Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Editorial Cartoon

Here's a good one from Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Tom Toles of The Washington Post :

Friday, June 25, 2010

That's How the Light Gets In

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

- Leonard Cohen

One thing generally leads to another. In my last post I described Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” as beautifully poignant, rising to the level of poetry. With that description bouncing around in my head, it would naturally call to mind another artist whose words are beautifully poignant, rising to the level of poetry. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is quite remarkable and stands in a league of its own. When I heard this song on the radio, I had to find the lyrics and guitar cords so I could play it myself.

Thomas Gasey wrote an excellent essay about the song and its author in America which I highly recommend and certainly could not improve upon. (click here to read the full article). Gasey has this to say about the song:

"Hallelujah" does not end with neatly packaged answers. Instead it is content to stay with the rawness of an open wound, though allowing a sliver of hope to shine through. We can only hope if we can let loss run its course, without giving in to the compulsion to end its discomfort prematurely. There is a beauty in this kind of acceptance, a wisdom hidden in the knowledge that even when we suffer, there is still light. This illumination ennobles us even as we labor to find vindicating words and reasons. There is a transfiguring dimension to our struggles, because our nights are pierced by a divine light. We can learn to recognize hidden springs of water gushing from what seems to be only a desert.

Leonard Cohen reminds us how the light gets in. Maybe his words can help us to savor what is truly valuable in life. Below you can read the lyrics to “Hallelujah” and “Anthem,” and you’ll also see a YouTube link to Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Cohen’s song.

by Leonard Cohen

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

by Leonard Cohen

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Every Grain of Sand

“Every Grain of Sand” by Bob Dylan (from his Shot of Love album) is one of the most beautifully poignant songs I have heard. Elvis Costello, in an essay for Vanity Fair on his pick of the top 500 albums, said it might be the best song Dylan has ever written. Emmylou Harris sang the song at Johnny Cash’s funeral. I first heard it when I bought Shot of Love back in the summer of 1982 and was taken by it. The title calls to mind the opening lines from lines from William Blake’s poem Auguries of Innocence:

"To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

Dylan uses that phrase, among other things to speak of the intimacy of the Creator with creation:

“In the fury of the moment I can see the master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.”
And later when he says, "...every hair is numbered like every grain of sand."

He also reveals the poet’s heartfelt connection with humanity and the world when he says,

“I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

While this is a song that rises to the level of poetry, it is essentially a work that must be heard for the full effect. Someone has put together some stunning visuals that wonderfully complement Dylan’s original recording of the song which you can view below. If you are one who must read the words, you can scroll down further to see the lyrics.

[Late note: The site for the video above no longer allows embedding to another site. To properly view it go to http://especialmusica.tv/videos/bob-dylan-every-grain-of-sand. Otherwise you may hear the song in the video below.]

Every Grain of Sand
by Bob Dylan

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There's a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair.

Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break
In the fury of the moment I can see the master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.

Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of conscience and good cheer
The sun beats down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.

I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.

I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer's dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other time it's only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Missing the Voice of the Turtle Dove

I’ve been missing my doves this summer. For the past three summers, there has been a pair of ringed turtle-doves nesting nearby. We often have mourning doves in the area, but when these showed up three summers ago, I was pleased with this lighter colored bird with a quite distinctive voice, kind of a rising and falling koo-kreee. I had wrongly identified it at first, thinking it was a white-winged dove, until I did some research and found that the white-winged dove’s habitat is in the west.

When the doves first appeared, it was during a particularly trying time. I was always pleased when I was outside and heard the dove’s call as she flew. I took heart when I would look up and see her perched up in the top of the cypress tree. The dove's presence was a cheerful reminder that its not dark yet. After that, two more summers came and heralded the arrival of the doves. This summer I have not seen or heard any sign of the doves.

We take what graces life offers. I was glad to have that pair of doves when they were here, but things change. Nothing can be forever the same, or life would grow stagnant. New graces appear along with new challenges. We take the bad with the good. I have much to be thankful for this summer. My response, then, is to live with gratitude and to look for life’s graces as they unfold with each new day.

Maybe one reason I had mistaken that dove for a white-winged dove was the riveting sound of Stevie Nicks’ song “Edge of Seventeen.” Music is certainly a gift and a grace, and that is one song that has delighted the airwaves ever since it hit the charts back in 1982.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On the Buddha's Belly

On the Buddha’s Belly

The terracotta laughing Buddha
Sits beneath the red bud tree
As is his custom.
He casts a knowing glance across the yard
To St. Francis
Who stands beside the juniper.

A lizard crawls upon the Buddha’s belly
And rests in the sun
While a hummingbird gathers nectar nearby.
St. Francis declares that creation rejoices
As the Buddha allows
The humblest of creatures
To rest in the stillness of the day.

Chaos threatens confused rulers of the world
While order and peace reside
In my backyard.


Monday, June 14, 2010

When Faiths Collide

[The following is a book review I did last year for The Oasis Newsletter. I thought it could serve as a companion piece to my previous posting about the Dalai Lama's call for peaceful coexistence among different faiths. Martin Marty, like the Dalai Lama, states that we must be able to affirm our own faith while also respecting and affirming another's faith. Marty's book makes it clear that reducing religious conflict will be no easy task, but offers some constructive ideas about interfaith conversation and dialogue.]

When Faiths Collide
By Martin E. Marty
Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2005, 193 p.
ISBN 1405112239
Reviewed by Charles Kinnaird

When Faiths Collide offers the reader insight on a number of issues regarding faith and diplomacy within a pluralistic environment. Martin Marty draws upon the contributions of scholars in sociology, history, and biblical studies as well as his own expertise in public religion. He also readily draws upon his own faith experience to provide practical guidance in interfaith relations.

One thing is clear, this book is not about tolerance, nor is it about some hopeful liberal intellectual view of a better world through education and technology. Marty keeps the reader firmly planted in the real world and calls for active engagement, not simple tolerance in interfaith matters. Those who advocate tolerance usually hold matters of faith and religion lightly and think everyone should do the same so that we can all “live and let live.” In reality, however, there are many for whom religion is central to their identity and world view and they will not relegate it to a lesser role. For Marty, hospitality is what is called for in dealing with religious conflict.

Before I read When Faiths Collide, I must confess that my ecumenical hope was tolerance and understanding. After reading Martin Marty’s book, as synchronicity would have it, I came across a sermon by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs in which he stated, “Once, tolerance was the highest goal of Inter-religious Dialogue and interaction. Once, our highest goal as Jews was that the rest of the world would simply stop persecuting us…These are the goals of religious dialogue today – acceptance and affirmation – not mere tolerance of the value of diverse religious beliefs.” (From “Pope Benedict XVI: Preliminary Hopes and Fears,” delivered April 24, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.cbict.org/docs/RFSermons/PopeBenedict.pdf)

A History of Conflict

There has been conflict and turmoil from collisions of faith throughout the world and for a period of time we in the United States were comfortable in the illusion that such collateral damage could not happen here. Since September 11, 2001, that illusion of security has been shattered, making it all the more important that we find ways to reduce the conflict. Using the terms “belongers” and “strangers” Marty illustrates how attitudes develop, misunderstandings arise, then suspicion and conflict ensues.

The author shows how culture and society developed in the U.S. with white European Protestants establishing themselves as the belongers and all others as strangers. He also demonstrates how the concept of pluralism came into play in the newly developing American republic.

In colonial Virginia there was debate as to whether non-Christians should be allowed full participation. Efforts of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson helped to prevent exclusions in drafting the Virginia Bill for Religious Freedom. As a result, the bill protected, as Jefferson stated, “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and Mohametan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” So the American stage was set to be a place for pluralism to flourish. Even so, living out the concept of pluralism has not been a smooth ride. Marty points out that “the very notion of affirming or celebrating pluralism is appalling to many belongers.”

Faith conflicts can occur at the family level, the community level, the national and international level. On the family level, conflict may occur when a student from a liberal Christian family goes to college and becomes a fundamentalist or charismatic Christian. Intermarriage between faiths can cause conflict within extended families. With changes in immigration laws in 1965, many communities found themselves confronted with ethnicities and faiths that they would not have imagined before. Situations like these may find the “belongers” longing for life the way it used to be, and being suspicious and resentful of the “strangers” in their midst

The Common Good and the Risk of Hospitality

The need to provide for the common good within the context of pluralism has brought about “a reservoir of goodwill” in our country. While pluralism is necessary, it is not sufficient to address the problem of faiths in conflict, according to Marty. What is needed is for us to engage in “the risk of hospitality.” Here in the South, we may not readily catch on to what this means, since we are so accustomed to the term “Southern hospitality.” According to the author, “a key signal of hospitality appears when groups begin to regard each other with civility.” It is at that point that community effort as well as individual work must come into play. Marty describes public efforts at promoting civil discourse, welcoming diversity, and engaging in conversation. He also states that “most activity toward overcoming strangeness will occur away from cameras and reporters.” It will happen in local communities and through individual effort.

The author prefers the term “conversation” rather than “dialogue,” adding that no one ever comes away saying “I won that conversation.” He advocates telling stories since stories are important to everyone and they are more open-ended than doctrinal statements. He also advises the reader to expect conflicts but to realize that conflict can lead to more creative interaction.

Martin Marty makes no claims to having a solution to the problem of belongers vs. strangers, but hopes to “present readers with some understanding of the zones where the religious meanings and intentions of strangers have become confused and heated” so that we can begin to “explore understandings, options, and alternatives that we may have been overlooking before.” The key lies in overt acts of hospitality in which one can welcome the stranger without denying one’s own faith or attacking the faith of the other.

Examples of Hospitality

As an example of hospitality, Marty states that if he invites someone of another faith into his home, he will respect that person, but will not feel the necessity to remove all religious images and artwork from his home. Likewise, he would not expect a Jewish friend to cease from his traditional observances if he visits in his home on a Friday evening.

A much larger scale of hospitality at the interfaith level is in the example of Pope John XXIII at Vatican II. The pope heard Mass being celebrated on Vatican radio during Holy Week and heard the prayer referring to “the perfidious Jews.” He was sensitive to that because he knew some Jews personally and regarded them positively. He had the authority to say that that prayer would not be prayed again. Moreover, he offered hospitality to the Jews when he invited representatives from Judaism as well as other faiths to sit in on the proceedings at the Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII not only welcomed the stranger, he also did some self-examination as well to repair his own house, as Marty points out.

I am reminded of the time Pope John Paul II decided to visit a synagogue in Rome in 1986 over the objections of then Cardinal Ratzinger. It was the first time a pope had ever visited a synagogue. Here again, John Paul had known Jews personally since childhood and had suffered with them in Poland, first under Nazi Germany and then in the post-war Soviet Bloc. His historic visit to the synagogue in Rome was a milestone in ecumenical/interfaith relations. No effort or advancement can be seen as permanent, however. When Cardinal Ratzinger later became Pope Benedict XVI, he would reinstate the older Latin rite (Tridentine Mass) as an option, along with its Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews, causing much consternation in the Jewish community as well as among many Catholic faithful.

Perhaps we can all listen more to Martin Marty and Rabbi Stephen Fuchs so we can move closer to acceptance and affirmation of our neighbors and fellow sojourners in their respective faiths. Admittedly, this will be no small feat, but necessary in an insecure world where fires of faith are burning on all sides. When Faiths Collide is a serious call to greater interfaith involvement and is a great resource for anyone interested in interfaith endeavors.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Two Monks Planting Seeds of Hope for a Better World

Last month Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, wrote an op ed piece for The New York Times making a case for the possibility of harmony among religions ("Many Faiths, One Truth," May 24, 2010). While acknowledging the fact that intolerance and exclusivity are hallmarks of religion, he argues that one can stay true to one’s own faith tradition and still have respect and admiration for other faith traditions. Indeed, the Dalai Lama argues that with the world and its different cultures becoming more and more interconnected, finding a way for peaceful coexistence is all the more imperative (see the full op ed piece by clicking here).

I was particularly heartened to see the Dalai Lama give credit to Thomas Merton for his own enlightenment regarding other faiths:

“An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions. A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism.”

Thomas Merton had looked forward to that meeting with the Dalai Lama with anticipation during his trip through Asia. His trip took him through India, Ceylon, and culminated in Bangkok, Thailand where he addressed a gathering of Asian monastic leaders before his unfortunate death. Merton kept a journal of his travels and encounters along the way which was published posthumously as, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.

The famous Trappist monk had three meetings with the Dalai Lama while he was in India. Merton was impressed with the depths of the Tibetan leader's intellect as well as his spirituality. The two monks discussed with one another their own traditions, each one having important questions for the other regarding faith and practice.

After the final visit with the Dalai Lama, Merton wrote: “It was a very warm and cordial discussion and at the end I felt we had become very good friends and were somehow quite close to one another. I feel a great respect and fondness for him as a person and believe, too, that there is a real spiritual bond between us. He remarked that I was a “Catholic geshe,” which, Harold said, was the highest possible praise from a Geluga, like an honorary doctorate!” (The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 125)

May we look to the example of these two monks, one Christian, one Tibetan Buddhist, who have sought to bridge the gap between East and West; both of them standing for authenticity of living in a world marked by struggle, division, love, and beauty.

[The photograph above is from The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, p. 101]


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Western Zen

"Imagine there's no Heaven…"
                   ~ John Lennon

I love Zen stories. Zen stories are wisdom stories that have a way of getting right to the heart of the matter. Often they show in simple ways how conventional ideology falls short. They have a beautiful way of dramatizing that certain things are true except when they are not. I call them Zen stories because they are usually from an Eastern religious tradition. Actually, we have a kind of Zen tradition in the West, but it has always been more peripheral or underground rather than mainstream.

Years ago, a professor of mine, Dr. William Hendricks, told us that Western civilization has inherited three views of reality: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. He boiled down each of those views to a basic question. The Greek approach to reality is, "What does it look like?" (e.g., classical Greek sculptures). The Latin approach asks, "How does it work?" (e.g. Leonardo DaVinci). The Hebrew approach asks, "What is it for?" (e.g., the Hebrew prophets who advocated for a higher purpose). It is probably true that those three questions dominate our Western culture.

However it came to be, activity, acquisition, and development so dominate the West that there has been little room for a wisdom tradition. Perhaps that is why today many of us are hungry for those wisdom stories from the East. Even so, there is indeed a wisdom tradition in the West. It just takes a little more effort to find it since it has often been underground or even suppressed by the authorities in charge. That is why I am even more delighted when I discover an example of Western Zen.

One Sunday, I heard a Catholic priest relate an old legend* that I had never heard before. To me, it falls into that category of Western Zen. The legend has it that one day an angel was walking down the road carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. Someone asked the angel what he was doing with those things.

"With the torch, I am going to burn down the mansions of Heaven," the angel said, "and with the bucket of water, I am going to put out the fires of Hell. Then we shall see who really loves God."

I love those stories that catch us off guard and show us so succinctly the nature of motive and reality. I appreciate Zen whenever I find it. I am particularly pleased when I find it within my own Western tradition. I think Paul Tillich must have known something of Zen. One of my mentors had been a student of Tillich. He told me that the professor would spend the whole term meticulously plotting out his systematic theology. At the end of the term, he would essentially destroy the whole notion that there can be a systematic theology. C. S. Lewis knew something of Zen when he wrote the novel, Till We Have Faces, where he demonstrated that our perceptions may not reflect reality.

Imagine no mansions in Heaven, no fires in Hell. Imagine no theology. Imagine seeing the world with new eyes. "You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." We have a treasure of wisdom tales and Zen stories to help us to understand that certain things are true except when they are not. Celebrate wisdom and greet your neighbor with awakened eyes.

[* I later learned that the story the priest told has been attributed to two different holy women: Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic and the 8th century Muslim mystic, Rabi’ah. ]


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Memorial Day Thoughts

I spent Memorial Day working. I was on duty at the hospital the entire weekend, so I’m just now getting time to jot down a few thoughts on the holiday.

I don’t recall much being made of Memorial Day when I was growing up. It was barely on my radar. I suppose there were Memorial Day sales, but as a holiday it was not high up on the list. Several years ago, Alison, a young colleague at work started talking about her childhood memories of Memorial Day. “I was always excited about the holiday, because I would get brand new clothes. My mamma would always take me shopping. She would tell me, ‘We were going out to get your Memorial Day dress.’ That was the big thing about Memorial Day.” She was a young African American woman talking to me and Kevin, another young white colleague. Kevin and I looked at one another in mild amusement. We had never heard of such a Memorial Day tradition.

“You mean ya’ll didn’t get new clothes on Memorial Day?”

Kevin and I said no we didn’t.

“I wonder if my mamma was just telling me that. I sure thought new clothes were a Memorial Day tradition.”

It got to my young black colleague so that she went to another black co-worker to ask her about it. Alison returned later with a big smile on her face. "I asked Phyllis about it – she said it was a black thang.” We all three laughed about it.

That incident led me to ponder how and what we remember, and how we mark special days of observance. A quick look at the history of Memorial Day reveals the difference in how I, Kevin, and Alison had grown up observing the holiday. Memorial Day first came to be observed to commemorate Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. After World War I it became a day to honor Americans who have died in all wars. In my white southern heritage, Memorial Day had no strong observance because it was not a thing that my white ancestors would have particularly wanted to honor or remember. To our black neighbors’ ancestors, however, Memorial Day would have signified a new beginning, new hope and opportunity (even though it took 100 more years for Civil Rights to be enacted). It makes perfect sense that our black neighbors would have celebrated with new clothes for a new beginning.

How then should we observe the day in the 21st century, after so many other wars have given us so many other soldiers killed in the service of our country? On Memorial Day it is certainly fitting to remember those soldiers who have paid the ultimate price for our country. It is also fitting to be thankful for the freedom we enjoy in this country. We would be remiss, however, if we did not pause to consider the price all of our soldiers pay during wartime. Rather than glorifying the fight, we should consider what our brave soldiers actually endure. We do not honor our soldiers by holding on to fantasies about the glories of war. By really understanding what it is we ask our soldiers to do, perhaps we would not be so quick to enter into armed conflict.

Nancy Sherman of Georgetown University writes of the invisible wounds of war in an article, "What Good Soldiers Bear". The article appeared in America magazine and was written after interviews with soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well stated and insightful, I recommend the article which you can find by clicking here.


Photo by Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

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