Looking For Light

“You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:14-16)

December Sun on Primrose Hill, London

I was in London in December, when the days are the shortest of the year.  It rained a lot and there was a snowstorm, the first in five years.  Sunshine was scarce.  One Saturday I walked from the Regents Canal, near the London Zoo, up the steep hill known as Primrose Hill.  It was a glorious view over London.  Despite living in London in the 1970s and visiting many times since, I never knew that Primrose Hill was the highest point in London.  At the top there was a low semi-circular wall on which people were standing for the view.  I noticed there was a quote from William Blake carved into the concrete surface of the wall: I have conversed with the spiritual sun.  I saw him on Primrose Hill.  At that very moment the sun burst through the clouds and I received the double blessing of sunshine and a quote from one of my favorite poets.   The next day I enjoyed a day with my niece and nephew and their spouses and delightful daughters.  Even though the rain had resumed the sunshine was in their eyes.

Jean and I (back in Attleboro, Massachusetts) were exercising by walking at our local indoor shopping mall on an inhospitable day in January (for 2 weeks we endured temperatures as low as -5 F/ -20 C).  I noticed a 30 feet long dancing light display on a wall with all the colors of the rainbow (like the up and down motion of a hospital heart monitor).  I stopped to watch this amazing light display and detected that it was the result of sunlight being refracted through water from melting snow at the base of a series of skylight windows.  My scientific explanation in no way lessened the marvelous light effect.  I doubt that any artificial light source could replicate the miracle of that dancing rainbow light.

Carriage and Dog by Maud Lewis

Recently we participated in the Art Lovers Book Club at the Attleboro Arts Museum in a discussion of the life and work of Maud Lewis, Canada’s premier folk artist.  I confess we had not read the book but watched a movie instead, “Maudie” with Sally Hawkins playing the heroine.  Maud as a child in the early 1900s was overcome with rheumatoid arthritis, which gnarled her hands and bent her back.  She had a wonderful mother who took her to the Baptist church in Yarmouth.  But her mother died when Maud was 34 years old.  Her brother took all the money and Maud was left in the care of a stifling aunt.  To get away from the oppressive atmosphere Maud sought a position as a live-in housemaid with an austere bachelor, Everett Lewis.  They were married and there was love between them, more from her than him, but he did give her a home and freedom to pursue her art.  And she produced the most beautiful works of folk art.  We were left wondering how did she create such beauty out of such miserable circumstances.  Video of the real Maud Lewis was included at the end of the movie and her eyes were radiant.  There was the inner light that shone in the darkness.  As Oprah Winfrey said at the Golden Globes: I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.  That was Maud Lewis.

Brockton High School Concert Chorus

We attended the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. interfaith celebration held at First Baptist Church, Attleboro recently.  The Brockton High School Concert Choir (about 60 strong) sang several pieces including Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn, Precious Lord, Take My Hand.   The choir was too numerous for the front of the sanctuary so they stood in a circle around the perimeter of the sanctuary and the director, Matthew Cunningham, stood in the center of the church.  It was an amazing light-filled experience to hear these multi-ethnic young people surrounding us, embracing a diverse congregation with the beauty and power of their voices.  They were followed by a group from Providence RI called Project 401 who introduced the congregation to the beauty and power of Hip Hop.  It was another marvel to behold.   For an interfaith congregation which included many social activists it was a needed shot in the arm, a spiritual boost of light in this time of national darkness.

In the Christian Year we are in the season after Epiphany, the season of light.  I thank God for these and other light-filled moments.  They illustrate the encouragement of Jesus in Matthew 5:11-14:

“You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others …”

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A New Year: Walking With God

I stumbled on this post I had written several years ago and found it helpful on this bleak New Year’s Day (the temperature this morning was -1 F / -18 C). May these thoughts inspire you as you walk bravely into 2018.

The Still Point

Each New Year’s Day I am confronted with the challenge of wanting to get physically and spiritually fit, but also confronted with the challenge of my all-too-human inclinations.  I found some help in my reading this morning of Ephesians 2:1-10, or, to be more accurate, it was the commentary on Ephesians by Markus Barth (Anchor Bible) that provided the help in understanding the Apostle Paul’s words.  Barth’s translation of Ephesians 4:1-2 reads:

(1)You, especially, dead as you were in your lapses and sins … (2) in the past your steps were bound by them.  You were following this world-age …

The literal translation is “the sins in which you formerly walked”.   “To walk”, Barth tells us, is one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite verbs, which he used as a metaphor for living an ethical life.  Walking is “a choice of steps on a given ground in a given direction

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When Government Believed in the People: the WPA

Riverwalk, San Antonio

During our recent travels Jean and I have discovered a few of the treasures of the Works Progress Administration (1935-1943).  The delightful Riverwalk in San Antonio and in San Francisco the Ocean Beach Chalet (with its splendid murals and views) and the Aquatic Park Bath House (designed in the shape of an ocean liner) were built by the WPA.  We were impressed by the quality of craftsmanship in these projects and the national pride that shines through them.  These are just a few examples of the thousands of projects undertaken by engineers, architects, skilled and unskilled workers, artists, musicians, and writers.  The WPA was a courageous response to the devastating crisis of the Great Depression. It was in large part due to the efforts of President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, and to Harry Hopkins, Director of the WPA from 1935-1938.

Riverwalk, San Antonio

Conservatives bitterly opposed the WPA.  Some like Congressman Martin Dies Jr. (Chair of the House Unamerican Activities Committee) had at first supported the New Deal but by 1936 was strongly opposed.  As the Federal Government played a larger role in the economic life of the nation, Dies and other conservatives believed that individual initiative and freedom would be restricted.  They thought the Government should cut taxes on corporations who in turn would create jobs.  Southern Congressmen were also afraid of Federal interference in the South’s system of racial segregation.  Dies believed that the nation’s unemployment problem was caused by too many immigrants from other nations.  He sponsored bills to limit immigration and to deport those here illegally.  He was also a conspiracy theorist and claimed that many immigrants were sent by the Soviet Union to spread communism and to overturn the government (from The WPA -Putting America To Work by Jeff Hill, 2014).  Does all of this sound familiar in 2017?

Aquatic Park Bath House,
San Francisco

It is certainly unrealistic in 2017 to expect the conservatives who control the government to adopt programs like the WPA.  It feels like a part of a romantic past that is gone forever.  But it is good to remember that once upon a time the President and Congress believed in the American people enough to invest in them directly.   It is naïve to think that reducing taxes for wealthy corporations will enrich the working class.  John Maynard Keynes, the great British economist, said that “trickle down” economics used to be called “the horse and sparrow” theory of economics (as far back as the 1890s): “if you feed enough oats to the horse some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”

Mural in Bath House

Projects undertaken by the WPA and the other agencies of the New Deal, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, touched nearly every community in the USA.  I encourage you to see how your region benefited from these projects.  An extensive index of New Deal projects may be found at Livingnewdeal.org.  Thousands of art works may be found at newdealartregistry.org and wpamurals.com. and postersforthepeople.com

Beach Chalet Mural,
San Francisco

In addition to the sites mentioned in my first paragraph the following places have inspiring stories to tell about American workers, showcasing their artistry and dedication, and tell the story of a time when our government truly represented the people.

  • The murals in the Coit Tower overlooking Fishermen’s Wharf, San Francisco.
  • Timberline Lodge atop Mount Hood in Oregon, a showcase for interior decoration and furniture by local artisans.
  • Murals in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
  • Camp David Presidential retreat, Maryland.
  • The Triborough Bridge, NYC
  • Restoration of sites like Antietam Civil War battlefield and Fort McHenry in Maryland.
  • LaGuardia Airport, New York City.
  • 8000 park creation or renovation projects; 13,000 playgrounds; thousands of stadiums and athletic fields.
  • 572,000 miles of rural roads, including farm to market routes.
  • 20,000 miles of water lines; 24,000 miles of sewer lines; 2000 sewage and water treatment plants.
  • 40,000 public buildings including libraries, schools, fire stations, hospitals, military facilities.

For those who live in Southeast New England here’s a partial list of WPA projects:

Rhode Island: Hope High School in Providence, John O. Pastore Post Office and Federal Building and relief sculptures in Providence, stone fireplaces at Haines Memorial Park, East Providence; city hall Pawtucket, city hall Cranston, McCoy Stadium, Mount Pleasant High School; roads, sidewalks, bridges in Roger Williams Park; Providence Public Library murals.

Massachusetts: Suffolk County Courthouse, Boston; expansion of East Boston Airport to become today’s Logan Airport; widening the Cape Cod Canal; Bourne Railroad Bridge; Sagamore Bridge; Camp Edwards military base on Cape Cod; East Boston Station Post Office (with murals), Eliot Tower at Blue Hills Reservation, Gloucester City Hall murals, Goodell Hall at U. Mass. Amherst; Statehouse murals, Boston; Memorial Park, Mansfield; many Post Offices with murals and reliefs; improvements to water flow and flood prevention along 10 Mile River in North Attleboro.

For a history of the WPA see American Made by Nick Taylor (2008).   For 500 of the 35,000 poster designs see Posters for the People by Ennis Carter (2008).   Also: WPA Buildings: Art and Architecture of the New Deal by Joseph Maresca (2017).

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Is The End Nigh?

Horsemen of Apocalypse

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Durer

Attleboro’s Big Read* novel this fall, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, describes a world where 99% of the population has been killed by a virulent flu virus.  The story certainly speaks to our time of hurricanes, famines, droughts and floods, threats of nuclear war, mass shootings (which should be called terrorism), and a general fear and foreboding.  Station Eleven begins with a performance of King Lear, which sets the theme of devastation.  Emily St. John Mandel, the author, came to our community and spoke to an enthusiastic audience of teens and adults.  During the question time I asked Emily about the choice of Lear, the most nihilistic of plays, and she admitted it was her favorite play.  Her admission led me to re-read King Lear and Harold Bloom’s commentary on the play in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human.  There is next to no hope in King Lear, but it is certainly emotionally cathartic for anyone going through a valley of despair.  Lear eloquently expresses desolation.  I remember my training in pastoral counseling, not to rush to advice, but to listen patiently to the emotions underlying a person’s suffering.  Lear is brilliant in his freedom to express devastation in the most exacting poetry.

Harold Bloom compared Lear to the ending of Mark’s Gospel.  I think he is right – the puzzling original ending of Mark’s Gospel, where there is only a hint of resurrection, leaves the disciples afraid and cowering.  Mark does not pass quickly over Good Friday and its suffering.  The followers of Jesus are to be a people of the Cross.  Compassion means “to suffer with”.  Only those who have suffered deeply can empathize with those who are deeply suffering, which is one of the messages of Station Eleven also.

Mark chapter 13 has been called “a little apocalypse,” because of its concern with the coming of the end.  Early New Testament writers believed that the end of human history was near and expected the return of Jesus to usher in God’s kingdom.  The word “apocalypse” itself means a secret that is revealed, and is usually teamed with warnings from God about the coming end.  Hence apocalyptic is a literary genre, rather like science fiction in our own day.  The novel, Station Eleven, is part of a genre called post-apocalyptic, a subset of science fiction.  There is no doubt that the Biblical writers believed the end was nigh, whether the end of Israel as a nation, or the end of human history and the return of Jesus to usher in God’s kingdom.  Yet, 2000 years later we are still here.  The challenges facing humankind seem so much bigger today, but I’m sure the plague (or black death) that killed half the population in Europe in the 1300s seemed like the end of the world, and a similar pall hung over Europe after 50 million people were killed in World War II.   The end seems a dire prospect for anyone facing it, whether it is national destruction or a cancer that is killing an individual.  Apocalyptic raises the question as to how we face the suffering.  The prospect of the world’s end sets the scene for this challenge, as King Lear sets the scene in Station Eleven.

Biblical writers saw the message of apocalyptic as a hopeful message despite the message of doom.  There is always a new beginning after the ending (Station Eleven has this hopeful note also).   Childbirth was Jesus’ own image for his suffering and resurrection (John 16:20: “You will have pain but your pain will turn into joy.  When a woman is in labor…”).   The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering are not despairing narratives.  Even Mark, the bleakest of the narratives, portrays Jesus as the one who remains constant to his mission.  His courage and heroism is recognized by one of those who crucified him when the Roman soldier confesses, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39).

Patience, taking the long view, hope that is deeply rooted, compassion born of suffering, faith in one another and God, the creative instinct plus a sense of humor – these are the forms of love that sustain human beings in the face of tragedy and enable them to rise above it.

(The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts to revitalize the role of reading in American culture)

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Endings and Beginnings

In my beginning is my end…

In my end is my beginning (East Coker I:1, V:36).

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from…  (Little Gidding V:1-3).

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And to know the place for the first time (Little Gidding V:27-29).

T. S. Eliot’s poems, The Four Quartets, are an endless source of mystical insights. As we get older time is more vital and Eliot was particularly absorbed with the meaning of time in these poems. Awareness of our finitude awakens us to questions of meaning, especially suffering and death. Recently I attended the funeral of an older Christian friend who had been tragically killed by a careless driver.  In the midst of all our grief the pastor quoted the words of Jesus from Revelation 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”.   Another version of the same saying is given in Revelation 1:8, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty”.   It became clear to me that Eliot’s references to beginnings and endings are related to these texts.  If one believes that God is the beginning and the end of all things, then one is encouraged that the meaning of life does not come to an end with death.  All that is most precious and vital carries on.  We come to a threshold and we discover a beginning.

Dry Salvages

The Dry Salvages, rocks near Gloucester, Massachusetts

In “The Dry Salvages” Eliot says the point where the timeless intersects with time is incarnation. Here God becomes human in those who are God’s partners, supremely demonstrated in Jesus (DS V:17-19, 32-33).  This is “an occupation for the saint” and requires “a lifetime’s death in love”.  The immediate and direct awareness of God in those timeless moments gives rise to a loving and sacrificial response. Some critics thought Eliot went off the rails with his Christian devotion, removing himself from the mainstream of 20th century poetry.  But for me and many others he gets the right word every time.  The challenge for every human being is acceptance of and co-operation with God’s will.  Contemplation and humility are the path forward, but for all of us who struggle on the path there is comfort in his words, “we are only undefeated because we go on trying”.    It is love beyond desire that gives true freedom – detached from selfish desires, set free to serve the other.  This is often the path of suffering in one form or another.

There are many endings and beginnings in life.  Graduations, relocations, unemployment, divorce, young adults moving away, disability, natural disasters – all endings and beginnings, deaths and births.  We repeat the cycle until we get the message that love is born of suffering, that joy comes after mourning.   Always Christ is present and waiting to be discovered in our endings and beginnings.   The discovery of love, the end of all our exploring, is a slow cyclical process, always bringing us back to the same source, God in human life, Jesus.  The end is where we start from.

Little Gidding Chapel

Little Gidding Chapel near Cambridge, England

This poetry was particularly poignant for the people of Britain in 1942 when Eliot wrote Little Gidding.  World War II was the end of the world they had known but their hope for a new beginning was resilient.  Today, as the world turns from threats of ecological devastation to threats of nuclear war, we need a similar faith and resilience.  As President Kennedy once said, “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced he world would be a better place in which to live” (Speech at Harvard, June 1956).

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A Surreal Time

It feels surreal that in 2017 there should be demonstrations in favor of white supremacy and nationalism.  Did these men study history at all in school?  Do they have any sense of obligation to the generation that fought against and defeated Nazism in World War II?  Do they think Hitler was a good leader rather than a psychopathic killer?  Do they not realize that white supremacy is a direct descendant of Hitler’s superior Aryan race theory?  Have they not seen the photographs and films of the concentration camps and the Holocaust?  What are they thinking or has hatred so twisted their minds that they refuse to see?

It is just as surreal that we have a White House slow to condemn such hate movements, that advisors to President Trump debated how he should respond to the domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, condemning “violence on all sides”.  Equally surreal is that there are people in the White House who are sympathetic to these white nationalist groups.

My father, my aunts and uncles, my grandfather all served in World War II.  My father was held prisoner for four years, attempting escape some five times.  16 million Americans served in that war.  I have had the privilege to have known many WWII vets through my work as a pastor.  They saved the world from Nazism.  What is the matter with America today that we should have such hate groups in our midst?

The Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that “hate speech” is protected under the first amendment to the Constitution, unless “such advocacy is directed to inciting imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”  That “unless” clause may be wider than first appears since Nazis have a long history of resorting to intimidation and violence.  And we must always be vigilant against them gaining a foothold in the political process.  Even Hitler was at first a democratically elected leader.

The time may feel “surreal” but we must not let a sense of powerlessness gain ground.  Timothy Snyder said in response to Trump’s hesitation to condemn the violence of far-right groups, “if you’re not resisting, you’re partaking”.  His little book, On Tyranny, is a challenge to all of us to resist tyranny in any form.  I highly recommend it to you for practical things you can do.

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The Triumph of the Feminine in Shakespeare

first folio

Shakespeare’s First Folio 1623

I started writing this blog during the 2016 election campaign when I had hoped a woman would become President of the United States!  My hope is still strong.

The triumph of the feminine is the theme of the last but one of Shakespeare’s plays, The Winter’s Tale.  Shakespeare has created some of the strongest parts for women in all literature: Cleopatra, Juliet, Viola, Kate, Rosalind, and Portia are all powerful women and they dominate the plays they inhabit.  The Winter’s Tale has always been one of my favorites, because it is a statement of faith in the ultimate triumph of the feminine.   King Leontes gives way to an Othello-like jealousy and ends up alone, apparently bereft of his wife, Hermione, and his daughter, Perdita, and his best friend, Polixenes.  However, the apparent deaths of these loved ones are a ruse to punish Leontes for his folly and evil.  He has a 16 year intermission to contemplate the error of his ways and to find humility.   The reunion at the end of the play is delayed by Paulina (the midwife of reconciliation) who wants to make sure Leontes is genuine in his repentance.   The play concludes with a moving resurrection scene, as a new world comes to life and Leontes, Hermione and Perdita are re-united.  Parallels to the story of Jesus are easy to find and the play, in my opinion, offers a deeply felt Christian message.

The triumvirate of female characters shine.  Paulina has the courage to speak truth to power: telling Leontes off in the midst of his jealous rage and defying his commands.  Hermione is strong in her protest of innocence and in her loving endurance of separation and suffering.  Perdita has beauty, intelligence, wit and is a poet as well:

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength–a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!  (Act 4, scene 3)

All three women represent aspects of the love that will win over the enemy, as Jesus taught and lived.  The stupidity of tyrants will not prevail against this subversive love.

Carl Jung characterized the Feminine principle as receptivity, humility, steadfast and subversive love, and the Masculine principle as assertion, strength, protectiveness, justice.   But the feminine principle is not the sole domain of women, nor the masculine principle the sole domain of men.  Jung rightly believed that each of us as human beings has a masculine and a feminine side.  But the stereotype of manhood assumed by many men involves the control and abuse of the feminine.   The treatment of women in our society (and most societies around the world) has been shameful, especially the level of violence against women (and against those perceived as feminine like the LGBTQ community).  The poet John Bly is right in asserting that men take responsibility for themselves only when they are willing to grieve and express the deep sadness that underlies their frustration and anger, thus experiencing their feminine side.  Only then are they willing to seek help rather than strike out in anger.

Shakespeare understood all these things, as evidenced by the havoc unleashed in his plays by his male protagonists.  Thank God he gave to the feminine the last word.  As an earlier heroine Portia said:

The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the earth beneath.  It is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest…  (Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1)

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