This morning Cooke’s Peak had snagged herself a piece of cloud out of the scuttling wind. It twisted and contorted, as if to break free of the mountain’s claw, sometimes looking like a dragon’s head, sometimes like a bird about to launch downwind, and once like the cornette worn by the Daughters of Charity and popularized by the 60’s TV series, “The Flying Nun. The stable mountains and the wind weave the clouds into ever-changing patterns of the old and the new.
Is that not life? The book I’m reading, a primer in conservative social fundamentalism, would take us back to the 1950’s Leave-it-to-Beaver days of sexual morals, family stability and religion with no mention at all of Jim Crow, segregation, redlining in real estate and the Klan. No, the winds of time have blown those days with their glory and their sin into the past, and recovering them is impossible. There are mountains of stability: the human tension between companionship and solitude, challenge and safety, freedom and surrender; the value of truth, goodness and beauty; and the mystery behind it all. The winds blow us like clouds through these peaks from different directions and at different times, making them look unarguably one way at one time and another in another age.
These are days of change, and they will be for a good while, probably well past my time. Grab on, then, to the peak that snags you, but don’t fight the wind. It will only tear you to shreds.
Interesting to think that in Hebrew and Greek the word for wind is also the word for Spirit.
At the suggestion of my brother-in-law I am reading The Marketing of Evil, by David Kupelian (WND Books, 2015.) I am having a hard go of it. Maybe I am becoming an academic snob, but the frequency with which he makes broad, sweeping statements with no or inadequate documentation or research support is disconcerting. He takes a radically conservative view of society, and argues in the book that the media is pushing the nation toward disaster and away from its Christian roots, and that if we just knew of this great conspiracy (my word, not his) we would all be free of its oppressive influence. I find that I don’t like reading anything that is so obviously biased, especially when the bias is not supported by some respectable research, either left or right of the aisle, but maybe what is most bothersome are the broad sweeping categories.
His first chapter takes on homosexuality. Now, I’m on the progressive side of this issue, so I decided to do a little double-checking of his assertion that a homosexual orientation is invariably the result of childhood sexual abuse. A study listed as supporting documentation on the Wikipedia article on conversion therapy aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation claims that only 3% report any staying effect of the experience—a statistically insignificant number.1 A Scientific American article debunked the validity of one of the keystone studies supporting conversion therapy as almost entirely cut from whole cloth.2 I tried, then, to get some figures on the success of therapy for sexual abuse and I ran into—mud. Everyone seems to agree that childhood sexual abuse has extremely long-lasting and negative effects, but the different degrees and manners in which someone might so suffer are so varied that the landscape is—muddy. On top of that, I can’t seem to find anything that documents change over more than about a 6-month period. Everyone seems to think it’s a good idea, but nobody can really give you a figure as to how effective it is.
Now, if I were to take a stab at success rates from what I do read and have heard from victims, I have to say that in the short run therapy is hugely helpful. Statistics of 50% of therapy receivers reporting great improvement are on the low end. This is a far cry from 3%. But I think the wisdom in this is to be careful about sweeping generalizations. Yes, one can say that all human beings share 99% genetic information, but outside of that I think it wiser to remember that all statistics are conditioned by context, as are all people. I’d rather look the person (dust and water and the Spirit of God) sitting across the table from me in the eye and find the image of God in this person, right now, right here, and sit in wonder.
At a deathbed I have prayed this prayer so many times I cannot remember, yet I still cannot get through it dry-eyed: “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.”
The last time I did so the woman let go of her earthly breath the moment we finished. We sat in stunned silence as her heart caught up with her spirit. Then her widower caressed her face and said goodbye, and I sensed in his voice and face a kind of loving relief, thankful that she was no longer in pain.
At the committal service we pray, “You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Give rest, O Christ, to your servant(s) with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”
Ashes on the head are a reminder that death is the final miracle of earthly life, the flip side of the miracle of birth.
It’s supposed to rain in Silver City today.
There shall be showers of blessing: this is the promise of love;
There shall be seasons refreshing, sent from the Savior above.
Showers of blessing, showers of blessing we need:
Mercy-drops round us are falling, but for the showers we plead.
Daniel Webster Whittle published this song in 1883. I wonder if he wasn’t caught inside in a spring rain with his small daughter and penned this song to help her be OK with having to stay inside. Major Whittle was a Union Civil War veteran who turned to faith at the bedside of one of his soldiers who was dying. In having to pray for the boy he himself was brought to faith out of compassion and a deep sense of his own unworthiness. He went on to meet Dwight L. Moody and, with James McGranaham, who wrote the music for this song, became an itinerant evangelist. I see in his conversion experience the groundwork of God’s hand in the compassion that won out over his own lack of faith. A portion of the first Epistle of John reads, “ Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”1
Compassion: In our current immigration brouhaha, when will it become illegal to love one’s neighbor as oneself? Am I already liable to the council for standing in amazement and awe at the wonder of another human being exactly as they are? As in the days of Roman persecution of the Church, how will I be judged if I keep my head down during these days because I am white and have an American passport? Will I be judged “apostate” by the hardliners who paid a heavy price for their beliefs to be readmitted to communion only after confession and penance? How will I feel if I hide behind my white privilege and let my friends of color be treated like criminals for running for their lives from their beloved homelands and coming here hoping for justice and mercy? On the other hand, what will be the price of standing up to the madness? Friendships are already on the knife-edge. What about political freedom? Social standing? Status in the Church? Maybe the first casualty is my own peace of mind. Maybe the first question is how to maintain one’s center in the storm. Only from there will other questions find wise answers.
It’s supposed to rain in Silver City today…
1 I John 4:7-8, NRSV
What is it about love stories that are so much more poignant when each lover rejects the other only to make up again? It seems so pointless—all the hurt and angst and sudden coming around—is it the cost of the sweetness of reunion? It makes a lover want to pick a fight to get to the joy of making up, except that as often as not the things that separate lovers are not one another but other forces over which they have no control. My question has to do not with the fight or the separation, but why it makes love burn so much hotter. Is this the fuel of passion?
Yes, but only as a symptom (which is why artificial fights never work.) We peer into one another’s hearts only darkly. So many artificial loves parade before us that are really selfishness hiding behind tenderness. We have all been hurt by such masquerading. Tension and separation are a fire that burns away the dross to see if there is any gold left.
However, I think there is a taproot that reaches to the very heart of God. Love is only true when it is free. Until it is freely chosen it cannot be true. Separation that ends in true reconciliation always brings the lovers to a place of freely chosen love, which is often only known when chosen over against another competing love, whatever it may be. Such is God’s love. Risking free will in creation, God gives us the chance to wander away that we might seek to return by our own choice, not in knowledge of God as the ground of our being, but as choosing a love for the lover’s sake. Two must find that they have always been one, but to do so freely one must feel as if there are two who become one. In Richard Rohr’s language, the dualistic mind that chooses out of great love or great suffering (which are hardly different from one another), to love selflessly finds in it the unitive mind. Paradoxically, only when one knows division can one freely choose to overcome it.
In theological language, redemption is greater than innocence, Heaven is more glorious than Eden.
Cooke’s Peak wore a fedora of puffy white cloud this morning. It sat silhouetted against the eastern sky, 30 miles away from the monkey mind between my ears. It might as well have been a million miles away from the turmoil of our times, standing there, seemingly immortal against the riptides of politics and economics. But I know it is not immortal, for I am mortal, and so are you, and the policies by which we live can and ultimately will have an effect on this piece of sky-lit granite. We have the capacity to wear it away far faster than wind and water. In spite of itself it is almost as ephemeral as I feel. In the face of that potential fate it stands still in the fullness of Anthony Bloom’s definition of humility: Being what you truly are, quietly, fully and unapologetically, with no need to be more or less, to sound one’s own trumpet nor wallow in false self-abasement, always willing to dance with the wind and wear a funny hat of cloud.
Maybe therein is a clue. The Buddhists call it detachment. The Christians call it the mind of Christ. The Sufis call it the training of the view. The Daoists call it the Dao. I could go on, of course, but my meaning is this: I mean to focus on what unites us, that great underlying unity of all things in the mind of God, the mystery behind our being that we are occasionally privileged to glimpse—here, where in the center stillness of all I might find the key to living in the many. Only from here can differences cease to frighten and instead seduce us into true self-giving love. Only from here can I respond rather than react to the riptides of politics and economics.
“In the spring of 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur. This act provided an absolute 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. For the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities.”1 The town of Silver City, where I live, held a mass meeting in December of 1885 and ruled that all the Chinese (who were the truck farmers of the area) be required to leave town within a week. In 1942, in the midst of WWII, between 110,000 and 120,000 men of Japanese descent were rounded up from all over the country and put in prison camps, one of which was in Lordsburg, NM, just 50 miles from where I sit. (My own Episcopal Church had a Japanese priest who was so detained.) Around the same time shiploads of Jewish families and children were calling at ports around the world seeking refuge from the Nazi’s. Charles Lindberg spearheaded a movement called “America First” that convinced Congress to deny them entry to the U.S. because they thought they would be a threat to our national security. I have a historian in my congregation who alerted me to these facts. He goes on to note that we do not learn from our past because as Kierkegaard said, every age believes itself to be an exception to the rule.
I remember all too well, getting caught with my hand in the cookie jar so to speak, receiving the usual corrective action, and protesting, “but this is different!” We all think we’re different, that the rules don’t apply, and that we ought to be treated differently than another who has done what we did.
On the one hand, this illustrates our own propensity to create God in our own image. Like Eve in the garden, we seek to take the reins of reality and steer the boat of existence to the port of our own choosing. It is blindly and presumptuously self-centered, and God granted no exceptions. On the other hand, St. Benedict instructed his monks in the 6th century to welcome all guests as if they were Christ himself—no exceptions. That attitude of radical hospitality has endured in the Benedictine tradition to the present day. Apparently it works—no exceptions needed.
An exception is the unique variance of an individual from the class. If we just get the nature of the class right exceptions would seem to be counterproductive.