The city of Deming, NM, 30 miles from the Mexican border, is becoming a staging place for refugees from all over the world. Recently it has been Iraqis. The younger Christian men among them have tattooed crosses and wear crosses on chains. The older ones are more subdued. A father and son bought a washing machine at a garage sale for $100. It turned out to be a piece of junk. They took it to the Maytag Repair Shop, run by a crusty old friend of mine who, despite his exterior, is one of the most generous people I know. He could not fix it.
When getting their money back from the seller proved fruitless, they returned to my friend and asked, “What are we supposed to do?” The repairman made the sign of the cross, folded his hands and bowed his head. The older man broke out into a belly laugh. Then he, too, made the sign of the cross, folded his hands and bowed his head.
Now, a couple of times a week the old Iraqi comes to visit the Maytag shop. They both make the sign of the cross, fold their hands and bow their heads, and the Iraqi pats the repairman on the back and says, “Friend!”
I had just finished picking a generous quart of wild blackberries, some of them as big as the end of my thumb. Blackberry seeds were stuck in my teeth where I had helped myself to some…they were just too delicious to wait for a pie. The Jack Russell was busy finding dragons in the bushes or trying to dig them out from under logs. I was tossing a big spinner half-way across the small lake, trolling it back slowly just off the bottom, down where the cold water and big trout lie. A bite feels more like a hang-up. The lure just stops. Then, when the hook is felt, the hang-up begins to move. Soon the rod-tip is shaking and bobbing as the fish fights not to come into the light. Dinner is on the end of the line.
It’s just 30 minutes from our apartment, but if I look in the right directions, I can see only the mountains, trees, waterlilies and the rippled surface of the lake. A Blue-winged Teal zips past and skids into the water at one end. A Great Blue Heron ponders by to the other end of the lake to do his fishing. A beaver head wedges a wake. I can imagine I’m a hundred miles from anywhere “civilized.”
“Civilized” comes from the Latin, “civitatis,” and the related “civitatem,” from which we get the word, “city.” It refers to the socio-political and economic systems we build and live in as human beings. Being in the “wild” is being somewhere where those systems don’t hold much sway. Mountains, trout, ducks, herons, beavers and this particular lake are not “civilized.”
The gods of the church are civilized, tamed and bent to serve the society that invents them. The Ground of All Being evades all attempts at domestication. At its roots, existence is wild, and so must the believer be.
Photo credit: Paul Moore
We usually speak with curled fingers.
We were checking out a house to buy yesterday afternoon and the current owner had a big bumper sticker on the back of his bubba truck alleging that all Democrats are spineless wimps. Knowing some very principled and active democrats, the lesser part of me wanted to take it up with him. (Wisely, the lesser part of me did not get the better part of me.) During my morning mediation today, it dawned on me that such a judgment comes from inside his corner of the world. Democrats, as he sees things, do not pursue his political agendas, and are therefore wimps. To flip the coin, one could say that Republicans are wimps because they meekly toddle after a rogue President who has co opted the Republican party to sell it to the NRA. However, that flip of the coin would fall to the same criticism. It, too, speaks from a corner of the world. Both accusations are hurled with curled fingers—you know, the three fingers that are curled back toward the speaker who is pointing at someone. When we speak about others we do so from our own corner of the world, and so we reveal much more about ourselves than the one about whom we speak.
Maybe the solution is to uncurl the fingers and extend the hand in greeting rather than accusation. Then, perhaps, we can muster the courage to step outside our corner and see how our own hands have built it, and what an illusion it really is.
My father-in-law’s favorite word is “togetherness.” It’s all about “togetherness.” “We spent some good time in togetherness;” “The togetherness we shared was really wonderful;” etc. I like the word. “Togetherness” has become more and more important to me as well. Maybe with age the need to achieve begins to give way to something deeper.
Still, it’s nice to be doing something while enjoying togetherness. This morning about 8 of us tackled the task of moving a full-sized grand piano up two steps into the chancel area of the church and maneuvering it over chipboard sheets to where it belongs after having the wood floor refinished. Everyone had ideas for what to do. As each challenge presented itself a natural kind of brainstorm happened that eventually rained out a workable solution. What seemed like it wouldn’t work did, and what didn’t work—well, we never got around to any of those, thanks be to God. We were like a bunch of worker-bees with no clear queen, each one busily giving their all to the task at hand and finding, almost by accident, that together, it worked Clearer leadership and someone with some real engineering skills might have made the job go more efficiently and predictably, but as it was, WE did it. We don’t have to share the lion’s share of the glory with anyone in particular. Each of us contributed something important and indispensable. All of us are grateful to one another. The congregation has reason to be grateful equally to us all.
“Togetherness” became for me today a way of talking about that underlying sense of community that draws us to tackle jobs of common concern by joining forces. Undergirding the community is the mystery of synergy, the fact that together we are more than the sum of our parts. Ken Wilber, the philosopher, would remind us that each greater level of being includes and transcends the previous level. The community is categorically greater than the individual, though the individual cannot be lost in community or the community itself falls apart. As a Christian, I would say it’s about spirit and Holy Spirit, that place where the great mystery within and the Great Mystery without become one.
Saturday night I sat in a crowded hall with a hundred people of all ages. The name of the hall was “Sons of Norway,” and there was a painting of a fetching blond in Norwegian garb looking coyly between two white birch trees, but the faces in the room were all brown—except for ours and one other couple. It was the party after three little girls were baptized at Resurrección Church, and as the officiant at the rite, my wife and I were invited. The older ones spoke in hushed tones in Mixteco, the middle-aged conversed in Spanish, the teens were all cyber-communicating, and two little boys ran from the hall giggling as one called after the other in English, “I’m gonna get you!” There, in front of us, was a whole shift of generations, from First Nations of Mesoamerica to one of the emerging colors in the Great American Mosaic.
The dancing finally started. First, the parents of the three girls and the godparents, with the children, all got up to dance the “Baile de los Padrinos,” (The dance of the godparents.) This officially opened the dance floor. The next dance was for all the padrinos, those who had contributed in some way to the expenses and work of the lavish party. Finally, the rest of us had a chance, at our discretion, to go out and bob in the middle of the crowd. It was an easy step, a quick waltz rhythm, with a simple shuffling of the feet. It was a dance for everyone, as if the significant percussion element in the music nudged hearts to beat in unison for a time. In a stretch of 20 minutes we celebrated the joining of two families in compadrazgo, a recognition of all the rest of the combined effort for this event, and the melding of peoples old and young, brown and white, into one bobbing pueblo, celebrating a spiritual ritual of life. The death and destruction, the threat to Hispanic people of the previous weekend, was somehow forced far, far away for a moment of life and unity.
Life is deep and broad, if you just open your eyes and hearts to see what’s going on!
Ever since my childhood in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador I have said that the only thing bigger than a mountain is a cloud. That’s an experiential kind of assessment, of course, because the planet is bigger than both, but when you’re up in the mountains and awed by their sheer mass, pretty soon a cloud comes drifting in and obliterates it all. How many times have I stood in the mountains wondering just which way was home because a cloud decided to inhabit the same space for a while! There was a time in my life when my ideas about God were like the cloud. What I “knew” constituted the total sum of the human knowledge of theology. It was an experiential kind of assessment, to be sure. I had answers to the questions—therefore I had to be right. Point out the mountain, and all I saw was the cloud. Forget the planet!
It’s a funny thing, really. All of our “experience of God” is raw, immediate and real. It is as real as the feel of the woman I kissed goodbye when I headed off to the office this morning. It is as real as the shame I have felt at seeing police lights in my rear-view mirror. It is as real as our experience allows—phenomenologically, it is as real as it gets. But then someone points to the mountain now and again and we glimpse it. Suddenly our experiential knowledge is challenged by other experiential knowledge and we lose a sense of which way is home. At the best of times we stop looking for answers because we’re not sure what the questions are anymore. We are in a cloud, and know the mountain is in there somewhere…but where? Groping, groping, guessing and feeling our way, we find we “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”1
All our declamations about God are feeble attempts at capturing the experience of mystery, and the only lexicon we have is metaphor.
1Eliot, Thomas Stearns. Little Gidding. London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1943.
Phot credit: Paul Moore, all rights reserved.
Flags all over the country are at half-mast today, in honor of and in mourning for 31 lives lost senselessly over the weekend, and many more wounded. Why should flags be flown at half-mast? A powerful article by George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, and published by the NY Times expresses our public angst at this moment.1 He yearns for a direct experience with a divinity he cannot prove is there. He doesn’t write as a philosopher; he writes passionately as a human being. Collectively we yearn for meaning in the midst of senseless pain, meaning that must come from elsewhere we certainly can’t seem to conjure it up ourselves. We feel tragic on a national scale.
It’s not a new tragedy. The Klan openly controlled the city of Bellingham, Washington in the 1920’s. The US government deported masses of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent in the 1930’s. Jim Crow laws were not finally dismantled until the 1950’s. Japanese Americans were forced into concentration camps during WWII…there are a thousand more stories. Current white supremacists waging their own crazy war is but the current outbreak of our great national tragedy. Flags have been flown at half-mast far too infrequently. Maybe this time it is as it should be. Or it shouldn’t be—because it shouldn’t
be! We are mourning because once again we have allowed ourselves to nurture such a thing unawares.
Yancy rushes to no quick solutions. There are no quick solutions. We are caught between great pain and great love, where the only way out is up, because down doesn’t work. The wisdom that points upward only speaks when the clamor of quick solutions implodes, leaving a silence capable of compassion. I would like to think that this time, flags at half-mast are an attempt at that wisdom.
Picture credit: https://wqad.com/2019/08/05/half-mast-flag-order-issued-for-august-8th-to-honor-weekend-shooting-victims/