. Unexpectedly, I became emotional. The park’s spirit of international cooperation, the leadership role played by the US, and the extraordinary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt reminded me of the America I remember before our detour into lesser things with the rise of Trumpism. Campobello was a healing pilgrimage, a homecoming.

Friar and a piltrim

The heavens

When ancient people sought to convey divine reality, they looked to the heavens for words or images of majesty, grandeur and power. From Psalm 19.1: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” One of my childhood memories is reclining on the trunk of our family car, with my head propped up by the rear window, looking at the blue sky and the formation of clouds–thinking Someone had a great idea.

The Christian church post-Constantine consolidated power and stifled dissent. When someone began to think “outside the box” by proposing that the universe is more vast than previously thought, the church was intolerant. Ironically, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) have endured as great minds who have helped the church think bigger about the cosmos.

This week we visited our son, who is making plans to work at the south pole for several months. When he points “up” the heavens, he points in a different direction than those of us in the northern hemisphere. “Up” for heaven is an archaic by-product of the time when people thought the earth was flat. Our minds have moved well past that ancient metaphor for heaven, but our language hasn’t caught up.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), another voice the church sought to silence, helps me think beyond this earthly existence. I don’t grasp the noosphere, but I’m encouraged by the direction of his thought. My favorite resource for thinking about “the beyond” is a novel written by Scott Peck, In Heaven As On Earth. The key principle of the afterlife, in Peck’s novel, is “freedom.”

From In Heaven As On Earth, by M. Scot Peck