J.S. Bach: Ich Habe Genug (I Have Enough)

Why is this the most frequently recorded of all Bach’s cantatas? Its beauty, no doubt. My wife, Laurel, and I surely were overwhelmed by this gentle but powerful song of faith – this is one of the few Bach cantatas that does not have a chorus — played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, on a dark and rainy October afternoon.

We joked about the words of the cantata afterwards, on our way to a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. Ich habe genug! That doesn’t mean, “I’ve had enough,” I reminded her. No, Bach speaks in the present tense. “I have enough.”

Contrast my own response to many of the trends of our society these days. More than once, in recent years, I have had the impulse to say “I’ve had enough.”

I read the papers each day not because I want to, but as a habit or a discipline. There’s Ebola in West Africa. There’s the climate crisis and the Middle East. There’s the atrocious fact that the poor keep getting poorer all over the world. Not to speak of continued police violence directed at African-Americans in our own country.

Then there’s the sometimes vicious 24-hour TV news cycle. Referring to the Ebola epidemic, the Drudge Report called Obama – “President Obola.” I watched most of a TV debate by the candidates for the Senate in New Hampshire, during which the Republican, Scott Brown, announced that if his candidate, Mitt Romney, had been President, not Obama, we wouldn’t have had an Ebola crisis today! Somehow Obama is responsible for Ebola!

Stop the world, I want to get off! I’ve had enough.

On the subway to the concert, Laurel had her own intense moment of agitation. At the Park Street station, the MBTA had changed the track it had used for years to the Symphony stop, without putting up any signs. As we sat there then, waiting for the right train to arrive on the wrong track, we almost missed the beginning of the concert! The Bach! “I’ve had it!” Laurel said, no doubt thinking of the countless bureaucratic idiocies of our technologized world today.

I’ve had it? I’ve had enough?

Bach, in contrast, sings in the present tense. I have enough. Clearly this is a voice from a bygone age of faith. On the other hand, many citizens of our age of unfaith cannot help but want to listen to Bach’s moving personal testimony, as often as possible: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms….”

Bach was by no means some naïve, childish prophet who believed that things are better than they look or that things will get better and better. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) affected four generations of the Bach family, and was a vivid memory. Bach himself lost a number of children — and wives — to various accidents of history during his relatively long life.(1685-1750) Nevertheless he announces to his world and to his God in this, the most intimate confession of his faith, “I have enough.” I don’t need anything else!

Bach is working with the church’s lectionary here which features the story of the old man Simeon in the temple, who cradles the infant Jesus in his arms, and sings these words (as I remember them, from my own childhood): “Lord, now lettest thou, thy servant, depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

This is how the first aria of Ich Habe Genug begins: “I have enough,/ I have taken the Savior,/ the hope of the righteous,/ into my arms;/ I have enough!/ I have beheld Him,/ my faith has pressed Jesus/ to my heart;/ now I wish, even today/ with joy/ to depart from here.”

This amazingly gifted church musician, greatest perhaps among all the great composers, utters so powerfully and so movingly this simple statement of trust. Like Simeon, he is now ready, even eager to die. And, turning the image around, he envisions this astounding journey “into the cool soil of earth,” where he can rest in “the lap of Jesus.”

So Bach sings, with the words of some unidentified poet (himself?): “My God! When will the/ lovely ‘now!’ come,/ when I will journey into peace/ and into the cool soil of earth,/ and there, near You, rest in Your lap?”

Of course, as I leaned forward to listen, I recalled that in a few weeks I would mark my 79th birthday. My remaining days on this good earth are relatively few. Where am I going? What am I to do with the rest of my life? How am I to pray? Am I ready to depart and be with Jesus in the cool soil of the earth?

Laurel and I have decided that our ashes are to be interred in the Hidden Garden (so we call it) behind our old farm house in southwestern Maine. I have written at some length about this story. Our ashes will be dug into the cool soil of the earth at the foot of a grand, albeit still young, purple beech, which we planted there, marked by a small Celtic Cross which we also placed there. That to me, inspired by the testimony of witnesses like Bach, is where Laurel and I can rest in the lap of Jesus. Not in some far off heaven, far removed from this earth.

This means that I can begin my day tomorrow with joy and resolve, as I hopefully will be inspired to do: to engage a world which often drives me to say, “I’ve had enough.” with abandon, because, deep within, I know that I have enough.

In Praise of Generosity: The Border Crisis and Some Biblical Texts

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

In the liberal state of Massachusetts, a woman phoned into a radio talk show to ask that state’s governor a question:  “Why do we have to spend our money to take care of somebody else’s children?”  She was referring to the governor’s announced intention to provide a temporary, but safe place for some of the thousands of children who had been crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, in order to escape the constant violence of countries like Honduras.

Hers was a representative voice. Many Americans, some card-carrying Christians among them, are likewise distressed by the flood of immigrants crossing into the U.S. from the south.  Thankfully, church leaders of all stripes are standing up to speak in behalf of those children.  Whose voices will carry the day?

This is a kairos moment for Americans in general and for American Christians in particular.  Kairos is one of the two Greek words for “time.”  Kairos means “the right time” or an “urgent time”:  the time for the harvest, for example, or the time for the birth of a baby.  In the 1980’s an ecumenical group of Christians in South Africa produced what they called “the Kairos Document,” a biblically based statement calling for the end of apartheid and all its violence.  Thanks, in part, to their leadership, the South African people rose to the occasion, with a pervasive and passionate commitment to non-violent resistance.  It was the beginning of the ending of the apartheid system.

The exodus of the children from Mexico into the U.S. may well be a kairos moment for our country, likewise, particularly for those who are committed to follow Jesus.  All over the earth today, refugees are flooding into neighboring areas, desperately.  Think not only of the U.S.-Mexico border, but of places like Syria and Gaza.  But those are just today’s headlines.

Forces are also at work around the globe, driven by climate change, that will before too long produce countless millions of “environmental immigrants,” as well, people like those mostly poor families who live in Bangladesh, who will be driven from their ancestral lands by rising ocean waters.

Ours is indeed a kairos moment, not only politically, as in the case of the children’s exodus, but also ecologically, as in the case of threats to the very lives of millions of the poor of the earth in places like Bangladesh.  How will Americans, particularly American Christians, respond to this kairos?

We could pout and then go sit in our gated communities or wherever, making sure not to listen to the daily news too much.  We could complain the way that caller did to the Governor of Massachusetts.  Call that the Jonah strategy.  Jonah pouted when God didn’t destroy Nineveh, the way Jonah wanted God to do. (Jon. 4:1-5)  So some Americans pout:  why should we have to pay attention to, not to speak of paying to help, all those political and environmental refugees?

But that’s not the way the God whom we know from the pages of the Bible wants things to be.  God cares for all the children of this earth, including those living in alien places like Nineveh.  God even cares about the animals of Nineveh! (Jon. 4:11)  Are we going to pout about the Ninevehs of this world?  Maybe even buy a gun or two in order to feel more secure?

St. Paul was faced with this kind of choice.  And he was ambivalent about it. (Phil. 1:22-24)  Frankly, he said, he’d rather depart this stressful life and be with Jesus in the kingdom to come, where he could be at home, once and for all, and not have to face up to all the stresses and strains of his ministry:  prison, persecution, ship-wrecks, church members fighting with one another.  But, notwithstanding the ambivalence, Paul knew who he was, one who had been called to take up his cross and follow Jesus. (Phil. 1:21)

What does “dying with Christ” mean for those of us American Christians who live relatively comfortable, relatively secure and well fed, well cared-for lives?  What is our kairos moment saying to us?  How will we take to heart the plight of millions of political and environmental refugees today and in the years to come?  What sacrifices are we prepared to make?  How are we to take up our crosses, in this respect?

Are we ready to sacrifice time and resources so we can rally around our church leaders who are calling our whole society to love and care for the refugees at our borders, particularly the children among them?  Are we ready to sacrifice our sometimes anxious sense of security, by welcoming refugees into our own communities and congregations?  Are we ready to risk disapproval from our neighbors, by vociferously raising the issues posed by climate change or by passionately speaking out in behalf of those animals suffering the tortures of industrial agriculture?

But to do that, to be ready even to think about sacrificing ourselves, taking up our crosses, we’ve probably got to deal first with an inner agenda.  And that may be the most difficult thing of all.

Many of us have borne the heat and burden of the day.  We’ve been working long and hard, like our parents and maybe our grandparents before us.  (That our grandparents were poor immigrants from Germany or Sweden or Ireland is another matter.  Worth thinking about, though.)  Why should we share our land and our resources and our economy and the fruits of our labors with all these latecomers flooding across our borders?  Why should we have to change our way of life so that poor Bangladeshi children won’t be driven from their homes into even deeper poverty and social insecurity by rising waters?

Jesus has another take on these matters.  Those laborers who came to work in the vineyard at the end of the day were paid the same wages as those who had born the heat and burden of the day! (Mt. 29:9)  That’s why those who worked all day of course grumbled, (Mt. 20:10-11) like the woman talking to the Governor of Massachusetts.  But Jesus has a simple answer to such inner discontent on the part of those who’ve worked so hard.  God is a generous God!  God cares for everybody!  So we all are free to do the same!

Are we ready to make that inner change, to take the generosity of God to heart and to go and do likewise?  And to sing along the way, praising the generosity of God?   Singing with the Psalmist:  “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps. 145:8f.)  Isn’t the time – the kairos – at hand now, for all of us to sing this song, praising the generosity of God, both in word and in deed?

For more information about “the crisis at the border” and advocacy opportunities in behalf of refugees, see the website of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service:  http://lirs.org/

Raking the Forest Path: A Christian Spirituality in Brief

Every late fall, I rake the forest path. It usually takes me a couple of days. I began to carve out that path at the edges of the rugged, wooded hill behind our old farm house in rural, southwestern Maine some forty years ago.

I love to saunter up and down and around that path whenever I can, to let my mind wander, to contemplate the larger things of life, and to encounter surprises along the way, a huge, fallen branch from a hundred-year old white pine, a pristine rhododendron blossom, the telltale knocking of an unseen woodpecker, the mysterious footprints of a moose. For me, this walk is a way of loving nature.

But I couldn’t do the walking without the raking. In the fall that path totally disappears underneath a thick layer of oak and beech leaves. When that happens, even I sometimes have trouble following the path. Still more of a problem, if the path isn’t raked, it can be hazardous. Left to itself, that layer of leaves is like a sheet of ice. The leaves cover over fallen branches, too, on which you can get tripped up. So you can easily go careening down the path and smash into a tree or even fall over a ledge. Hence my regular raking.

I have only recently realized, after the publication of my book, Before Nature, that that raking and that walking tell the evolving story of my own spirituality of loving nature that I narrate in that book. My understanding of God was challenged and it changed. My approach to spiritual practices changed as well.

I want to tell that story here, in brief, because spirituality is all the rage these days, especially the spirituality of nature, and some who are so engaged seem to have lost their way. Be that as it may, I hope that at least a few who are seeking to love nature more fervently will benefit from hearing the personal story I am about to tell. I also hope that this brief story here will whet the reader’s appetite for the full story which I narrate in Before Nature.

I.

I was baptized almost eighty years ago, “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Years later, beginning in the late nineteen-sixties, when I served as the Chaplain of a women’s school, Wellesley College, I found myself questioning the spirituality I had inherited with my Baptism.

In those days, I invited feminist theologians to preach in the college chapel where I presided, people like Mary Daly and Rosemarie Radford Ruether. No way could I escape wrestling with the charge they made that Christianity, with its accent on “God, the Father almighty,” was spiritually destructive, precisely because it preached, or was alleged to preach, the rule of a dominating, exploitative male God. They also said that Christianity has been destructive of nature, that the vision of a domineering heavenly Father led in practice to the exploitation of the earth.

Those feminist theologians were not the only ones in those years who objected to historic Christianity on the grounds of its allegedly destructive approach to nature. Many other critics said the same, often on the basis of historical analysis of the role the Christian faith had played in fomenting modern industrial society’s exploitation of nature. Christians, said many of these critics, care only about God and humanity, not about nature.

And I thought of myself as a lover of nature!? Not for nothing did I carve out and care for and walk along that ascending and descending forest path in southwestern Maine. But what kind of spiritual path was I really following?

II.

Early on, I decided that the critics, overall, had their point. As a lover of nature, I would therefore have to rake away a lot of dead ideas, if I were to uncover the viable spirituality of nature that I instinctively knew was there underneath it all. My understanding of God would have to change, to begin with. Fortunately, others had begun to respond to the same kind of challenge, in their own settings.

First, I learned from the Reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann how God the Father can helpfully be engaged as God “the motherly Father.” Thus understood, we also can envision the Father as suffering with the Son on the Cross.

In a word, God the Father is not some dominating heavenly patriarch, far removed from our suffering or the suffering of other creatures. God the Father, rather, is the eternal Giver, “in, with, and under” (Luther) the whole creation. God the Father loves the whole world, as John 3:16, my Confirmation text, says, not just humans. And God the Father will therefore, one day, bring all things to fulfilment and joy in the bosom of the Father, not just humans.

Second, I learned that God the Father alone is not the Creator, even though our creeds, understood just by themselves, tend to leave us with that impression. The whole Trinity is the Creator.

The Son is the “cosmic Christ.” That conviction is attested throughout the New Testament, but especially in the Letter to the Colossians, as the Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler taught me. According to Colossians, Christ is “before all things, and in him all thing hold together.” (Col. 1:17)

The Spirit, likewise, is the “Lifegiver” of all things, a thought highlighted most instructively by the Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson. This image is especially vivid in Genesis 1:2, where we see the Spirit hovering creatively over the primeval waters of the world coming into being.

Third, I learned from a number of scholars who had studied ancient Christianity in the context of the Roman Empire that the earliest expressions of the Christian faith in God, the Father of Jesus, were totally opposed to the domination or the exploitation of anything.

The God whom Jesus proclaimed, according to the Gospel of Luke, is the God who liberates the poor, who lets the oppressed go free.(see Luke 4:16-21) The God whom Paul announced is a God who hears the groaning of the whole creation and who works to liberate the whole creation. As Paul says in Romans 8, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” (v. 22) and will itself “be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (v. 21)

For Paul, more particularly, this God is revealed in the lordship of Jesus Christ. And that lordship is nonviolent and compassionate. For this reason Paul stood opposed to the violent and self-exalting lordship of Caesar, including Caesar’s destructive policies toward the world of nature in his own day. Scholars have shown that members of the churches in Rome, to whom Paul wrote, would have well understood “the groaning of creation” as referring, in part, to Roman desecration of the natural world, in order to bolster the Empire’s own wealth and power.

III.

With my spiritual path thus cleared of old ideas, having uncovered those new understandings of God, I also realized that I would have to “walk the walk” of prayer in a new way. I concluded that my regular regimen of Sunday liturgy and daily prayers over meals and at bedtime was not enough. Somehow I would need to develop a deeper awareness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the whole creation every moment of my life. Could I learn to “pray without ceasing,” as the Scriptures admonished us to do? (I Thess. 5:17)

Providentially, I came upon a Christian tradition that practiced precisely that approach to prayer. A number of Eastern Orthodox writers had championed what they thought of as “the Jesus Prayer,” in order explore what it might mean to pray without ceasing. I adopted that prayer and then took it further, as I developed my own spiritual practices anew.

The prayer I eventually learned to say regularly begins like that Eastern Orthodox prayer, by calling to Jesus and asking for his mercy. In my view, that’s the best way for all of us sinners to begin our prayers. But I needed to be more explicit about other equally familiar themes of our faith.

Hence the prayer I began to use regularly goes beyond a plea to Jesus for mercy. It centers on the mystery of the Trinity, the name in which I was baptized and the God whom I know in, with, and under the whole creation, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My prayer then concludes by calling on the Spirit to sanctify all things, to realize all the promises of God for the whole creation and to do so without delay.

I call this “the Trinity Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.” All these are ancient Christian themes, obviously. That’s why, as a matter of fact, they speak to me so powerfully.

I have found that repeating the Trinity Prayer as often as possible during the day – weaving in the new understandings of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that have been given to me since my days at Wellesley College — can work to keep me on a very good spiritual path as far as nature is concerned. Because the God whom I thus constantly address is the God of the whole creation.

IV.

I hope that all will understand that, for me, my raking and walking this way in “the cathedral of the great outdoors,” on any given day in southwestern Maine, presupposes my walking into and worshiping within “the cathedral of the great indoors” every Sunday, in inner-city Boston, Massachusetts. I continue to be a devout church-goer and also an ardent advocate of urban ministry. In Boston, too, I do everything I can, both publicly and privately, to help those who are struggling to address life-threatening climate-change challenges. But those are stories for another time.

This is my Christian spirituality of nature today, toward the end of my life, a regular raking and a frequent walking along that forest path that I hope I can continue as long as I enjoy the breath of life, praying the Trinity Prayer as often as possible: thus constantly being aware of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the God of nature, as well as humankind. This I recommend as a tested Christian way to love nature, as God does.

 

Recycling Thoughts of Bicycling

I saw a photo in a Maine newspaper of a cyclist riding along, wearing a yellow T-Shirt. Inscribed on the back: “Give me three feet please.” I empathize.

Boston has painted cycle lanes on many streets. I have noticed that the space of those cyclists isn’t always respected. Give them three feet, please.

On the other hand, I frequently find myself on the other side of things, not as a driver, but as a pedestrian. I would like to wear a T-shirt on my walks along the Charles River that states: “Ring your bell please.”

This has been my experience. I am walking along the joint-cyclist/pedestrian pathway by the river. I am walking on the right. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a cyclist silently whizzes by, a couple of feet to my left. I had no idea that such a cycling whirlwind had been approaching me, until it passed me by.

My Lord! I could have been killed! Or smashed into, to the detriment of both the cyclist and the pedestrian. What if I had suddenly moved to my left, to tie my shoe, propping my foot on the guardrail? What if I had suddenly turned to my left to catch sight of a beautiful bird, which had suddenly appeared? And what if, at that very moment, a cyclist had been silently whizzing by? The cyclist would have crashed into me, to the physical displeasure of both of us.

Shouldn’t every cyclist be required, by the canons of common decency, if not of law, to have a bell; and to use that bell every time he or she passes a pedestrian from behind?

I know that I should look behind me every time I move off my course on the right side of the path. But help! I can’t control myself! Impulsively I move to my left to see that multi-colored bird, whose name I don’t know, or to catch sight of that sweet young thing, jogging along on the other side of the street, with her rhythmic endowment in dramatic evidence. Okay. It’s a weakness of my nature. But I can’t do anything about it. But do I have to be killed because of it?

Actually, more than once, I’ve been nearly run over by a speeding cyclist. So fast and so silently did he or she pass me by that I didn’t even have time to yell: ring your frigging bell!

But the problem is: most of those cyclists don’t even have bells to ring! That’s been my observation anyway.

So this is my proposal. I will give you three feet whenever I’m driving my car and passing you by. And you will buy and install a bell and ring it every time you come speeding – oh so silently – click, click, click – upon a pedestrian from behind. Deal?

Oil in the Yard

I walked over to Harvard the last day of April from my nearby residence, to lend my tired voice to the students and faculty and alums who had gathered there in the Yard to protest the University’s failure to divest itself of its holdings in oil. Been there, done that, it felt, hundreds of times. But it was worth the walk.

It was a cold spring morning. As I stood there – perhaps the oldest alum in that gathering of about two-hundred souls – feeling that chill to my bones, I carried a sign that a student had given me, “The Temp is Going Up!”

The first speaker, a writer for The Nation and an alumnus, reveled in his anger against Harvard and its President, Drew Faust, as well he should have. Make no mistake about it, he yelled into his hand mike, those who are already suffering the most from climate change and who will continue to suffer all the more are the poor, the oppressed, and the forgotten.

I had written a long letter to the President some months before, in a more temperate voice. But it was, for me, an angry letter. As is my wont, I waxed theological. I reminded her of the Kairos Document in South Africa, during the late eighties. There comes a time, I said, when even the normally and appropriately detached institutions of this world must take a stand. Nor would it do, I observed, to make the perfectly accurate and perfectly commonplace point that if Harvard were to sell its holdings in fossil fuels others would buy that stock; and Harvard would probably lose money in the process, thereby becoming less able to educate the future scientists and politicians and clergy who would one day seek to work for real change in the socio-economic-religious system. Rather, I observed, she should listen to voices like Desmond Tutu’s, which have made what should be, for any academic with eyes to see, the obvious historical point: it was the divestment movement in the U.S. during the nineteen-eighties-and-nineties, above all else, which was the tipping point in the international struggle against apartheid.

Weeks later, I received a polite letter from President Faust. Harvard’s scientists are leaders in climate change science, she said. Harvard has a vigorous “Green Initiative” of its own, she said. And Harvard is educating students who will be leaders in the global campaign for climate justice, she said. Divestment will accomplish nothing useful, she said.

The second speaker, a former professor at the Harvard Business School, was more reflective than the first. Was it surprising, she asked, that she had been the only professor with any connection with the Business School who had joined with the more than one-hundred faculty in their letter to President Faust, demanding that Harvard divest itself of its holdings in fossil fuels? Did this not signify that, apart from its commitment to Veritas and such good things, Harvard was most deeply committed to business-as-usual? She also referred to a scientific study which had projected that, if things are to continue in their present course, the waters of the Massachusetts Bay will have, by 2040, flooded the Charles River back up to Mt. Auburn Street, not far from where we were standing. So, given the oil in the Yard, I thought to myself, oil and water would mix, all too soon.

The third and final speaker, mirabile dictu, was a clergyperson, the local Unitarian pastor, bedecked in his – egads! – shiny white, traditional clerical collar. His theological heritage to my contrary nothwithstanding, it was gratifying for me to notice that he seemed to be welcomed by the student activists, all wearing their identifying yellow T-shirts, more than any other speaker. Was he, again, mirabile dictu, a kind of godfather for those activists? Where, by the way, were the other Pastors from the Harvard Square churches and the Preacher to the University? Where were the Divinity School faculty? Didn’t they know about this protest against oil in the Yard? What had become of the prophetic voice of the churches that so preoccupied so many of us when I was a member of the “United Ministry” in the nineteen-sixties? Thankfully this Unitarian brother was there and there visibly (I also met another clergyperson, wearing a stole, from the Old Cambridge Baptist Church). And thankfully, he quoted the prophet Amos at length – and everyone cheered!

The point of the whole rally was to support the six students who stood at the door of the President’s office-building demanding her to repent (my language). Each of the speakers lauded those students; all the rest of us enthusiastically applauded. What was to come of all this? Back home, my dear wife told me that she had already seen a Google News story that six students had blockaded the President of Harvard. That was something. But quo vadis, Harvard? Be that as it may, I say, with apologies to Chairman Mao, let a thousand flowers bloom. Who knows what might spring forth with such spring flowers, especially in that Yard?

As I stood there freezing, but warm of heart, my eyes drifted across the Yard to Holworthy Hall, opened in 1812, thanks to a large grant given “for the promotion of learning and the promulgation of the Gospel.” I lived in that brick, colonial edifice for the better part of a year in 1953-54, my first innocent experience of this great university. Sixty years later, now much more wistfully, having acquired a doctorate in theology from the Divinity School along the way, I concluded that I had come back to the right place that cold April morning in that venerable Yard, precisely, this time, because of all the oil.

Boston Strong?

I haven’t heard “Boston strong” mentioned once in my – mostly African-American – church in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood.  While the whole Boston area, and by news accounts apparently the whole nation, was fixated on the running of the Boston Marathon this year, and proud, to all appearances, of the resiliency of the people of Boston, coming back so “strong” after last year’s bombings at the end of the marathon, it was as if the thing had never happened, as far as my church was concerned.  On any given Sunday, we typically pray about everything, but nary a prayer about “Boston strong” the Sunday before the Marathon.

I did read one article in the Boston Globe at the time of the Marathon that referred to the scores of African-Americans killed each month in street violence in Boston.  Why no uproar about that?, the article asked.  But for the most part, by my observation, people in the Boston area weren’t of a mind, or didn’t have the heart, for that kind of uproar.

I live in Watertown.  Late into the evening of the day of the Marathon bombings, I heard multiple sirens.  Must be a large fire somewhere, I thought.  Then the sirens became even more strident.  So I turned on the television to see what, if anything, of note was happening.  It was then that I realized that Watertown had become ground zero for the pursuit of the bombers.  Scores of police cars and other emergency vehicles were dashing in every direction, it seemed.

At one point, I looked down on the Charles River, from the vantage point of the roof of my building, and I saw this sight:  across the Charles, on Soldier’s Field Road, four police cars were racing north, sirens blasting; down below, on Greenough Boulevard, four police cars were racing south, sirens blasting.  Was Greater Boston mobilized?

Life in the area, the next day, as is well known, came to a virtual halt, while thousands of law enforcement personnel searched relentlessly for the bombers.  And, of course, most of us had little else to do than to watch CNN doing endless interviews, a number of which were done a few blocks from my building.  It was surreal to see locals interviewed in front of the diner, where my wife and I sometimes go for breakfast.

One Sunday several weeks before, in my church, we had prayed for a family known to some in the congregation, who had lost a little girl.  She had been playing on her front porch and was hit by random street gunfire.  Such deaths add up in places like Roxbury and Dorchester.  So does the misery such deaths wreak in the hearts of family members who suffer such losses.  But, notwithstanding efforts by neighborhood pastors and churches and a variety of residents, such deaths keep happening, and it’s as if nobody else notices.  Such deaths and such misery don’t seem to count as much as the deaths and the misery perpetrated by the Marathon bombers.

Is Boston really strong?

Two Days at the End of Winter in Rural Maine: Inside and Out

The plumber called today, early. Thankfully, I thought, as I turned over in bed to grab the phone and rubbed my eyes in the morning twilight. I’d been eagerly awaiting that call, since our toilet – our only toilet – had been nearly stopped up for a couple of days. Longer than that actually, since I – whose grandfather and two of his sons had been plumbers by trade – fancied myself to be a kind of down-home expert on toilets; and I had been using my own five-foot long plumber’s snake off and on, for months, to clear blockages. But to no avail. It was time. Even I have limits, when it comes to plumbing. Hence the plumber’s call, rousing me from my peaceful slumber.

I knew the guy. I’d called on him before, in the aftermath of other – failed – efforts of mine with the house’s plumbing. I drain the domestic water of our summer home every late fall, so that it doesn’t freeze during the brutal Maine winter. Sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit, I forget about a section in one of the copper water pipes. The result: that part of the pipe freezes, of course. And, in the spring, when I turn on the water pump from our deep-drilled well outside, I hear that deadly fzzzzz, that telltale sound of water gushing through a crack in the copper pipe that froze and split. So I call Mark, the plumber, and he comes out and replaces that section of the pipe for me. I long ago gave up trying to sweat the copper pipes myself. One time, working on an elbow joint underneath a wood cabinet in our kitchen, I almost set the house on fire with my torch. So praise the Lord for Mark, I say.

Mark showed up carrying the same kind of plumber’s snake I’d been using. That was a disappointment. I’d thought that he would have brought the kind of machine-driven, diamond-headed snake that the real pros in the city use. But I told him to give it a try anyway. He did. He jammed and twisted that snake ferociously for some time, as often I had done. The result: we poured some water down the toilet and that water sloshed happily into the downpipe and thence, thankfully, out into our septic tank. Rats, I thought. How could hehave done that, doing the same thing that I’d done many times before?

“Dunno,” said Mark. Then he looked down into the toilet bowl. “Wazzat?!,” he exclaimed. He put on a pair of surgical gloves (true), reached down into the bowl and pulled out — a fork! A dinner fork! Two of its points were bent in opposing directions, making it look like the under-structure of one of those tiny multi-colored paper umbrellas that you get at tourist restaurants when you order a Hawaiian drink. My own labors with the plumber’s snake over the preceding months had perhaps done that kind of damage to that fork, even as I had apparently jammed it more securely in place down in the depths. I couldn’t resist. I told Mark: “The challenge, then, isn’t the fork in the road, it’s the fork in the toilet.” “Yup,” he said, without any sign whatsoever of a smile.

How did that fork get in there? No doubt in my mind. One of our toddler grandkids, had thrown it in there. Maxwell and Marlow – both of whom I had baptized in a huge white crock outdoors a couple of summers before, with much well-water from that very plumbing system – love to throw things into watery places, no matter where or of what kind. I knew, by then, that they were particularly fond of heaving small, toy cars into watering cans or into the dishwater or amidst recently watered garden plants or even into the stream outside. But a fork!? In the toilet!?

April 3, 2014. From the dark bowls of the earth, to the bright heavens. From the twilight to the sunshine. Cascading, overwhelmingly resplendent sunshine.

Over more than four decades of married life, I have learned the key to marital happiness. I do what I’m told. In this instance, I found myself out back in our perennial garden, somewhat bewildered at first, but happy. It was a strange sensation, because that garden was then covered with three feet of snow.

This had been an unusually cold winter, even by Maine standards, so the snow still appeared pristine. It was dry, through and through, although layered, here and there, with sheets of solid ice, signaling times of thawing during the past winter. My assignment: to clear as much snow as I could from the perennial garden. The rationale: since the perennial garden is on the north side of the house, due to the shadow from the house it would remain covered with snow and, well into the late spring, with thick ice, at the very time when the snow and ice overlaying all the surrounding earth would have melted and signs of green would be emerging everywhere.

Whatever grumbling, however, that had lurked within my soul while I was layering my body with my outdoor winter clothes in order to shovel the garden (!), was soon dissipated. The brightness was indeed overwhelming. Not just the great ball of fire over my head in the cloudless blue sky, but the reflection of its rays everywhere, shining forth even from the precipitous hill behind me, where the barren trees scarcely inhibited its rays.

I once read that First Nation peoples in the Arctic have dozens of words for what we call “snow.” (Strikingly, it has also been reported that they have no word to name the bird we call “robin” – even when they see one, these days — since, prior to the advent of climate change in our time, those ancient peoples never saw a robin!) During the midday when I was shoveling the perennial garden, I had some sense of what those First Nation peoples might have experienced with the changes of their seasons so far north and the changes of their weather, above all when they contemplated the contours and the colors and the textures of the snow all around them.

When my brother and I were kids, maybe not yet ten and seven, we used to frolic for hours in the deep winter snows of exurban Buffalo, New York, where we grew up. We dug tunnels. We cut out blocks of snow in order to build make-shift igloos in a ewe grove, where we would sometimes sit in the quiet and just listen to our own breathing. At those times, the snow was enchanted, as far as we were concerned.

I felt some of that enchantment as I carved out blocks of snow and then carefully hoisted them to what I knew as the field behind me. As a large trench emerged, maybe forty feet long, three feet wide, and three feet deep, I recalled those magic times that my brother and I had enjoyed together in the snow. Warmed by the sun and protected from the brisk winds by my winter garments and by the trench in which I stood, I also recalled, as is my wont, the elegant simplicity of St. Francis’s great hymn to the sun.

Francis himself probably was not thinking of the glories of the sun reflected on the crystal snow, although I would not rule out such a thought. He was most likely celebrating the sun as the earth’s fountain of green fecundity in Tuscany. Either way, or all the more so, both ways, I paused frequently that midday to salute our brother, the sun. That I also needed to pause in order to regain my breath and to renew my strength, was also true. But that made those times of contemplating the sun reflected and refracted on the pure white snow all the more revitalizing, body and soul.

Video: Gracious and Green

How can a synod, diocess, district or other church judicatory launch a “green church” initiative? One Lutheran bishop, John Schleicher, is leading the way in his own synod, with help from Dr. Santmire. This video was produced by Bishop Schleicher to tell the story of a synod leadership retreat that he hopes will inspire his entire synod to be green.

If you would like to schedule a workshop or seminar to help your church “go green,” please contact Dr. Santmire.

Santmire Luncheon m4v mpeg4 online sd from MassBible on Vimeo.

A Note on Scything

Scything up here in the Maine foothills of the White Mountains of New Hampshire is indeed a wonderful exercise. The exercise itself, to begin with, is good, of course. But there are other benefits. Scything keeps our large field from turning into a forest. Scything also can and typically does produce many piles of “green manure,” as we call it, which a year or two later I dig into our veggie garden. Then there’s all the time I invest standing there, catching my breath, and contemplating the mountains to the West, which were especially beautiful on this crisp, fall-like day toward dusk. There are liabilities, to be sure, like the time when I sliced through the hive of some paper wasps, hidden in the tall grass, dozens of which landed on my legs, which is particularly bothersome to me, since I am allergic to insect stings (I lived). The liability today was walking in from the field and feeling every muscle in my body strained, wondering whether I would make it to the house. But all in all it was a great afternoon.

Georges Rouault: Thoughts at the End of an Exhibit

This was a blockbuster exhibit that was one of the art world’s best kept secrets. Boston College hosted what may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime retrospective of works by Georges Rouault, August 30 to December 7, 2008. Did anyone notice? Did anyone care?

Fifty years ago Rouault was celebrated as one of the great artists of his age. When an exhibit of his works appeared at the Museum of Modern Art, the philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote from Princeton, words highlighted by the art critic Leo J. O’Donovan in a superb essay in Commonweal (October 10, 2008), that Rouault’s Apresent glory is the purest glory a great painter has ever known in his lifetime.

Rouault was an important figure in my own spiritual development. As an undergraduate at Harvard College in the nineteen-fifties I was introduced to his images of clowns and of the Christ figure at University Lutheran Church, Cambridge. As one who had grown up with representations of the Christ figure like Sallman’s Head of Christ (a friend of mine once called that the image of Deus Businessmanus), I was overwhelmed by the power of Rouault’s Christ — and clown — figures. They helped to keep my faith, such as it was in those days, alive and growing. Rouault was also a favorite of Paul Tillich, with whom I took several courses during my undergraduate years. Tillich was a great interpreter of art, especially of existentially challenging imagery such as often appeared in Rouault’s works.

Today very few even know Rouault’s name. That an exhibition of this import was held at — where? — Boston College and not at the MoMA or some comparable institution (no disrespect to B.C. intended; kudos only), tells its own tale, as does the fact that this blockbuster event was a kind of esthetic one-night stand, not a traveling exhibit intended to introduce a major voice in twentieth-century art to seekers or to the just-curious in a variety of settings.

Why was this one of the art world’s best kept secrets? O’Donovan observes that, after Rouault’s mid-twentieth century public accolades, Rouault’s approach to art during his own lifetime he was called, with scornful intent, As the last romantic gave way to Pop and Op Art, to Conceptualism and Minimalism. In other words, Rouault’s works went out of style. Which, of course, is a commonplace of art history.

But I think that that was only part of the story. The audio commentary on the exhibit by its curator, Stephen Schloesser of Boston College, is most revealing in this respect. Schloesser interpreted this exhibit as a kind of dialectical unfolding (my terms) of two aesthetic perspectives, realism (e.g. Daumier) and symbolism (as in the French poets known as symbolists and in some of their painterly followers, one of whom was a teacher of Rouault). Sometimes, Schloesser told us, Rouault’s works were more realistic, sometimes they were more symbolistic, and sometimes they found a way to integrate the two perspectives That was, in many ways, an illuminating interpretive stance to take.

I had expected something more, however, signaled by the exhibit’s theme, also the title of the exhibit’s companion volume, Mystic Masque: Semblance and Reality in Georges Rouault (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), edited by Schloesser. Several essays in that volume, as a matter of fact, explore or at least refer to Rouault’s spiritual heritage.

But the experience of the exhibit itself was something else, both as the exhibit was organized and as it was introduced to museum-goers (very few of whom, in all likelihood, were going to part with eighty dollars for the companion volume). This was Boston College, mind you, a historic center of Catholic learning. Strikingly, Schloesser never even mentioned that Rouault was baptized as an adult or that Rouault’s art is suffused with perennial themes of Catholic spirituality, above all the suffering Christ and the suffering poor. Think of the case of St. Francis who was marked by the signs of the Cross and who ministered to the Savior in the persons of the poor. In this sense, call much of Rouault’s painting iconic, even christological. That is a historical fact. But if Boston College cannot bring itself to introduce Rouault’s creations to the public in those terms, who will? And if what is arguably the creative center of Rouault’s life-work, his profound christic mysticism, is no longer of interest to those most responsible for framing the discourse about artistic expression, the critics and scholars themselves, is it any wonder that the entirety of Rouault’s achievement has more or less been shelved, as far as the public mind is concerned?

Not that Rouault’s spirituality must be welcomed by everyone. But it should at least be publicly acknowledged. (I find the same thing going on in popular and scholarly interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s works; but that is another story.) If scholars, to begin with, will not talk publicly about Rouault’s iconic spirituality, whether because of esthetic fashion or personal taste or academic parochialism is a secondary matter, how are the eyes of all the rest of us who care about art to be tutored in a way that will allow us to encounter the animating power of works by artists such as Rouault?