Friday, August 31, 2012

what my heaven contains

In Matthew 20 the mother of two of Jesus' disciples says to Jesus, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and [the] other at your left in your kingdom."  She doesn't want bigger mansions or larger piles of gold for them, because static images of wealth and prosperity were not what filled people's heads when they thought of heaven in her day.  She understood heaven to be about partnering with God to make a new and better world, one with increasingly complex and expansive expressions and dimensions of shalom, creativity, beauty and design.
So when people ask, "What will we do in heaven?" one possible answer is to simply ask:  "What do you love to do now that will go on in the world to come?"
What is it that when you do it, you lose track of time because you get lost in it?  What do you do that makes you think, "I could do this forever"?  What is it that makes you think, "I was made for this"?
If you ask these kinds of questions long enough you will find some impulse related to creation.  Some way to be, something to do.  Heaven is both the peace, stillness, serenity, and calm that come from having everything in its right place--that state in which nothing is required, needed, or missing--and the endless joy that comes from participating in the ongoing creation of the world.

--from Love Wins:  A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell

I've been reading Bell's book in preparation for a sermon I'm writing.  It's not a hard or lengthy read:  I finished it in less than a day.  Bell writes in a style probably like he writes his sermons, a breezy, companionable, almost singsong style, sometimes looking like a prose poem with flights of verse.  None of this means what he says isn't important or profound.  Much of the Bible is written in the same way.

Bell is pretty controversial in evangelical circles and I understand why.  The reason I'm reading his book now is because the sermon I'm writing is on Universalism, the so-called "poorer cousin" of the merger with Unitarianism, and reading Love Wins and reading about the reaction to it is probably similar to reading a Universalist text a century ago and its response.  Bell's message is similar:  God is too just to damn someone eternally for sins he or she committed during a finite part of an infinite existence.  Such a message is damaging to a theology for which the only thing holding people back from committing all manner of atrocities is the promise of eternal punishment for having done it.  Of course, as we've seen, the threat of contemporary punishment has never kept many people from committing all manner of atrocities anyway.

All of which puts me in mind of a great Twilight Zone episode in which a farmer and his dog find themselves dead and when the farmer finds himself at what he thinks are the gates of heaven he opts not to enter since neither his dog nor hunting is allowed there.  And Bell makes me want to answer what actions make me lose track of time, make me think "I could do this forever" and "I was born for this," what actions bring me shalom?

Gardening, specifically pulling weeds; teaching; driving long distances when I have no timetable and the radio is on; long family walks; packing with my dogs in the upstairs window in the afternoon sun; meals with friends; picking up hitchhikers and taking them where they want to go, maybe especially crazy hitchhikers; visiting other people's churches; listening to other people talk about what they believe; doing hard crosswords; playing scrabble with my wife; meals with friends and strangers; writing sermons, delivering sermons, listening to people's reactions to my sermons (although not, I confess, listening to many other people's sermons); cycling; fly fishing; tai chi; walking home in the bonechilling cold after a good class to a warm house and good conversation and a beer.  These are all things my heaven would contain.

Monday, August 27, 2012

coyote on the trail

that there are wild beasts here on the rim is something we all know.  there've been bears spotted a mile south  and one was shot at the local ramp onto the interstate north of here after being struck by a car.  we've seen turkey and deer, of course, and feral cats, some feral dogs, and there's often stories of wolves.  we often hear coyotes at night, sometimes close by, usually in the winter and spring, but this summer we've heard them since late june.

a couple days ago I was out walking the dogs north on the trail when one dog, the younger husky mix, sprang off into the underbrush and didn't return for about 5 minutes.  that's not unusual.  what was so was that further down the trail, just before he returned, I saw an animal I took at 1st for him emerge from the trees and trot quickly south.  when I realized it wasn't my dog I took it for a fox but then realized it was larger than that, and by the time it had jumped back into the trees and darted into the cow pasture to the east I'd identified it as a coyote.

my dog hadn't barked or growled or made any sounds I could hear and then he plowed back out onto the trail, obviously seeking the coyote.  I say a lot of stuff about them but they're basically well-trained dogs and so when I called him he came right over and submitted to being leashed.  I kept him on it although he pulled and whined as we went by the area the coyote had come out from, and when we passed by the spot where it sprang into the field he went absolutely nuts, tugging and twitching and for the next couple yards kept turning around and whining.  at last I turned too and there, about 40 feet behind us, trotted the coyote.  it was an immature one, not a juvenile I think but younger than an adult, and probably a male.  it hesitated for a moment when I turned, affording me a good look, and then darted into the undergrowth and back into the field.  this was fewer than 10 minutes walk from our house and within spitting distance of our neighbor's homes on both sides of the trail.

what I imagine happened was that my dog smelled the coyote and came perilously close to it resting.  now, my dog is not a bruiser.  he is a big, knuckleheaded, playbowing, overgrown pup, although to an especially near-blind and unable-to-smell coyote he might look like a wolf.  we checked him all over for bites or scratches after we got home but there were none we could find.  what is especially of interest to me is the coyote's trotting after us on the trail after he'd been safely passed by.  my wife said our dog's twisting and turning was his getting into protection stance but I say he was trying to invite the coyote home for a sleepover.

an important part of me is glad I live in a place where there are still dangerous animals prowling.  would my opinion change if one of them attacked and killed my dogs or cats?  probably, at least for a little while.  but that's my problem, not theirs and not, I suspect, even my pets'.  we should be aware of the dangers that surround us and remember that, despite our current position at the top of the predator list most places, that placement doesn't always hold.  nor should it.  I'm not about, like timothy treadwell, to go live with the grizzlies in order to try my luck--I appreciate my securely closed door--but I like having to be aware that, once I step beyond the borders of my property, and at night, even within those borders, there are animals that could and would do me harm.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

fool for christ

some days ago I was coming home from seeing my counselor when I drove past an older woman on the opposite side of the road, taking a photograph of the geese who hang out at one of the local restaurants.  I noted she had several knapsacks, so I figured her to be traveling.  I swung around at a gas station and pulled up and rolled down my passenger window. "sister," I said, "can I offer you a ride somewhere?"

she was about my age, maybe a little older. glasses, long hair in a ponytail down her back, streaked with grey.  ankle-length denim skirt, hightop sneaks, a flannel shirt rolled up to her elbows.  she giggled when she answered.  she said, "I was just taking pictures of the geese.  you never know when you'll see something like this again."

she asked where I was going and I said, "well, I'm heading home, but where are you going?"  she asked how far minneapolis was and I told her it was about an hour.  "oh," she said.  "I guess I'd have a long walk."  she asked again how far I was going and in that moment I could have told the truth and said I was heading about 20 miles further (I did need some dog food there) and dropped her off at the border without an ounce of guilt.  but something suggested I go the extra 40 miles and I said, "sister, I'll take you to minneapolis."

so she tossed her things in the back seat and got in and we exchanged names.  hers was kora (it might have been "coral").  I was facing north when I picked her up and she was surprised I turned around and headed back to the interstate:  "isn't minneapolis that direction?" she said, pointing back the way she'd been walking. "no," I said, "it's west of where we are."  "oh, I would have had a very long walk and gotten nowhere!" she said.

almost immediately she told me she was a street preacher who ministered to the homeless, that god had told her to leave her home a year and a half ago and go out on the road.  I said I was also a preacher.  we asked what each was.  she was "just christian," she said, "just jesus out of the book."  she had heard of unitarian universalists and had met a few and been impressed by them.  she filled up nearly every second of our drive with talk and questions and confessions.

she had left her abusive husband, she said, 5 years ago and back outside denver.  she'd started out 3 days before at a truckstop in south dakota and had been approached by a jamaican woman whose husband was a trucker and asked if she'd come home with them to help her get herself together.  but then this woman had stopped taking her meds, she said, and progressively got more and more aggressive, yelling and berating her, finally literally throwing her bags out of the truck when they'd stopped for gas at the station where I turned around.  she'd camped for 2 nights in the woods nearby, to pray and settle herself, before heading back out, and then had attended midweek services at a lutheran church not far out of town--I know the place, it's a few miles from my house--where she'd heard from people there that there are a lot of homeless people in minneapolis.  so she'd decided to head there (but apparently hadn't a very good idea of where it was from the part of the rim she was on).  I told her she'd likely been driven through minneapolis by the trucker and his wife.

she had been born in alsace-lorraine, she said, but couldn't speak more than rudimentary french and german, and her mother was long dead but her father was ungodly and so dead to her.  she'd grown up somewhere out west, she was very vague about it, and mentioned a daughter who was married.  I tried on occasion to ask about her family but it was like trying to blow into a whirlwind.  she was a talking machine, sometimes punctuating sentences with "praise god!" and "lord, that's your way!" and sometimes girlish giggles.  she was attending an online bible college out of australia run by an evangelical couple that gave 2 types of courses, free and paid for.  she was taking all of them free so she wouldn't get a degree but she didn't think that was important for the ministry she was doing.  she had no idea where she was going or what she would do when she got there except to preach the word to people as she could and if they'd listen and rely on their goodness.  she said that god and jesus had kept her safe and healthy all her time on the road.  she didn't care much, she said, of what anyone else's opinion of her was, she would just be as crazy as jesus wanted her in order to do his work.  I said she was being a fool for christ.  she allowed she'd never heard that phrase but she thought it suited her perfectly.  she repeated it several times during our ride.

she asked me about uuism and I gave her a short answer about no one knowing about an afterlife but we know we have this one and it's important how we treat each other here.  she thought that was wonderful and wanted to experience a uu service so I told her where the nearest congregation was in the area where I was dropping her off.  she'd mentioned her reliance on libraries several times so I told her the perfect place I could think of to drop her off at was on one end of nicollet mall by the county library.  she said that sounded perfect.  when we got there I pulled off to the side of the street and helped her unload and then shoulder everything, we exchanged hugs and "god bless you"s, and I watched her waddle around the corner before driving off and heading back out to the rim.

later, my wife would ask me "do you think she was crazy?" and I'd answer, "yes."  she'd mentioned refusing to take mental health exams in order to receive social services, claiming that second timothy says you can't be crazy and a christian, so since she was christian she wasn't crazy.  but did I think she was a danger to herself or other people?  not for a second.  she seemed to have a solid understanding of life on the road, and if she didn't have it when she started, by this time she had.  she seemed to know how to stay safe--she said she'd never been physically harmed by anyone and I believe her--and when to recharge her energies.  after all, she'd spent a couple nights alone in order to pray and "get herself together."  and she didn't seem too concerned about getting anywhere in particular or getting something done.  she wasn't upset when she found she'd been heading in the wrong direction.  she was content to drift along, going where her god sent her and doing what she thought her god wanted her to do, and from what she told me it seemed what her god wanted wasn't very different from what my god wants me to do:  serve people and help them be as human as possible.  she didn't want anyone to stop doing anything he or she wasn't interested in stopping, just maybe to think about doing something else and being with them while they went about their lives.  she seemed extraordinarily happy and she said she wasn't on any meds--not being crazy--and didn't do drugs or alcohol or smoke.  she just liked people, she said.

Monday, August 13, 2012

teach naked!

on occasion, when I especially miss teaching, I swipe an issue of "the chronicle review," the midsection of the larger chronicle of higher education--my rationale is that it's unlikely most visiters to my local libraries are going to read the chronicle anyway, and it might as well go to use--and spend a few days reading it.  last week I brought home a copy with the short essay "against reading lists" by lennard j. davis.

it's a provocative idea, dropping required readings from syllabi (except for some introductory material) and allowing students to determine, through conversation and suggestion and their own outside reading, where to go next.  say, in a 20th century american lit class opening with some early influential stuff--"song of myself," say, or the red badge of courage--and allow them to determine what and who to read next, maybe choosing from a prepared list of options.

davis recognizes the massive change that ebooks and online availability makes for reading. 

on the internet, one link leads to another.  you look up turner, say, on wikipedia.  that site leads you to the national gallery of art, which in turn leads you to romanticism, which in turn takes you to delacroix, and thus to reubens, who isn't a romantic but whose use of flesh, light, and color influenced that movement.  that little stroll was unpredictable, but a fruitful exercise in intellectual curiosity.  in the past, we've operated with a very different model, conditioned not by the internet and the intellectual meandering it allows but by a kind of linear thinking reflected by the consecutiveness that we find on the printed page.  the fixed reading list is the icon of that linearity.

at first, I wasn't certain he understood what some of the realworld costs of that flexibility meant.  for instance, he suggests that in "the new world of e-books, online publications, and next-day book deliveries, we are freed from the dull hand of tradition," apparently oblivious to the fact that for most students not enrolled at a more expensive school like chicago, where he teaches, such sudden cash expenditures are not easy to negotiate (or for working students to plan reading time around).  he does , however, next present a more affordable and workable alternative, suggesting an e-reader (or an option to spring for paperback copies for the more linear among them) for his students onto which they could download preselected texts.  he says he somehow selected his list so that the 2 groups "would end up spending the same amount of money..." 

that format allowed many impromptu changes in the reading list.  it also allowed us to look at a poem or a short story right at the moment in class when it occured to me to refer to that work.  another benefit was that visual material, not included in the course packet or reading list, could be called up at the mention of a specific reference.

this is doable now, of course, using classbased technology, and I've made much use of that in my more recent practice, putting sites and film clips and readings on the overhead computer screens available in most college classes.  but he makes an excellent point near the conclusion of his essay that what we are looking at is not only new in terms of technology in the class but in the way learning is distributed.

we are now presented with a more 3-dimensional model that reaches through time and space in unpredictable and valuable ways.  the philosophers gilles deleuze and felix guattari called that kind of knowledge "rhizomatic," after a type of plant.  a rhizome, such as a potato, reproduces by sending out underground shoots that form another plant, which in turn does the same thing, producing a network of roots.  deleuze and guattari contrast that to the "arboreal" model, in which a single set of roots produces a single tree, with all its branches connected to one trunk.  deleuze and guattari see the arboreal model as the older model of knowing, hierarchical and organized, such as strict taxonomes of organisms.  they see the rhizomatic as a newer, more effective scheme for organizing knowledge.

Friday, August 10, 2012

what gives me hope, part 2

is it immodest for me to admit that one thing giving me hope is that there are people like me?  tonight I took part in a candlelight vigil at a gurdwara deep in the hub for the victims, including the injured police and the shooter himself, of last sunday's gurdwara shooting near milwaukee.  it was over 60 miles and an hour away and I went for 2 reasons:  as a representative of one of the local uu congregations (and as a rep from another congregation where I'd interned), and so as a member of the community; and as a visitor earlier this summer to this same gurdwara for a service.  in both instances, I felt welcomed, appreciated, and loved.

I think this is one of the things I do best, to be a visitor to other faiths.  I enjoy seeing people when they are at their most reverent and joining them in worship.  in the case of sikhs, of course, I can't pray with them because I don't speak punjabi, but I stand and bow and make obeisance when they do.  I rock gently while listening to the tablas and during prayers.  I feel a part of them for those hours and it is a holy, hopeful feeling.  there were easily several hundred people filling the gurdwara tonight, sitting in shirts and ties and stockinged feet, christians and jews and muslims and buddhists and likely some atheists (and at least a couple uus, me and my former intern supervisor, his baha'i wife, and a quaker I know from seminary), all of us in the cool night air, the mix of body smells and chants and photos of the dead on the screens above us and then outside standing yards from the interstate with our little cups of light, and then inside again for lentils and chapati and dal and rice and fruit, and finally back into the night air to drive home with the windows down and the radio playing really low and feeling like for this moment everything is right with the world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

what gives me hope

last week I was asked during a job interview what gave me hope--interview questions for ministers are a little different than for, say, retail workers--and my answer was something akin to the following but lynn margulis does a much better job of putting it together. it is knowing this that helps me to keep on keeping on when a bush is elected or a walker is reelected.

[T]he brilliant American bacteriologist Lynn Margulis has proposed that every kosmos, from the microcosmic organism on up to our macrocosmic planet, has evolved through a very long game of symbiosis, "the coming together that leads to physical interdependence and the permanent sharing of cells and bodies."  Two billion years ago, free-floating bacteria combined to form what Margulis calls "bacterial confederacies."  These confederacies gradually formed a thin membrane that held them together.  Then some of the bacteria turned into the oxygen-using mitochondria, and a command center, the nucleus, took shape.  The cell was born, or rather, self-made through what some scientists today call autopoiesis.  Then cells took up residence inside larger organisms that in turn developed into their own protective membranes.  And they are still with us.  "The descendants of the bacteria that swam in primeval seas breathing oxygen three billion years ago exist now in our bodies as mitochondria," writes Margulis...The larger flora and fauna in turn formed communities within forests and other ecosystems that also acted as even larger, self-regulating organisms.  And all of these biomes are finally protected by an even larger membrane, the atmosphere.  Margulis refers to her theory, her scientific creation story, as symbiogenesis.
--from an american gospel:  on family, history, and the kingdom of god by erik reece

despite all that's been done to it--and earth and the cosmos have done more to it than puny mortal creatures like us can do to it (although that's not to say we can't make it uninhabitable for ourselves or other creatures)--the earth and existence has carried on.  and even despite what we do to ourselves, we continue in more or less the same shape.  that gives me hope on both a species and an individual level.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

you are the eyes of the world

I've never been a deadhead.  I've worn my share of tiedye.  I've taken more--more!--than my share of recreational drugs.  I've listened, stoned and enraptured, to songs and recordings of the band and cover artists and dipped and nodded my head over and over again.  I know the lineup from any given period, from pigpen  and the godchaux to bruce hornsby and joan osborne.  my wife renews my sirius xm subscription every year so I can listen to the dead channel.  but I never followed them, never been part of a tourpposse.  I don't have all their albums or any tapes.  I only ever attended one--one!--show, in medford, massachussets, in 86.  or 87.  or 88.  but I'm certain it was medford.

so it wouldn't be out of place to wonder why I went along with spending $25 last night to watch the grateful dead movie from 77 rereleased for what would have been jerry garcia's 70th birthday.  and I might have balked at it too had I been as certain that it was the same movie I'd seen 2ce before, in the late 80s and the early 90s, and if I'd known that my wife and I would be only 2 among 10 people in the theater.  but then I would have missed out on something special in a small, personal way.

my wife had called in the middle of the day a couple weeks ago telling me she'd received an email about the  event and an offer for early tickets, and did I want to go, and I said, "sure, why not?"  it promised to be a fun evening, maybe jammed in with hundreds, a thousand, sweaty, patchouli-soaked, bongaddled now-grandparents, ripped free from the usual wednesday night babysitting for their adult children's date night.  when we got to the theater, however, it was dark and empty, and in the hallway we met with an older woman with her adult kids in tiedye, who told me there had only been 8 tickets sold for the event.  we ticked off the people as they arrived, every one of us wearing something tiedyed.  by the end, another 2 people had wandered in, but I never got a look at them to see if they were wearing the colors.

but we settled in.  no one had anything to smoke.  of all of us, only 1 guy, in his late 20s, may have had an idea where even to score in downtown minneapolis on a wednesday early evening, and he wasn't saying.  my wife said several times we should have brought a beach ball.  the lights went down and the opening advertisements started--the rerelease was coinciding with a boxed set of dead concert material whose pricetag made it pretty certain to whom it was being marketed--those of us Of A Certain Age and whose credit hadn't been maxed out.  then bob weir came on and chatted about the recording studio he'd built in jerry's honor.  it was meant as someplace to play, he said.

and then the movie itself, the feature presentation, began, and for a few minutes I was a little putoff.  I recognized the opening animation and I was a trifle peeved I'd plunked down $25 for something I'd seen previously and in the company of less than a dozen other celebrants.

but after a while I got into the groove and realized I was watching something that, no matter how often I'd seen it, I hadn't seen with quite the same eyes.  for instance, I'd only watched it on tape, and on drugs, and here it was on a screen, as it was made for, and straight.  and the number of people, or the lack of people, that mattered not at all either.  name me another band, outside perhaps the stones or the who, for whom even a dozen people will show up a decade after they stop touring to watch a 40 year old movie about them.    I don't anticipate a 2050 rerelease of hannah montana the movie.

but what I was seeing in this old, old concert film was a time that I once lived, when camping out for 5 days for tickets was something one did if one really, really wanted to be there (and not spending 15 minutes online only to find the show was sold out in the 1st 3 minutes).  when a community grew up, for better and worse, around the idea of a band and the measure of its output and what it gave to its fans.  where attending a concert was an experience of communion, the music a kind of aural wafer offered to the suppliant by guitarslingling priests.

so we danced and swung and nodded and shimmied in our seats to the sounds barreling out of the big screen and it didn't matter that the images were grainy and sometimes skipped and that there were only a few other people experiencing this with you.  it only mattered there were other people, you weren't alone, and they felt the same.  and it all felt really, really good.