Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Pre-School Teacher with the Gift of Wonder

[The following is an excerpt from "Experiencing Wonder in Storytelling and Cinema" at ]

Back during the preliterate days of our ancient ancestors, people gathered to hear stories from storytellers. Maybe they gathered in the village or around a fire. They would have heard stories of heroes and stories of where they came from. In those pre-literate days, they would have heard favorite legends that had been passed down through oral tradition.

I can recall a storyteller from my own pre-literate days. She was the Sunday School teacher for the pre-school class at the First Baptist Church of  Wedowee, Alabama. Back in the late 1950s there was not a lot of technology in churches. We may have had a flannel board, but that was the sort of gadgetry that was usually reserved for special occasions, like Vacation Bible School. Our teacher, when I was in the pre-school class, was an older grandmotherly type. On more than one occasion, which is probably why I remember this, she would tell us about how the world began. The only technology she had was plain white paper and an old shoe box full of broken crayons. When she got ready to tell us how the world began, she would hand us each a sheet of paper, then ask us to find a black crayon in the box of crayons. We kids would then go digging around looking for the right crayon.

“I found one,” someone would say.

“Here’s one,” someone else would chime in.

“Let me see that,” the teacher would examine the crayon. “No, I think that’s purple. I want you to find the blackest crayon you can see in that box.”

The when we all had our black crayons, she would instruct us to color our whole page black, until no more white could be seen from the paper. After allowing time for all the children to scribble on their paper, the teacher would say, “Now look at that paper – all you see is black. That is what it was like before God made the world. There were no trees, no birds, no people, no lakes – there was not even any light. Can you imagine no light at all? There was nothing anywhere before God made the world.”

Our preschool teacher was no childhood development expert or theologian, but she was able to lead a group of preschoolers who were incapable of abstract thought (according to the experts) to a sense of wonder about their world and their own existence - and a sense of awe at the possibility of nothingness. I know because I was one of those preschoolers.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Monday Music: Panis Angelicus

This year the Feast of Corpus Christi falls on May 30 (next Thursday) so I have selected Panis Angelicus, sung by Andrea Bocelli, for today's music feature. Having grown up in the Protestant South, the first time I heard this song was not in church, but rather in junior high school when I was in the band. We were the marching band during football season, and the concert band during the Spring. William Hodgekins was our director that year, and he had an ear and a taste for finer music. I usually played trumpet, but that year I was playing the bass horn (tuba). I loved this song then, and it remained in my memory, only years later did I actually hear the words and understand its significance.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saturday Haiku: Storms

Swirling wind at night –
      With daylight comes quiet calm
      As losses are mourned.

                                                                   ~ CK


Thursday, May 23, 2013

After the Calamity

A neighborhood in  Oklahoma obliterated by a tornado (CNN photo)

When calamity strikes, especially in the case of natural disasters as in the recent terrible tornadoes that struck Oklahoma, there will be many survivors thanking God that their lives were spared.  Some will even use such an occasion to “give God the glory” for their deliverance.  Others are uncomfortable with such God-talk in the wake of tragedy. Sometimes thanking God even may be an irreverent response. 

As for "giving God the glory," I can understand the qualms some may have with that. Sometimes I think we can be too fast and glib with evoking the name of the Lord. On the other hand, I can understand it from a gut level. There are those times when things occur that seem to be beyond us. We feel that we have been visited by grace or rescued by a Higher Power.  Someone feels intuitively that this was beyond his or her own abilities to accomplish or to orchestrate – it must have been the hand of God. That is an understandable gut reaction.

However, if we think about it, it can get more complicated. “God took me off the streets when I was down and out” – but then why did God leave others on the street?  “God restored my health” – I am always ready to rejoice in this one, but what about others whose health was not restored?  It is natural in wartime, I suppose, for soldiers to feel that God gave them a victory when the outcome had looked bleak – but what about those on the other side who prayed and died? What about all the truly god-fearing people who come upon misfortune?

I believe that God is always with us in the process, and if things are good, we can be grateful. If things are difficult and if failure and defeat rule the day, God walks through the valley with us (and we can still be grateful). The problem comes if you start thinking that God is rewarding or punishing. Things just happen. Sometimes, as Viktor Frankl says in his book,  Man’s Search for Meaning,  life is asking questions of us – how will we respond?

Rick Bragg related an amusing story in his book All Over but the Shoutin'.  He tells of getting this fast convertible when he was in high school. He wrecked it while driving 100 MPH, flattened it, and walked away unhurt. The man driving the wrecker said “The Lord was ridin’ with you, boy!” His Uncle Ed said the same thing, “The Lord was with you.” Rick Bragg said that with everyone saying that, he expected the local newspaper, The Anniston Star, to run a headline, “LORD RIDES WITH BOY, WRECKS ANYWAY.”


Monday, May 20, 2013

Monday Music: A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

In a radio interview in 1963 on The Studs Terkel Program, Dylan tells Terkel that “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” is not about atomic fallout, even though he wrote the song in a state of anxiety during the Cuban missile crisis. “No, it’s not atomic rain,” Dylan says, “it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some sort of end that’s just gotta happen…. In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”

Here is a 1971 live performance from The Concert for Bangladesh. That concert, organized by George Harrison, marked the first benefit of its kind where celebrity performers came together to raise money for a cause. It was also Bob Dylan's first public appearance since the fabled motorcycle accident that allowed Dylan, as he stated in his autobiography, opportunity to "get out of the rat race" of rock-and-roll performance and touring.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Saturday Haiku: Crescent Moon

                                 One small arc of light
                                         Shines from the thin crescent moon
                                         Like a door ajar.

                                                                                      ~ CK

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gatsby, Fitzgerald, and Second Acts

Have you seen the new “Gatsby” film yet? I have not seen it, but I have been intrigued by all the hoopla bringing new interest in Fitzgerald’s book. I understand that more copies of the book The Great Gatsby were sold during the week leading up to the premier of the film than were sold during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lifetime. Of course, it was not until after Fitzgerald’s death that his short novel began to be heralded as the great American novel.  

I read a review by John Anderson of the new Gatsby movie. I found his review and commentary quite substantive, but he begins and ends with the same mistake that many make who quote F. Scott Fitzgerald without reading him. Anderson says that “F. Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted via a line that has always seemed to make very little sense: ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’  The “quote” is from the essay, “My Lost City,” where Fitzgerald actually says, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days.”

In that essay, Fitzgerald talks about how the city of New York had changed as well as how individual lives change from one stage to the next.  He never says that there are no second acts. He in fact describes what second acts can look like. Fitzgerald is writing after the economic crash of 1929 lamenting a time that is gone, but acknowledging that the city moves on.

Many filmmakers have tried to do Gatsby, starting during the days of silent movies.  I remember when Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic version came out in 1974. I had some friends who loved it, many critics panned it. When I finally got around to watching it, I actually enjoyed it even though it didn’t really fully capture what Fitzgerald did with the novel. I thought the photography and costuming were excellent and the movie captured the 1920’s so well.  The characters may not have been fully developed, but the movie still managed to convey a cautionary tale.

According to Anderson’s review, the current Gatsby by director Baz Luhrman is fast-paced and energetic with lots of computer generated special effects.  Though it has a high production value, Anderson describes it as soulless due to “a profound lack of emotional depth.” Similar things were said about Francis Coppola's film. What strikes me in all of this is that the cinema can do grand and beautiful things, as in the case of both the Coppola and the Luhrman versions of Gatsby, but it cannot match the effect of well written literature.  My recommendation is, whether you see the movie or not, go out and buy the book.  Sit with it and let Fitzgerald’s luminous prose evoke the imagery, the longing, the emotion and the intent of a well-told tale of American life.    


Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Music: Morning Has Broken

Most of us had either forgotten it or had never heard it in the first place. "Morning Has Broken," with its beautiful Gaelic melody, was in the Presbyterian Hymnal but it took Cat Stevens with his Top 40 radio hit to bring it to our consciousness. As Spring is awakening, enjoy this song again, along with the beautiful photography of Scott Wright.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Hell Ain't Gonna Be Hot Enough"

‎"Human beings are a tension filled unity capable of infinite good and infinite evil."
                                                                                                 ~ William Hendricks

Cleveland, Ohio
photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It was not an uncommon phrase that I heard from the old folks when I was growing up: “Hell ain’t gonna be hot enough for some folks.” When news comes out like what we have heard this past week  about the three young women who were kidnapped and held captive for almost a decade in a Cleveland neighborhood  that phrase comes quickly back to mind. 

The problem is that long ago I adopted a more hopeful view of humanity. I came to believe that we are becoming more enlightened and are on an upward path. I tossed out any belief that there was a literal hell where people burn for all eternity.  I refused to accept John Calvin’s view of the total depravity of man much less the idea that God could consign people to eternal torment.

Seeing the World with New Eyes

Having grown up in church, and in the middle of "the Bible Belt," I once had this notion that there was something different about those who are "redeemed" vs. those who are "in the world." When I went to seminary, I left the Bible Belt and went to Mill Valley, California. While in school there, I got a job at Mosher's Shoe Store in Mill Valley and immersed myself in the culture. I found that my premise about church people vs. un-churched was not true. My unscientific observation was that the people I met and came to know who were not religious were every bit as good and caring as the church people I grew up with. I also had to acknowledge that some church folk could be just as crooked and self-centered as any image one could muster of an un-redeemed heathen.

My take-away from that experience in Mill Valley was that 1) Human goodness can be celebrated wherever it is to be found. 2) There are good people and bad people, caring people and selfish people in every milieu. 3) It helped to give me a much brighter view of the world and they that dwell therein. 4) I was relieved that I didn't have to worry about converting masses of people to anything. 

The Problem of Evil and the Pain of Suffering

I like to think the best about human endeavors and can readily name scores of things to be thankful for. Yet last week when the details began to emerge about the cruelty and torture of those women in that Cleveland neighborhood, I felt a chill come over me. I was appalled at what I was hearing, and could not help thinking, “If this has been going on for ten years and we knew nothing of it until now, what other evil things are happening in homes in other neighborhoods that we are not even aware of?”

I was hit with a dose of reality. The shock of such depravity reminded me of how John Calvin might have come by his ideas of the total depravity of man. It reminded me of why we have a need for the idea of hell.  When we feel helpless about finding justice in this world, sometimes we can only hope that justice will be met in the next life.

Some would argue that it is not just the concept of Hell, but also the idea of Heaven that helps us to cope.  In The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, a character in the story says, “I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God.” By the time the novel is over, the reader realizes that he may have meant that we have to believe in a loving God or we could not deal with the harsh realities of things we suffer in this life.  In short, it may be that we tell ourselves stories to help us make some sense of the world.

Life is a Sacred Mix

I had a theology professor, William Hendricks, when I was a seminary student in Mill Valley. He had a brilliant and creative mind and was one of those people who could take all factors into account in his over-arching philosophy of life.  I quoted him at the outset because those words drive home the fact that we all have the capacity for good as well as evil.  A blithe view that life is wonderful will not get us through many bumps on life’s journey if we are honest. At the same time, living in fear that humanity is hopelessly depraved will not give us the strength to endure either.  
It is times like these when I must accept that all of us are “a tension-filled unity” capable of both good and evil. I remind myself of Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi’s words, "There is more good than evil in the world – but not by much." What then can we do when confronted with evil and when we see such disregard for other people? We continue to show the light that we have. We remember that in addition to the kidnapper Ariel Castro, there was the neighbor, Charles Ramsey who helped rescue the kidnapped women when he heard a cry for help. There are many at work at this moment to try to bring about healing and justice for the three women and the six-year-old daughter who were rescued.     
I am also reminded of the words of Mary Anne Evans, the nineteenth century author who wrote under the male pseudonym “George Eliot” in order to be taken more seriously. At the end of her novel Middlemarch she wrote,  "The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

It is indeed the small “unhistoric” acts that we must continue to do if we are to see a better and safer world. Pinning our hopes on political leaders, ecclesiastical hierarchy, or grand social schemes will inevitably lead to disappointment. Looking to our neighbor, the “Charles Ramseys” of the world; being that good neighbor in our small daily acts; trusting that our small lives can contribute to the balance of good over evil – these are the things that can give us hope from day to day. These are the things that will contribute to “the growing good of the world.”


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Saturday Haiku: Vernal Offering

My post about writing haiku has become one of my most visited sites, so now I am considering doing more with the genre myself. Today I decided to take an old poem and recast it as a haiku. Here is original poem followed by the haiku:

Vernal Offering

The air is damp from Spring rain
As the cat crouches low
And moves parallel to the ground
Like anxious and hesitant quicksilver.
Eyes are fixed upon a squirrel
Who ambles about
In the yard
Like a self-contained wisp of grey smoke.
Quicksilver is focused and intent,
Grey Smoke is unconsciously playful.
With no apparent knowledge of danger
Grey Smoke spirals up a telephone pole,
Across a wire and into a tree.
There will be no bloodshed today.


               *    *    *

Cloudy skies in Spring
     Hover while cat stalks squirrel.
     Freedom found in trees.



Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Seeing the World from Space

"One of the astronauts said, when we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon. We weren't thinking about looking back at the earth. But now that we've done it, that very well may be the most important reason we went."
                                              ~ David Beaver, co-founder, Overview Institute

Seeing our world from the vantage-point of space was indeed a shift in our consciousness. I have written briefly about how just seeing the photos has changed our understanding of the world. Watch this short film,  The Overview Effect (19 minutes), and hear astronauts tell how their lives were profoundly changed by seeing the earth from space. 

From the video website:

On the 40th anniversary of the famous ‘Blue Marble’ photograph taken of Earth from space, Planetary Collective presents a short film documenting astronauts’ life-changing stories of seeing the Earth from the outside – a perspective-altering experience often described as the Overview Effect.

The Overview Effect, first described by author Frank White in 1987, is an experience that transforms astronauts’ perspective of the planet and mankind’s place upon it. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

‘Overview’ is a short film that explores this phenomenon through interviews with five astronauts who have experienced the Overview Effect. The film also features insights from commentators and thinkers on the wider implications and importance of this understanding for society, and our relationship to the environment.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Music: Wayfaring Stranger

In 1980, country-music artist Emmylou Harris made history when she identified with the bluegrass genre in her sixth album, Roses in the Snow. Many guest-appearances are featured on the album including Johnny Cash and a young Ricky Skaggs, who would later proclaim to his own audiences that after wandering in the wilderness of country music he entered the promised land of bluegrass. "Wayfaring Stranger" became a hit single on the country charts that year.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Religion and Violence

We often hear the claim that religion is responsible fro promoting violence. This is one of the favored talking points among some of the “new atheists” who like to enumerate the ills that religion has brought upon society. Whenever there is a new terrorism threat, similar arguments will break out about the wars throughout history that have been fought in the name of religion.

Just this past week, I read an essay by Juan Cole of Informed Comment.  Cole opens his essay, “Terrorism and the Other Religions,” with the statement, “Contrary to what is alleged by bigots like Bill Maher, Muslims are not more violent than people of other religions. Murder rates in most of the Muslim world are very low compared to the United States.” He makes the point that though we think of Muslims as being responsible for most of the violence in the world, in actual fact, far more deaths and political violence during the 20th century occurred at the hands of those of European Christian heritage than from Muslims. He even has a handy pie chart to visually illustrate the fact.

Cole makes a good point. He seems to be emphasizing that Christianity is by the numbers more violent than Islam, but then he talks about religious terrorism being universal. "Terrorism,” he states, “is a tactic of extremists within each religion, and within secular religions of Marxism or nationalism. No religion, including Islam, preaches indiscriminate violence against innocents." 

Bill Maher’s Two Cents

I was surprised to see Bill Maher cast as a bigot when I thought he disdained all religions equally. I found online a report of the incident to which Cole refers (you can read it here). Maher was holding up a controversial Newsweek cover with the headline, “Muslim Rage” and did say that “most Muslims” think it is acceptable to kill someone they think has offended the prophet Muhammad.  Later in the discussion, the article states, “Maher joked that atheist beliefs would solve a lot of the problems.”

Recognizing Human Traits

When Bill Maher joked (was he joking?) that “atheist beliefs would solve a lot of the problems,” he was voicing what many critics of religion seem to believe. I think the actual truth is that violence is a human trait. Religion is a human trait. Those who imagine that they can eliminate violence and atrocity by doing away with religion are just as blind to human nature as are those who think that only Muslims foment terrorism. As Cole indirectly alludes to, religious teachings attempt to steer adherents away from violence, but there are all those other factors in human nature that bring about violence and destruction. Furthermore, those in power will co-opt religion or any other social institution to stay in power and often violence is the tool for holding onto power. 

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing
Birmingham News photo
The Birmingham News has been running a series, “50 Years of Progress: 1963 to 2013” highlighting the city’s history in civil rights and looking at where we are today. In last Sunday’s article, “The New Hate: Does religion cause hatred, heal it, or both?” Greg Garrison looked specifically at the role religion has played in the civil rights struggle.  He states that many extremist groups twist theology to reinforce their beliefs and to fan the fires of ethnic hatred. Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center is quoted as saying, “People of all faiths use religion to focus their violence when they feel their worldview is threatened.”  Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham observed that “Religion can be used to bring out the very best in us, as it often does, and it can often be used as a tool to bring out the very worst in us.”  Certainly during the civil rights struggle in the south, religious faith seemed to be a motivating factor for both sides of the struggle.

There are many factors to attribute to causes for conflict. Religion is just one of the sociological traits of humanity. If by some bizarre construct we could actually eliminate religion altogether, human beings would find other means to rally the masses into war and conflict. My opinion as to what contributes to the world's problems? I would choose "D - All of the above" rather than singling out religion.

Put more succintly, as I heard a Pentecostal preacher friend of mine say many years ago: "You hear people talk about this evil world, but there ain't nothin' wrong with this world – not a thing wrong with the world. It's the crowd that's in it that's givin' us problems."

Moving Toward Justice for All 

The solution? Don't try to eliminate one particular scapegoat thinking that will remove the problem.  Instead, careful attention to ethics and listening to the marginalized of society would be a good place to start. We must come to terms with the fact that we are stuck with our human traits. That doesn’t mean we cannot do better, it just means we need to get beyond the blame game. We must recognize our strengths as well as our weaknesses.  Let faith be a strengthening factor for people of faith, but let us always be subject to ethical standards to move us toward a greater realization of justice and integrity. 


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