In my 80s

January 29, 2019

Isn’t it obvious that individuals through acculturation and disposition and ongoing experience come to be especially attuned to particulars while oblivious to other perhaps more dominant things?  For example, Person A is constantly aware of the stock market numbers but finds symphonies indeciferable. Person B reads and thinks and feels philosophy but couldn’t begin to repair a car motor. Person C hears and can identify every plane in the sky but can’t taste differences in wine.  

Put these people together in the same location and you will learn they there are discrepancies is what they experience.

I couldn’t hang a door straight if i worked on it for a week. But I am attuned to weather. This topic is on my mind because we are experiencing a cold blast from up north, a puff from a polar vortex. My heartbeat is raised, sensing the dramatic shifts in temperature, the effects of a deep freeze, and all the many ways that our lives are affected by temperature. I sometimes think I could be a rather accurate thermometer.

I credit my keenness for nature and specifically temperature to my upbringing on a farm. Thunderstorms delighted me. Blizzards gave me a very high. I sensed the direction of winds and tried to read the skies for the next day’s weather.

And so today while I won’t take Rudy for a walk, I intend to do a short round just to feel the sharpness of the wind. Tonight I’ll sit by the fire as the temp outside heads toward minus 10.

Before I let you go, take a look at this winter grandeur, just steps from our house.

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In my 80s

January 28, 2019

Last evening’s PBS feature of people working to limit the spread of the emboli virus brings to my thoughts the hundreds of service personnel who have left their homes for foreign lands to help ameliorate life-threatening circumstances. Here I am, comfortable in my 80s, indoors on a cold January night, up close to a friendly fire, enjoying the safety and peace on a Monday night.

It’s impossible for us in our secure dens to imagine the strain and stress of clinic work in a refugee settlement, the pressure of time to save a dying victim of E coli infection, the exhausting labor of attending to refugees at the border of a hostile unwelcoming nation, the frustration over political policies that impoverish the lower classes of a nation, on and on. Servants far from their native homes.

I remember evenings in Costa Rica where my wife and I led students in Goshen College’s international studies program — indeed an assignment that in no way equaled what is described in the preceding paragraph — when I felt far away and somewhat alone, responsible for the lives of 25 students each semester. 

I remember that refugee camp in Thailand, temporary holding area for 158,000 people looking for safety from wars in Cambodia and Viet Nam. I seemed to be on a distant planet.

For those who devote themselves to servanthood the world over, willing to forego the comforts of back home I offer a heartfelt thanks. 

In my 80s

January 27, 2019

I am not atheist. I am a believer. This is my testimony.

While I have heard sermons about the prohibition against constructing images of God, recorded in the Old Testament as ordered by God, I often tried to understand more fully the particular problem with the graven image. People, so it was said, bowed down to the images, worshipping them instead of God. What puzzled me was the apparent ending of the prohibition when Christianity named a person to be a representative of God. Indeed, people bowed down to worship Jesus, who, according to the third century gathering of bishops in Rome, was one of a three-part God. In addition to the worship of Jesus, the Christian church not only allowed but encouraged the making of many religious images that dominated the life of church members. So — is it ok or is it not ok to make an image of God?

The academic discipline of semiology has been helpful in my working through this big question. Semiology, in brief, is the science of sign-making. People make signs to signify something. For example, people in my neck of the woods use the word “eye” to signify one of two body organs on the face of humans and other animals with which said creatures “see.” The sign is the word “eye.” What is signified is an organ of seeing. 

Who in the world came up with the sign “eye”? Well, in brief, sign-making is a human specialty. People have been making signs ever since brains were developed fully enough to sense the need to “objectify” reality. 

In very fact, we humans continue to make and modify signs. Examples: “froyo” (frozen yogurt) and “listicle” (a piece of writing or other content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list). And we sometimes make shifts in what a sign signifies. Example. The sign “text” has been modified into the sign “to text.” 

Obviously sign-making is an extremely complex activity, quite complex enough to birth a science of signs. But sign-making seems to humans to be ideal for signifying God. Thus the myriad of signs.

How has semiology, then, helped me think through the conundrum of making images that stand for or represent God?  My thoughts on this question received a boost when my mother-in-law gifted me with a book entitled Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Amazon describes the content as follows: “This forty-year-old [older than that!] Christian classic and bestseller is a study group favorite; this book challenges readers’ conventional views about God and encourages them to search for a meaningful redefinition of a higher power that is relevant to contemporary existence.”

How is our God too small? That is, how have we all through history, all around the world, in all religions, in all isms made signs for God that fall far short of accurate signification? This question has taken on more import as I have come to encounter ultimate reality. Through reading, meditation, mindful living, aesthetic explorations, prayer, private and group worship I have seen just a glimmer, I have sensed just a link, I have just a breath of something so vast and small, so far and near, so old and not yet born that at times the only sign I can come up with is “NOW”.  What I am referring to is beyond, way beyond what G-O-D meant to me as a child. Indeed it is way beyond what G-O-D has meant to me as an adult.

I am reminded of the burning bush encountered by Moses. “I AM THAT I AM.”

Gracious goodness, how in the world can we make signs to represent THAT? Certainly my own creation “NOW” is totally inadequate. Any sign we create is going to signify something far short of ultimate reality. Any sign we create is going to tempt us to think that’s the real thing, leading us to make a graven image. 

Our G-O-D is far too small.

And yet I believe. I belief in ultimate reality be that the ultimate word or the ultimate sign or the ultimate being. And in some moments at some places, I encounter the burning bush that says “I AM THAT I AM.”  So instead of being tempted to make a graven image, I take off my hat, take off my shoes and bow down not to an idol but to unshaped holiness of which, curiously enough, I am a part.

—————–

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In my 80s

January 27, 2019

Come walk with me. Today’s assignment: notice nature’s curvy crooked lines.

exposed tree roots

e

Pleasant Run

 

afternoon clouds 

nuts

sand bar

a giraffe checking out supper

silvan apartments

oak leaves

pine tree 

fallen tree

For an example of one of nature’s straight lines, we’d have to try to photograph a sun beam.

In my 80s


January 25, 2019

I am not a socialist. I am not anti-socialist. Somewhere there in the middle you will find me, most likely because of my vocal skepticism of news reports published in the United States concerning activities in or about socialist countries.

Like Venezuela. 

There is a background for my skepticism. One day, actually December 31, 1958, a Brethren in Christ missionary family living in Havana assured us, almost vehemently, that all the talk about Fidel Castro, a supposed bearded guerrilla fighter in the interior of the country, was largely that — just talk. 

We did not argue, for we knew that this couple was informed by agencies quite opposed to social revolutions. We also knew that Mr. Castro was real. We had just returned from communities that had already embraced him. Unfortunately we were scheduled to leave the island that day. Thus we were not in Havana when Mr. Castro entered the city the very next day. February 1, 1959 is the celebrated day of the Cuban revolution.

Thereafter I was interested in Cuba and particularly what kind of government Mr. Castro would install, for he was promising an end to capitalistic “exploitation” of the island’s resources and a new era of social welfare.

I discovered in upcoming decades that the sources of information about Cuba could be categorized into two radically different groupings. In Group A were (1) capitalistic countries such as the United States, (2) the newspapers of capitalistic countries. and (3) people who left Cuba as refugees, many of them having lost properties, possessions and privilege. In Group B were people remaining in Cuba, who enjoyed the shared wealth that centralized control made available to them. 

One fact stayed front-center in my memory. The Cuban government, after expelling the capitalistic enterprises that controlled entertainment on this tropical island, offered re-education and a new start for 100,000 prostitutes formerly working for those foreign enterprises.

What each group reported was altogether different in tone and in facts. Seldom could I find a positive journalistic report about Cuba while living in the United States. Even the photographs of Fidel Castro selected for print made him out to be a bum. Because I lived in Central America and in Spain for periods of time, I had access to indiividuals and news reports in group B. 

On one occasion I happened upon a group of Cubans allowed into the country for an international science convention. I was curious enough to open dialogue with them and to ask some big questions. One medical doctor said, “You don’t have to believe what we say. Come visit Cuba and see for yourself.”

No wonder there was shock in our country when we first learned that life expectancy in Cuba had passed up our own. How surprised were the first tourists allowed to visit Cuba to see that there weren’t slums as found in many U.S. cities. 

To be sure, Cuba did not become Eden. It faced huge problems and could not have survived without extensive aid from other socialist nations. Undoubtedly many people were imprisoned, notably those who were unwilling to allow a central government to exact its control over everyday life. 

But what was continually reinforced in my mind was the shaded interpretations from the two groupings. Eventually I knew that I could not find accurate reports about Cuba and Mr. Castro in our news  And I knew that I could not always depend upon reports from Cubans. 

And now Venezuela is in crisis. I wonder what the true story is. Even after reading a long article this afternoon, I  wonder …  .

In my 80s

January 24, 2019

Again the temperature is free-falling, seemingly to make certain that this month attracts due attention to itself. Such an evening makes the fireplace even warmer and the Mozart Requiem more profound. Let it be cold outside.  

Today my attention was fixed on ice, its many forms and functions. A close-up of ice on Pleasant Run shows its complexity. Instead of a solid, this ice seems to be a collection of spikey particles. Surely there would be a way to follow the development of ice from this stage to what is in an ice berg.

 Winter may seem to offer mainly environmental dullness, but my camera seems to find shapes and lines and contrasts aplenty. The ice shot is only one example. Today while walking Rudy, I saw wisps of snow on Lowell blown by a freaky breeze.

And a bit further along, shadow patterns on the street.

What might we see tomorrow?

In my 80s

January 22, 2019

In recent years I have been awed by the larger setting that dwarfs our physical universe and that could contain a myriad of universes. I have stood in amazement of the ultimate unity of which you and I are a part. I have sensed, in speechless wonder, that all of THIS is now.

All of these insights and impressions have been gifts of steady rumination, quiet mindfulness and meditation. — exercises in spirituality.

Nonetheless, at the same time I have come to a new understanding of the function of world religions. In all ages and in all zones, among peasants and rulers, in the imagination of artists and minds of intellectuals, religion has been an interpreter of the mysteries that lie far beyond the knowledge or imagination of mortals living on one planet in one galaxy in one universe.

To be sure, religious interpretations have been many, and often contradictory. The interpretations typically trace to the distant past reconstructed in the experience of an individual or group, then developed into a story made sacred in its retelling over time and place with continuing interpretations to make the story relevant. 

Thus, an individual living within a zone of a particular religion is conditioned to adopt an explanation of reality. That is, the religion serves up answers to the ultimate questions and most individuals within the reach of the religion are of such a make-up to be accepting of the explanation. .  

The force of religious explanation can lead to vastly different mindsets and philosophies. Religions have, in some cases, established a duality of human and divine, earth and heaven. Some religions have posited a time line leading to a culmination; other religions imagine a circular, recurring life line. Religions have been known to not only condone but also to institutionalize anti-social behaviors such as human sacrifice, war, and fear. Typically religions define what is good and what is evil and how the good became good and how the evil became evil. 

Because I moved geographically out of the religious community of my birth, I have been able to view that heritage from a distance that has encouraged objectivity. Concurrently I entered into other communities whose religion(s) complemented and/or contradicted my own. This distance has helped me to understand better the ways and means of religion to interpret the realities of life and what lies beyond human life.

Here is a lovely paragraph from Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, that reveals the shaping of faith.

I began translating the Visitation Card yesterday. It is a very solid and even inspiring document. Dom Dominique handled it in a way that impressed me deeply. I was especially interested in one page he had crossed out — he had changed some ideas and reintroduced them in another form, so that the meaning remained more or less the same, but the language was more serene and more objective and more profound. All the things he eliminated were good in themselves, but in the end the document was better, and included everything he wanted to say. And so I have seen how the Holy Ghost works in the machinery of a religious Order. How peacefully and smoothly He produces His effects. The atmosphere of the house is  all tranquility and happiness.

So it is that I have a regard for what Karen Armstrong calls “the history of God.” That human history tells of the comings and goings of religion and the roles each religion has played in the construction of meaning. As I continue to sense the larger dimensions of meanings, surely I will continue to gain insights for living, for appreciation and for faith from the religion into which I was born and from other religions that I have encountered.