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Death and Living Revisited

Guatemala’s La Aurora area is trembling—literally, under the violent and cataclysmic eruption of the Volcán de Fuego, a perfectly conical living, fire-breathing dragon of a mountain not far south-west of Guatemala City. The name of the mountain is fitting, but not pretty right now. Today’s news recorded 69 dead, with that number expected to rise. Horrific stories of missing family members and injured loved ones are filtering out. As typical, today’s headlines don’t pick up this story, but we can be sure that the Red Cross and other assistance agencies will be descending on the location to help dig out life and death from the steaming ash. Some of them will also stay behind to attend to the secondary and tertiary health issues that are sure to arise. When I get to Honduras next month I wouldn’t be surprised to find refugees from Guatemala at our clinics. Some have nothing to go home to. In another sense, nobody has “home” to go home to. “Home” has moved, it has changed. Even the memories of “home” have been overlaid with the ash of memories and sights and sounds engraved in pain on the heart. We pray for Guatemala, and we will be doing what we can to send help.

In central Ecuador there is another similar town called Baños. The name, meaning “baths,” comes from the mineral-laden geo-thermal springs that flow from the base of Tunguragua, another conical living, fire-breathing dragon just east of Ambato. There is a Catholic cathedral there whose walls are lined with commissioned paintings, given in thanksgiving for dodged bullets, times when against all odds people emerged from eruptions with more than they expected. The miracles are attributed to God and to La Virgen de las Aguas, the Virgin of the Waters, who in a previous age appeared in such a moment of terror to give people hope.


Perhaps the greatest miracle is that somehow, faith and life emerge from flames and death. To be sure, stories will emerge from La Aurora. They should be received with reverence and not just a tinge of awe.


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This morning I had a short discussion with my gastroenterologist. He was born in the US, has full American citizenship, and a Middle-Eastern name. He told me that during the 10 years after 9-11, when he had a connecting flight, the attendance would see his name, and without even looking at his face or his identification papers, require him to check out of the airport and go through security a second time before boarding his next flight. He is changing his name. I expressed my sorrow that he felt compelled to do so, but he said, “There’s a history here, that you just can’t get around. For my kids’ sakes I need to do this.” On the way home my wife reminded me that her maiden name, Cone,” was an anglicizing of “Cohen,” done for the same reasons. I think of the long family history from which he is cutting himself lose and it just hurts inside.

Over the weekend my Presiding Bishop co-led a gathering in Washington addressing “issues ranging from the rise of white nationalism to mistreatment of and violence against women, to LGBTQ inclusion to immigration reform, the spreading of falsehoods and the normalization of lying and moves toward autocratic leadership,” reports the May 25th edition of the Episcopal News Service. It is a timely and timeless message. Jesus talked with Gentile women, touched lepers, threw a fit in the Temple, healed people that others thought were cursed, and otherwise broke with convention to include rather than exclude. Evangelical Christians are won’t to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The very next verse is just as important: “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

How can we call ourselves a “Christian nation” when we so condemn those whose names prick our consciences that they feel constrained to cut themselves free of their historic moorings?

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The still, blue air holds a slight haze to it, testament to the dry, windy days. It isn’t enough to hide anything, much less Cooke’s Peak, to my southeast, standing still and strong against the day. Almost in line with the peak, a clump of bear-grass is putting up its feathery fronts in hopes of seeds for next year. A Mexican Jay sails effortlessly into an oak scrub, looking for all the world alike a piece of sky. But my mind drifts quickly to the rest of the day: What needs to be done today in the office so that tomorrow isn’t impossible, and so that when we go on vacation next week I don’t leave chaos behind me or before me. And there she stands against the day. I’m more like the bear grass and the jay than the peak today, planning furiously for tomorrow.

For Cooke’s Peak, a day is like a thousand years. Volcanic extrusions live slowly, so slowly that we don’t even notice the passage of time on their faces. Though she is not, compared to my hectic life she seems eternal. She anchors me before the day, reminding me that sitting here and emptying my thoughts of anything but the NOW is all that really matters in the end. The rest of the day will come, and without that anchor tomorrow WILL be chaos.

Quiet, quiet, breathe in and out, count your breaths, let that thought go—you’ll get to it in good time. Quiet, quiet, breathe in and out, count your breaths, not your thoughts. Quiet, quiet, like a ship tethered to the unmoving floor beneath the ever-changing seas.

Cooke’s Peak is an anchor.

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His golden feathers, brilliant against his black chin and cap, made him sine in the morning sunlight. He clung to the edge of the plastic flower of the hummingbird feeder, deftly reaching over to sip sweetness from the edge of the center, then tilting his magnificent head back to drizzle it down his throat in little wavy motions of his neck. I sat in awe once again at what I call a Bullock’s Oriole. He wasn’t even six feet away, and as far as he was concerned, my name for him is mine, not his. I was merely a shadow behind the shiny pane, part of the scenery of the morning, and, unless the pane had not been there, totally uninteresting. The pane and the stuccoed wall provided the existential barrier that split his world from mine. I am only something scary in his world. If he knows it is I who put out the sugary water that he enjoys, perhaps he feels a bit of gratitude, but I suspect that’s bald-faced anthropomorphizing on my part and nothing more. What he feels is sweetness going down his neck, energizing his sizzling body for flight, for love and its conflicts and for life. His world shares space and resources with mine, but his kind has been around a whole lot longer than mine.

The wall of my house is a symptom of our western culture that walls ourselves off from the Bullock’s Orioles, Gambel’s Quail and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. We control everything inside, temperature, humidity, access to water and light; we create our own little separate world inside our houses, and make sure our doors are locked against threats. Those who have no houses to live in we call “homeless,” and wonder how they exist outside this essential divider from the rest of the world.

This existential divide between body and soul goes back at least to the ancient Greeks in western culture, but not everyone shares that heritage. The people I grew up with lived in “nice houses,” by their definitions. Their houses had dirt floors, iron-wood palm slats stuck in the ground in a row for walls, and thatch roofs under which the curun pichu (cockroach bird—house wren) wandered unhindered. When Army Ants came through everyone just vacated the place for a day while the little denizens stripped the house of insect pests. “Nature” was not “out there.” In fact, the category “nature” didn’t even really exist. “Nature” was a synonym for “creation,” of which every being was an interlocking part. So where is “nature,” after all? It is the nature of the Bullock’s Oriole to sip sweet liquids when it can, and it is my nature to watch it, wondering at its brilliance, and it is one natural world that we both live in.

We will not care for the earth as we all desperately need until we are all on the inside of the wall, and we lose the need for a separate category called “nature.”

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Blood on the Floor

This morning, while shaving, I heard a fluttering of wings through the open bathroom window. I looked out quickly to see a Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the fence, looking around. I love birds of prey, and these birds frequent our house. Soon I saw a blur come up from under the giant Mexican Elder in the corner of the yard (aka, The Whomping Willow). In a flash the hawk snagged the bird in its talons and flew off over the fence. Later that morning, during my prayers, I saw a flash of banded brown and grey dash by the window. When I looked at the bird feeder it was ominously empty—I suspect an immature Sharpshin or Coopers. Then, while Karisse was sitting on the couch watching the feeder there was a sudden flurry of wings and an adult Sharpshin just missed a House Finch and ended up standing on the ground, looking at the plate-glass window at her before shooting off down the hill. This morning is the Morning of the Hawk. We can hardly be surprised. When I put out food in the morning it’s just minutes before the Gambel’s Quail, House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, House Sparrows and a bunch of others descend on the offering. From the bird-eating hawk’s perspective, we have laid out for them a smorgasbord. Hunting around domestic bird feeders is well-documented in the literature. Kind of ironic, isn’t it, that the food we set out for the birds ends up setting up birds as food.

One of the most fascinating things for me about birds of prey, besides their regal bearing and no-nonsense approach to life, is that they live on the opposite side of the life cycle than we normally think about. They live by death. We in the Church talk a lot about things that are life-giving, many of us are pacifists, and our church participated in the rally against gun violence on March 24th. We see violence tearing our society apart and it rightly appalls us. Birds of prey remind us that violence in and of itself is not the enemy. Self-control does violence to the unruly impulses of our egos. Standing up for truth and justice does violence to those who would use falsehood and injustice for personal gain at the expense of the whole. Ultimately, death is violence to each life it claims. For me, the question is, “To what is violence surrendered?”

In the case of our feathered friends, violence is surrendered to the greater good of the environment, for without their violence the health of the community of the animals they eat would collapse. They remind us that each individual being, precious and holy as it is, only has meaning in terms of the community, and each community, unique and wonderful as it is, only has meaning in terms of the species, and each species, the miracle that it is, only has meaning in the context of creation, and creation, the manifest presence of the divine, only has meaning in the mind of God. That which forgets this truth does violence to life.

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I heard on the news last night that an American citizen and her daughter were detained for 40 minutes by border patrol personnel while her papers were reviewed. The reason given for her apprehension: speaking Spanish. People have been speaking Spanish in what is now the United States for centuries—literally. The number of Spanish-speaking citizens of the United States is on the sharp rise. Other languages also spoken by United States residents number in the hundreds, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and French being the leaders behind Spanish. According to a study done in 2014 by the Center for Immigration Studies,* one in five U.S. residents speaks a language other than English in the home. Why is Spanish so special, especially when this study puts the number of Spanish speakers at 38+ million? Spanish as a spoken language has become a political symbol for undocumented immigration. It’s doubly ironic and destructive because so many undocumented immigrants do NOT speak Spanish and do NOT come across our southern border. The criminalization of speaking Spanish as a symbol of recent immigration unfounded since the violent crime rate among immigrants is half that of the nation as a whole. It is also a grand symbolism of collective amnesia. How quickly we forget our roots. How many of us who speak English come from roots that did not? I would venture that most of us fall into that category.

A scapegoat is an innocent person or group of people onto whom the rest place their collective sense of guilt. It justifies violence against the innocent in the name of the larger good. However, in an exhaustive study of the phenomenon of scapegoating, Rene Girard◊ shows how scapegoating never really works in the end. When the collective conscience is finally assuaged very often the victim gets deified instead. And so, the pendulum swings, from victim to god, back and forth, as successive unsuccessful oblations are made to the demon of the collective ego, leaving broken bodies and societies in its bloody footprints.

Spanish: my second native tongue—it more than hurts to see her made into the scapegoat du jour. To make the speakers of any language into scapegoats is a travesty of what it means to be human.

◊Girard’s, René, and GLS, G. The scapegoat. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.


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Royal Love

OK, so who DIDN’T watch the wedding, or read about it in the news? Who DIDN’T hear the Most Rev. Michael Curry’s sermon? When the Archbishop of Canterbury characterizes the sermon as “blowing the place open,” when uncomfortable looks appear on the faces of stodgy royals, and when the couple, beaming their tangible love for one another seem caught up in their own ivory castle, just almost consciously ignoring the discomfort they are causing, you know this is a global event. William and Kate’s wedding was a front-liner, of course, because he is in line for the throne, but Harry and Meghan were just a couple of famous people deeply in love, and the world rejoiced with them, in spite of all the ways they were breaking with protocol. For once, “royal” did not mean “predetermined by centuries of crusty tradition.”

Now, I’m not an iconoclast. My Church uses a form of worship that traces right back to the early Church Fathers, and I love a good Episcopalian parade, and the royal couple enacted the traditions in a hundred ways, but this event was more infused with the human. Bishop Curry’s sermon located the event on the human stage, as a sign and symbol of human love as the most powerful force on earth, with the power to transform our world. At once he set Harry and Meghan’s delightful mutual absorption in the context of human love, and human love in the context of global transformation. With a love so wonderful on the human stage in a way royalty alone can achieve, he blessed the couple and challenged us all.

After all, are not all our human loves ultimately intended to be so genuinely human, and therefore in a sense, royal? Is not all love intended for mutual joy AND for world transformation? We will see how Harry and Meghan live up to the blessing and the challenge.

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