Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MEDITATION AT KEITH'S TREE

 Breathe on me, breath of God; fill me with life anew… ~ old hymn
For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. ~ Colossians 3:3

The atoms of  Keith’s ashes now vibrate
in every root and branch and needle of
the tree we planted in his memory
eighteen years ago.
Ashes no longer, but bark and sap and
the green energy to urge another
two feet of growth this year
onto what is now a twenty-three foot spruce—
Its brave, fragile spire reaching straight up
into the universe.

There is a kind of religious parable in this, I suppose,
But “Take away from me your religion...”
I find my faith’s basis in the organic actuality,
natural meaning,
and, yes, cosmic mystery of it.
Not a metaphorical Mandala-Wheel
of repetitive circularity:
around and back and around again,
but the real linear movement of life
and death—and life—through time;
time with infinity at each end.

The thrust of root through soil, water
into capillary, chlorophyll into energy
into growth into the soft glide of the dropped cones—
the tree’s children—
gently lowered
from branch
            to branch
                        to branch
                                    to earth.

A tree at the center of the world,
whose lithe yet grounded trunk is this moment
swaying before me,
moved by that invisible force that can be translated
in Hebrew as “wind,” or “breath,” or “spirit.”

A tree that will die.
Like Keith.
Like “a grain of wheat that falleth to the ground….”

Like this:

When it is struck by lightning or caught up
in the great blaze Keith’s Tree will become
ashes; its ashes, atoms; it’s atoms,
the particles of all that has been or will be:
earth and oxygen and the tip
of a butterfly’s antenna
and the ink for the tiny font in which
the latest upgrade of DNA’s genetic software is written,
and all the other things that await
that last infinitesimal quarkish piece
to click into place in order to be.

Until that day when time’s linear arrow
reaches the sun’s heart and its final flare
curls around the earth,
and the same particles, released, will rise
to become, again, the material of stars.

And the starfires themselves will cool to embers
and ash, and the delicate grey dust of
bodies that once formed the galaxies
will float on the spirit-wind of space,
to be swept into scattered satchels of
ever-expanding gossamer fabric,
until these black holes burst their sacs full of
the ashes of atoms--the last stuff of matter--
to be--with the faint flutter of the last energy--
breathed in and out with the sighing of
a weary universe;
the last outbreath of the sigh caught up into
the inhalation of

                                            another breath…

into a bright eternity that waits like love
to enfold all the dying and all the cold
darkness in the arms of the original light,
in the warmth of the original breath,
into that which was before there was anything.

Into God.

There never has been nothing.
There never is an end.



In Memoriam ~ Keith Rohr
1958-1997
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Paraphrased Bible passages (in quotes) ~
Amos 5:21-23
John 12:24 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

THE NEED FOR SPEED


"The preacher was driving so fast, the speedometer was playing “Nearer My God To Thee.” (author unknown)

When I was seventeen I had a green-and-white 1957 Ford V-8.  The speedometer topped out at “120 mph,” so of course I had to see if it could really do that. Finding a stretch of road straight and long enough in the Black Hills posed a challenge, but I found one, and it did. (I wonder how many otherwise conventional young lives have been cut short by just such one-time shenanigans.) My younger brother reminds me that I once boasted, “I can take any curve in the hills at twice the posted speed!”

I was no rebel with or without a cause. I was a seventeen-year-old-boy with one of the most powerful machines on the planet at my feet and fingertips. (Other former seventeen-year-old boys will no doubt relate.) And my purpose here is not to engage in nostalgic braggadocio, but to acknowledge with relief that I made it through that period, and to observe that I abandoned my seventeen-year-old approach to driving… about three years ago.

That’s when I got the letter from the insurance company. The letter—in the cold language of cost-benefit analysis used by the company to determine if it was in their best interest to continue to carry me as a client—basically said, “Enough already!” And I got the message.

I want to be clear that I have not been a willfully reckless speedster or that guy who rushes to weave in front of you and then cuts you off. I have never been a road-rager. (I am a gentle preacher, dear reader.) It is just that, for the last fifty years, I have consistently pushed the meaning of “limit” in “speed limit.” (Again, I have no doubt that other former seventeen-year-olds will relate.) The driving record that the insurance letter kindly pointed out to me consisted of one too many speeding citations in a defined period of time, plus a couple of self-caused fender-benders involving only my car (claims that, in hindsight, I should probably never have submitted to the insurance company for payment). Oh, and the incident with the Christmas tree. The company seemed to have no interest in my lucid and exculpatory explanations. “Enough already.”

I am reluctant to acknowledge it, but it’s possible that the behavior-altering message got through in part because some of those seventeen-year-old fires have been damped down by actual maturity. (Okay, “aging.”) I simply no longer have the need to speed. In addition, the letter spoke to the theologian in me: In my tradition, Martin Luther explains that one of the uses of “the law” is as “a norm of conduct, freely accepted by those in whom the grace of God works for good.”  The insurance company—like a speed limit—is not interested in spoiling my fun, but in assuring that life—for me and everyone with whom I share the road—will be “good.”

(To the seventeen-year-olds and future seventeen-year-olds who are dear to us, perhaps we could do a better job of connecting this life-affirming explanation of the “spirit of the law” to the letter of the law. Like that parental line that can be honestly applied in so many situations: “If we didn’t love you, we wouldn’t care what you did.”)*

Coincidentally about the same time that I heard from my insurance company, I had a Zen-like vision that I have found helpful and that I reflect on surprisingly often: A car pulling into the flow of traffic is like a twig falling into a stream. It is not in a race with the other twigs. You go with the flow.

And I’ve developed two mantras that are effective for me—
The ride of the gentle preacher today--a sweet Subaru 4-
cylinder. But I sometimes wish I had put that '57 Ford up
on blocks in a shed somewhere. (Don't we all.)
that I actually use: One is, “When I’m in a hurry, that’s when I slow down.” The other is, “Let the other guy have the ticket.” That last one is not very Christian, I know. But it works for me.


_____________________________________________________________
* Studies of brain development suggest that, regarding issues like driving, sex, and war-fighting, we aren't equipped to make rational decisions--to "know what we're doing"--until about age 25, as discussed further here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

JOHN DONNE, R.S. THOMAS, AND "THE FREEHOLD"

The one who would study the scriptures must have much leisure. ~Sirach 38:24

I sometimes envy the Victorian stereotype of the rector as a “kept man,” pottering in his study, breaking for tea, then attending the parish flower show up at the manor-house. This is an exaggeration of the Church of England's "freehold" system, in which the vicar essentially had ownership rights to his parish, and was, in a way, "lord of all he surveyed." (And now—post-Victorian, thankfully—also “she.”) I have to say that the modern pastor’s job description is more like the line from a (Victorian!) novel about “the man who mounted his horse and rode off in all directions.” Yet I do not want to be disingenuous about (or give up on) the built-in need in this calling for what the Anglican Church refers to as “reflective ministry,” and what the Book of Sirach calls, simply, “leisure:” Time, that is, to study, read, and write. (See introductory line, above.)

We are discovering that, in a humane civilization, all occupations and professions ought to offer a measure of flexibility in the work schedule. (It was, after all, the pre-conversion Scrooge who told Bob Cratchitt, "Be here all the earlier next morning!") And studies show that flex-time even helps the bottom line. So rather than succumbing to the lure of workaholism (an illness), the pastor can model a healthy balance in his or her own life, and support such balance in the lives of members of the parish and the community. Gold, perhaps, has been the most pursued; but time the most valued resource after all.

John  Donne
1572-1631
John Donne, who delivered powerful sermons from the pulpit of St. Paul’s in London from 1621 till his death in 1631, also wrote volume after volume of religious (and love!) poetry during those years. R.S. Thomas, who died in 2000 after forty years as a rural vicar in the Church of Wales and who wrote thirty books of (Nobel-nominated) poetry in that time, said frankly, after he retired, that it was the “Anglican freehold” that allowed him time to write. I trust that the reflective hours in the Rev. Donne’s London townhouse
R.S. Thomas
1913-2000
and Father Thomas’ country parson-
age also resulted in caring ministry,
but the world is grateful to their
parishioners for granting them the time.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

EASTER SERMON: KANSAS CITY

I am a recently retired pastor, but
if I were preaching this Easter Sunday
I would take as my text the grievous murders
in Kansas City, and I would call to account
anyone—including anyone in this room today—
who hates Jews and anyone
who hates Barack Obama and anyone
who hates George W. Bush and anyone
who hates Republicans and anyone
who hates Democrats and anyone
who who hates the ludicrous Tea Party and
anyone who hates Muslims and anyone
who hates communists and anyone who
hates his ex-wife and anyone
who hates the Catholics and the
Methodists that the stupid Jew-hater
accidentally killed and anyone
who hates
who hates who
hates who
hates
And even though
I’m a cold-blooded Norwegian-
Lutheran maybe by now I’d
be in tears and suggest that
since the hate-killing of
the Jew Jesus
all we have is
love
It’s all we have.
Love.
But I don’t know if I’d have the courage
to pronounce the crucified Jew’s benediction:
Father forgive
them
for they
know not
what they do

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

IN MEMORIAM, DIETRICH BONHOEFFER, 1906 - 1945


If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.   ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Today is the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis at the age of 39.

A Lutheran pastor from an elite German family (his parents, although supportive, were essentially non-religious and stunned by Dietrich’s decision for the ministry), Bonhoeffer was a visiting scholar in the United States when the clouds of war began to cover Europe. His American friends urged him to sit out the war on this side of the Atlantic, but he could not resist the summons he felt to return to his country.

Bonhoeffer became a leader in the Confessing Church, a Christian community that held out against the pressures of Hitler’s state takeover of the church as long as it could (while the majority of German Lutherans signed on to a document that basically said, “One nation, one Fuhrer, and out with the Jews!”) Far from being remembered simply because he was the victim of execution, Bonhoeffer was an accomplished theologian, and the works that survive him are a testament to the richness that the world has lost because of his untimely death.

Bonhoeffer’s work as a civilian in the Abwehr (German intelligence), provided him cover to accomplish some limited success in providing safety for Jews, and, eventually, protected  him (for a while) as he joined a conspiracy of insiders committed to getting rid of Hitler and to negotiating a peace with the allies.

Bonhoeffer was an ethicist and a pacifist, and considered his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler to be a grave sin, yet he also felt it was the only choice he had as a Christian. When the plot failed, Bonhoeffer was caught in the net of vengeance that followed, and he was executed at Flossenberg Prison on April 9, 1945. The criminal tragedy of his death is made the sadder by its timing: Two weeks after his execution, Hitler committed suicide, and on May 8 the war came to an end. Dietrich’s brother, Klaus, and two brothers-in-law were also executed.

The volume, “Letters and Papers from Prison” is considered essential for an understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The poignancy of the death of this young man is captured in one of those letters – to his fiancée:
When I think about the situation of the world, the complete darkness over our personal fate, and my present imprisonment, then I believe that our union can only be a sign of God’s grace and kindness, which calls us to faith…. Jeremiah says at the moment of his people’s great need “still one shall buy houses and acres in this land" as a sign of trust in the future. This is where faith belongs. May God give it to us daily. And I do not mean the faith which flees the world, but the one that endures the world and which loves and remains true to the world in spite of all the suffering which it contains for us. Our marriage shall be a yes to God’s earth; it shall strengthen our courage to act and accomplish something on the earth.
 Bonhoeffer’s last words to a fellow inmate, upon being led away to the place of execution, were, “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.”

* * *

The best biography of Bonhoeffer is “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography,” a labor of love by his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. Another new, good one is "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906-1945," by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen. Also recommended are “Letters and Papers From Prison,” and “Life Together,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Letters and Papers” is a collection of what the title implies. “Life Together” is Bonhoeffer’s outline of the elements of a Christian community. It is, rightly, regarded as a “classic.”

Photo: Bonhoeffer in prison












Sunday, March 30, 2014

GRANDMA OLIVE AND THE STRAWBERRY CIRCLE

I wish I were a poet. If I were, I could make something of this snippet that’s been running through my mind the last few days,

Grandpa, can I
Yes
Grandpa, will you
Yes
Grandpa, can we
Yes
Yes Yes Yes, my boy
Yes

That’s inspired by grandson Sam. A few days ago his almost-three-year-old sister, Violet, snuggled with her blanket in a chair and then said, “Grandpa, now I need a snack and my milky and my num-num” (pacifier—yes, yes, she’s being weaned). “Yes, princess,” I replied. Not a minute later she disensconced herself from her cozy throne and appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Grandpa, are you doing it?” “Yes, your majesty.” Of course it occurred to me that Violet’s parents would no doubt disapprove of both sides of that exchange. But I’m Grandpa.

As a parent, I was a slow learner in regard to grandparental rights, privileges, wisdom, and VALUE!, especially in regard to my mother-in-law, Olive Nasby. A few days before Beret (Sam and Violet’s mother) was born, Caryl told me that her mom was going to come and help out. “Gee,” I said, “I thought it would be nice to just be our own little family.” Beret was born; Olive came. After about ten minutes I was on my knees saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” (Of course now I understand that you moms might greet my quaint idea about doing it by ourselves with, “Easy for you to say, dad!”)

A year or so later we were visiting Caryl’s parents at their farm. Beret, now a toddler, was sitting in her highchair in Olive’s homey kitchen, and I had given her a big juicy strawberry, which sat, untouched, in the middle of the highchair tray. “Put a little sugar on it,” advised Olive. “No,” I said (I think my nose might have even raised itself a bit into the air), “no, we’re raising Beret without added sugar.” (For most of our daughters’ early childhoods I would sneak around the corner to put the tablespoon+ of sugar on my Cheerios—which I had grown up with—while they ate theirs sugar-free.). “Come on, “ repeated my mother-in-law, “try it with a little sugar.” “No thanks, “ I said. The conversation—and our attention—turned elsewhere. A few minutes later I noticed that the strawberry was gone. Where it had stood on the tray there was now only a small circle of sugar. (And a sweet strawberry blush circled Beret's mouth.) At that point I gave in completely to my mother-in-law.

And she treated me like a king. Absolutely every time we visited, I would open the refrigerator and there would be a brand new unopened pint of half-and-half, because she knew I liked it on my cereal. (I know there’s a kind of sugar-and-cream theme going on here, but we’re talking about the daughter and grandson of Norwegian immigrants.
Olive Nelson Nasby
Would you tangle with this woman?
)* And Beret's sister, Anna (who came along later), reminds me that it was for me--and not necessarily for them--that Grandma always had freshly made donuts ready at our arrival.

Olive is also the person who taught me not to fear death. But that’s another story for another time.

She is remembered in love. She rests in peace. Try a little sugar.






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*I am aware of important recent reports about the dangers of too much sugar; Caryl and I have changed our habits somewhat, and try to help our grandkids with theirs. But this isn't a story about nutrition. (Although I should point out that the same studies have restored  to some degree the reputation of cream!)