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.

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.  Childbirth was Jesus’ own image for death 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, 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:

…daffodils,
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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The First Will Be Last

Below is the text of a recent letter my wife Jean and I sent to the editor of our local newspaper, the Sun Chronicle, occasioned by President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.   For those who like to read more we included a reference to Jesus’ teaching about servanthood.  The contrast is stark with Trump’s transactional view of the world.

The First Will Be Last (Matthew 20:16, 26).
President Trump’s recent assertion of his America First foreign policy has resulted in the undermining of NATO and the Paris Climate Agreement.  The leadership that the USA has historically provided on important world issues is absent, and is being ceded to others.  That leadership has been replaced with whining about not getting a fair deal.  There is no sense that America does something because it is right and good for humankind.  Being rude and disrespectful to other nations, especially our friends and allies, will invite a like response.   The Golden Rule applies in politics as well as all walks of life: treat others as you would like them to treat you.

America First has its roots in the opposition to involvement in World War II, promoting an isolationist approach.  It collapsed when the Pearl Harbor attack happened.  Donald Trump has adopted it as his foreign policy, but it is a reversal of the role the USA has played in the world since World War II.   As that America First policy failed when Nazism threatened the stability of the world, so it will fail as the world faces the crisis of climate change.  If we as a nation stay on the sidelines, we will be seen as increasingly irrelevant to the central challenge that faces the world in the 21st century.   Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist, says the human race has about 100 years to find another planet on which to live.    Whether that is overly pessimistic we do not know, but the situation is dire and requires inspiring and heroic leadership, not the abdication of leadership.

John and Jean Fisk, Attleboro

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The Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm

The most common difficulty with meditating is being distracted in the silence.  You would think that silence would be calming but for many it raises the chaos monster.  The Buddhists call it “monkey mind”.  Wendy, one of the members of our Wednesday evening meditation group at LaSalette Retreat House in Attleboro, recently pointed out the following quote from the Benedictine monk, John Main:

You will find as you go on that you can be saying your mantra at one level while at another level there are thoughts going on below and at another level above, at another on one side, at another on the other side.  Ignore them all.  Say your mantra.  That is the art of meditating: to say your word in the silent eye of the storm (from “Silence and Stillness in Every Season”, May 9).

What a great image about the challenge of meditating: remaining still and focused in the eye of the storm!  Life is often a storm (even a hurricane) of competing forces and influences, all trying to get our attention and allegiance.  John Main’s perennial teaching is to keep repeating the mantra, Ma-ra-na-tha (four syllables), slowly and silently to yourself.  It sounds overly simplistic but it works.  Surely it is more complicated than that?  We say, “That is not very challenging intellectually – any idiot can say one word over and over again!”  It is indeed very simple but incredibly challenging to do.  The task is, in the midst of all our chaos, to pay attention to the divine presence, the Spirit who lives within us and all creation.  No wonder Genesis 1 says that God created from the chaos.  Our task is to be still, to be open to God, letting go of other concerns by repeating the mantra, resting in the eye of the storm.

It would be easy to judge my meditation as a failure, and in one sense (if I am looking for perfect peace without distraction) it always is a failure.  On the other hand, I have learned that the task is not to judge but to rest in a non-judgmental state, and if I experience the peace in the eye of the storm then all the better.  Being kind to oneself, loving oneself, believing in the goodness and love of God, are basic to the spiritual journey.  Being still and open in meditation will reaffirm that God is good and loving, if we do not judge our performance but let judgment go along with all other distractions.  I welcome your comments about your experience.

(For more detailed instruction on how to meditate go to: Meditation)

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IMG_1121

Pastor Emeritus John Fisk and Deacon C. J. Kiff

On a personal note, I was honored recently by the First Baptist Church, Attleboro, with the title Pastor Emeritus and a celebration of the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the Christian ministry.  I have been blessed beyond measure through my teachers and mentors and through the people I have served in ministry.   It is a very challenging vocation requiring spiritual stamina beyond my strength.  People tell me that I was very helpful to them at critical points, but I am sure it was God who was doing the helping and I sometimes had the good sense to get out of the way!   First Baptist, Attleboro continues on the road with Jesus with an open mind and a welcoming heart.  Praise God for them and their Pastor Cheryl Harris!

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The Courage to Live

Courage

In the wise, charming and funny movie, You Can’t Take It with You (1938 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, Frank Capra), there’s a conversation on a park bench between Alice Sycamore (played by Jean Arthur) and Tony Kirby (James Stewart) about learning to be unafraid.  Tony says he is very struck by the Sycamore family because “they have found what everyone is looking for – the courage to live”.  Alice responds: “Grandpa taught us that most people are run by fear.  He says that people are afraid of what they eat, what they drink, their jobs, their health, their future, scared to save money and scared to spend it.  People are commercialized on fear.  They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.  Grandpa taught us not to be afraid of anything and to do what we want to do.”

“They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.”   We live in a culture of fear.  Such exploitation continues unabated in 2017.  Politicians throughout Europe and the USA are taking advantage of people’s fear of terrorism, promoting anti-Muslim immigration bans.  Everywhere (according to the Ipsos polling institute in Paris) people estimate Muslim populations much higher than they actually are.  For example, in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, voters estimate that 31% of the population are Muslim.  The actual percentage is 7.5%.  In every European country voters think the Muslim population is much higher than it actually is.  Same is true in the U.S.A. where the Muslim population is 1% and respondents estimate 17%.  Clearly fear distorts peoples’ perception of reality, and they are open to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians (The Christian Century, March 15, 2017, p.14).

Without a spiritual anchor that grounds us in reality many people in the world today give way to fear and are tossed about on the waves of political manipulation.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world”.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed this: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

We were in London in 1993 as a family and got on a bus at the Aldwych and journeyed 15 minutes to Russell Square where our hotel was.  It was about 7 p.m.  When we reached the hotel, we heard a loud noise in the distance, and turned on the TV.  An IRA terrorist bomb had exploded on a bus at the very bus stop in the Aldwych where we had boarded 20 minutes previously.  We were shaken to think we had missed death so narrowly.  I don’t think it really sunk in what had happened, but we continued on with our vacation, determined not to let terrorism change our plans.  That’s the way you have to live in the face of these threats.  The world is safe for Westerners most of the time – we must exercise common sense precautions and then get on with our lives.

The Bible says as much about fear as anything else.  The disciples of Jesus were not overjoyed by his resurrection – their first response was fear.  The angelic messenger said to the women “do not be afraid” and then Jesus repeated those words before going on to reassure them “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:5, 10, 20).  If we truly believe this promise of Jesus then we will let “love cast out fear” (1 John 4:18) and not let our fears oppress us.  Love is the only antidote to fear.

Fear of terrorism is a red herring, used by right wing politicians to justify huge expenditures to the military industrial complex and cuts to social programs and cuts in taxes to the wealthy.  No Americans have been killed in the last 40 years by persons from the seven nations named in President Trump’s immigration ban.  Yet in the same period 1.4 million Americans have been killed by guns (murders, accidents and suicides, reported in The Christian Century, March 15, 2017).  Nothing is done by the federal government to “ban” easy access to guns, including assault weapons.  The exploitation of fear has led to the increasing militarization of America.  Trump is surrounded by retired generals in his cabinet, the budget for diplomacy through the State Department has been cut, the Defense budget is more than half of all discretionary expenditures and Trump wants a 10% increase.  Already the USA spends more on defense than the world’s next seven nations combined.  “They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.”

Jesus rejected the ways of the world: violence, bullying and fear-mongering.  He turned instead to the ways of God: forgiveness, trust, compassion (even to those who crucified him), and the love which overcomes fear.  Love powers the courage to live.  It does not mean you will not be afraid.  Knowing you are loved means being able face reality and not let fear defeat you.

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