My Virginia Creeper Escapade

I recently got into Virginia Creeper, a vine that for me is as toxic as poison ivy.

I took all the necessary precautions, long sleeve shirt, work gloves, even coveralls.

I scrubbed in the shower within thirty minutes of completing my garden work.

And still I got the oils on my arms.

When the outbreak started a couple of days later I applied over-the-counter salves.

When it continued, I followed a pharmacist’s suggestion for a soaking powder and calamine lotion.

When it got worse, I went to a drugstore clinic and got a prescription salve.

As it worsened, I went back and got prednisone.

After a miserable night, I went to a hospital-run clinic and got a shot.

But it’s the prednisone that drives this escapade. I kept my wife awake all night, she claims.

She had been pretty sympathetic until this. Now, she’s suggesting a different sleeping arrangement for the duration.

I was warned the prednisone might affect my sleep. Wow. That wasn’t the half of it.

It affected my appetite, my activity level, and my sleep.

That’s what got me in trouble with Sharon.

I made repeated trips to the kitchen throughout the night, which she says she heard between her naps.

I started the evening after supper with a bowl of watermelon. But that didn’t hold me.

I followed that with a granola bar. Then a banana. Then mixed nuts. Then an apple. Then vanilla wafers.

It was the vanilla wafers at 3:30 am that were the straw that broke the camel’s back, to mix my metaphors.

Well, that and the noise of the shower, which I took to try and stem the itching.

It was the crinkling tin foil and scratching sounds that I made pulling the wafers from the box that woke her for the last time.

I thought I was being stealthy. She says it sounded like a turtle scratching inside a cardboard box.

I guess tonight I’ll sleep upstairs.

But first I have to go to the grocery store.

Educated

Tara Westover did not set foot in a classroom until she was seventeen, at least that’s how old she thinks she was.

In her memoir, Educated, she says her birthday was never recorded. She had no birth certificate because her anti-government, survivalist father wanted the family to be invisible to the feds.

He was also radically anti-medical establishment and a fundamentalist Mormon.

For most of her youth, she sorted scrap metal in the junkyard that was part of her family’s home base below a remote mountain in Idaho.

Childhood

As a child, she was impaled by metal, abused physically and emotionally by both her father and an older brother. The latter held her head in a toilet to demonstrate his power, and once threatened her life, handing her a bloodied knife with which he had just dismembered a family dog as if to confirm his threat.

Her siblings and both parents experienced life-threatening injuries including disfiguring burns, head trauma and broken bones, all of which were treated with home remedies concocted by her herbalist mother.

Her mother was also an unlicensed midwife who yielded to the patriarchal authority of her husband, even when that meant acquiescing to, or denying outright, the violence and abuse that ran through the family’s relationships.

Westover details her father’s emotional extremes which she speculates could result from bipolar disorder and perhaps schizophrenia.

But she writes that he will never be diagnosed because he refuses medical treatment.

Education as a Way Out

Three of her brothers, among seven siblings, found their way out of the family dysfunction to go on to higher education. All achieving PhDs.

With encouragement from a brother, Tara eventually educated herself sufficiently to pass the ACT and achieve admission into Brigham Young University at age 17 as home-schooled.

It was not an easy transition. She held fast to the values imparted from her parents who regarded even “mainstream” Mormons as gentiles and considered her desire for education as “whoring after man’s knowledge.”

Her story is remarkable; a feral child from a family enmeshed in radical ideology and obvious dangerous dysfunction; a young woman who did not know about the Holocaust when it was raised in a lecture about Western art in her freshman year in college.

She was successful at BYU, so successful she received a prestigious fellowship to Cambridge, then Harvard, and ultimately earned her PhD as well.

It’s a wonder she survived, much less achieved academic distinction.

Narrating Her Own Life

She writes of the interior struggle to resolve the conflict between the reality taught by her father and the reality was learning through her education.

“My life was narrated for me by others,” she writes. “It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”

Here is the crux of her interior struggle—to discover her right to narrate her own story and develop the courage to find her voice.

At Cambridge she discovered the writings of Mary Wollenstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, and her intellectual world and her emotional world both began to open in ways she had never imagined possible.

A friend sent her Redemption Song by Bob Marley with the lyrics
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.”

She scratched the lines in notebooks, on margins, and lost herself contemplating what they meant.

Estrangement

But the more educated she became, the more estranged she felt from her family back home. Despite the violence and rigid ideology, there was also a bond that she felt was sealed by love, as distorted and confusing as it was.

The pressures built. Her desire for connection, her love of family, her life narrated by others conflicted with the lectures and reading at Cambridge.

This struggle led to a nervous breakdown for which she sought counseling.

If all of this seems too horrific to bear, it isn’t.

Hope

Woven throughout her gripping, sometimes shocking narrative, is hope. It resonates like a mountain flower breaking through the winter snow and ever-so-gently bringing color to the landscape.

With the help of friends, counseling and her educated siblings, she regained her balance.

She writes of the empowering value of education, power that allowed her to claim her life, to transition from a frightened sixteen-year-old girl whose reflection in the mirror called her to be her father’s daughter on his terms, or to leave the girl in the mirror behind and create a new self.

Education

Education done well can enable us to claim a more authentic and aware self, and more.

For some of us it isn’t enough to lay claim to a new life, the old life must be deconstructed, to step away from the mirror.

And in Tara’s metamorphosis, it meant negotiating the difficult path to resist the hold of those who narrated the old life.

In the rigid family structure she was reared in, it also meant estrangement from values and beloved parents and siblings.

I thought of her story as I also read of the debate about the value of education in our country today.

The value of those majors in higher education that are not focused on skills for careers in new technologies are being called into question.

To Gain a Life

Tara Westover’s gripping story is testament that education is about more than learning a skill to find a job. That’s an important part of the process, to be sure.

But more importantly, it’s about gaining wisdom, the ability see more clearly.

It’s a door to something deeper, more enduring and life-changing—the development of a person aware of his or her place in the universe, and affected by wisdom inherited from those who have gone before us, and responsible to those who will come after us.

Finding a voice and developing the confidence to use it.

Selfhood.

Barracoon-A Story

The difference between a tragedy and a statistic is a story.

A story can enflesh the statistic, make it real, give it emotional context, and make it human.

A human story can reveal that we are more similar than different.

We share hopes and dreams that are not limited by barriers of language, geography or the color of our skin.

A story that reveals our desire for connection—to the land of our birth, to each other and, most importantly, our desire for basic human dignity, illuminates our common humanity.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’ by Zora Neale Hurston fulfills exactly this role.

And it does it through gripping, emotionally engaging, gut-wrenching tragedy bound up in unimaginable endurance and hope that is as authentic a human story as we will ever read.

The story of Oluale Kossula humanizes the tragedy of more than 12 million people in Africa who were captured, chained in stockades, and sold into enslavement.

Kossula was captured in 1860 by a warring king in Africa at the age of 19 and transported on the slave ship, Clotilde, in violation of U.S. law, to Alabama where he was enslaved.

The events in Africa are as horrific as the inhumanity that lies in future bondage in the U.S. And this honesty adds authenticity to Kossula’s very human story.

The Clotilde was the last slave ship to transport Africans illegally into the United States.

By enabling Kossula to tell his story in his own way, Hurston gives voice to one among those millions of voices most often left out of the story of enslavement, the enslaved themselves.

Much of what we know about this horrible period of human history is told through the words of the slave owners, the statistics derived from ship manifests and slave markets.

“All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold,” writes Hurston in her introduction.

She held fast to helping Kossula (his English name was Cudjo Lewis), tell his story through his own distinct dialect, which publishers at the time wanted to change to “respectable” language.

Hurston refused to compromise and, therefore, it took 87 years for this story to be told.

We should be grateful, for Kossula is, in his own way, an articulate and powerful storyteller.

It is as if we are allowed into the sacred space of conversation between Hurston and Cudjo, sitting on the porch or in his windowless house in Plateau, Alabama, or under the shade tree, listening to the pain of dislocation, the loneliness, the hope for the future, and the incomprehensible strength of this life, this man who has survived against all odds.

The racism that infects contemporary society in the U.S. from the White House on down, makes Cudjo’s story is as relevant today as ever.

As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

Editor Deborah G. Plant says in her afterword, Barracoon is a counternarrative to our collective silence about slaves and slavery, about slaveholders and the American Dream (and I would add inaction about racism).

Because it illuminates our humanity—the good and the evil, the horrific and the lovely, the vulnerability and the strength—Barracoon is as fresh and important today as it was when Hurston first sat down to listen to this powerful storyteller, and that she stood fast to tell the story in his own words, makes it all the more important and enlightening.

Jesus Christ Superstar, Where to From Here?

Watching Jesus Christ Superstar last night brought memories of the introduction of this musical in 1970.

It was part of a much larger cultural turning point. Preceded by the musical “Hair,” which condensed and commercialized hippie counter-culture on stage and created a new form of musical theater (the “rock musical”), Jesus Christ Superstar went even further.

It reinterpreted the biblical account of Jesus’ life in rock opera.

The Fusion of Culture and Biblical Story

It was the fusion of pop culture with biblical storytelling, and it captivated young audiences in a way that traditional Christian education could not.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I returned to speak at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Bellevue, Nebraska, where I served as pastor during those years.

Adults who were in their teen years while I was there reminded me of the study groups in which I used Jesus Christ Superstar as the subject matter.

Whatever their reaction was at the time, the experience stuck, and after all these years, they remembered it.

Before Superstar, the sickly sweet images of a pale Jesus by the artist Warner Sallman defined him. They hung in virtually every local church in the country.

Superstar brought him into the streets. It was gritty. The language was in the vernacular. It captured the human dilemma of power politics and self-serving religious leaders.

It showed us his followers were sometimes faithless and they fought among themselves.

Humanizing the Biblical Story

Superstar humanized the biblical story and made it accessible.

Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene—even Pilate—became true to life.

They were more like us than the unapproachable, elevated mythical figures presented in our Sunday school instruction to whom we were told we owed pious devotion.

Last night’s mounting of Superstar by NBC adapted to our steampunk era and performed the same function.

It leads me to this thought: It is imperative to reinterpret the Christian story to make it accessible to justifiably skeptical seekers today.

White evangelical Trumpian Christians have trashed the faith. They have done more damage than most dedicated detractors.

After this, how will Christian faith recover?

Strong Headwinds

The headwinds are strong. Here are a few: the enormous capacity of corporate capitalism to commercialize and exploit virtually every humanistic impulse making life transactional and materialistic, economic inequality, extra-judicial killing of Black people, incessant messages inviting consumption and self-gratification, degradation of the environment, and anti-science religionists all make the challenge of humanizing the culture and re-sacralizing life enormous.

As Franciscan Richard Rohr is saying, it is the challenge to rebuild the faith from the ground up.

In a small way, and as an unintentional consequence of commercial theater, Superstar abets this process. But it will require creative, innovative, biblically informed followers to move the process forward.

Superstar reminds us that our best intentions are not enough. It’s the price we are willing to pay that makes the difference. And the cost may be higher than we bargained for.

Making Disciples, Pale Response

Now, I’m aware that new forms of white suburban upper middle class faith communities are seeking to “make disciples,” but I wonder if they pale in the face of the existential dilemmas experienced by the poor and vulnerable, the opioid addicted and LBGTQI people. They are soft on discrimination, racism, economic injustice and environmental destruction, and strong on personal growth and personal piety.

They are destined, I suspect, to become the equivalent of Sallman paintings when viewed backward from the future.

And Trumpian white evangelical leaders who make so much noise. Well, I’m done with them.

Lest I sound cynical and pessimistic, it’s because I’ve visited dozens of faith communities over the past dozen years, evangelical, progressive, and middle of the road.

Preachers in flannel shirts and blue jeans, backed by praise bands singing an interminably repetitious version of “Our God is an Awesome God,” is a lot like being pummeled by marshmallows. If you swallow them it’s a sugar high that dissipates by the time you leave the parking lot.

Rooted in Community

On the other hand, some local churches are deeply involved in their communities. Mostly, in my experience, these are in areas where people are up against the odds, vulnerable to systemic injustice and troubled by economic hard times. These churches are rooted in places of vulnerability where troubles are on open display.

The Jesus of Superstar was with these people. He was prophetic, and he paid for it with his life. Oh, wait, that is the Jesus of the Bible.

And that is the value of Superstar. It focuses us on the Jesus of the gritty streets. It shines light on conflicted human passions, political power and religious hypocrisy.

Discipleship and the Uneasy Questions

It reminds us that discipleship is not easy, and asks if we’re up to it.

Mary and Peter remind us of ourselves when they sing to him:

“I think you've made your point now.
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening,
We ought to call a vote,
So could we start again please?”

(from MetroLyrics)

I’m left with this. How to start again. To be an authentic follower of Jesus today, what is required of me, and am I up to the challenge?

And, most importantly, the plaintive song Mary sings, perhaps the most moving in the whole opera:

I don’t know how to love him
What to do, how to move him,
I’ve been changed, yes, really changed
In these past few days when I’ve
seen my self,
I seem like someone else.

I don’t know how to take this,

(from Metrolyrics)

In the confusing times in which we live, a turning point in history, a time when the faith has been trashed by hypocrisy and ideology, the wonder, and enormous challenge before those who would seek to live in the faith he inspires, I am haunted by these two questions.

What does it mean to love him?
And, could we start again please?

Nature as Grace

Snowy Owl

I was sitting in a ditch alongside a road in farm country in Kentucky. It was cold and windy. The ground was wet.

My legs cramped as I tried to arrange them around the tripod that held my camera close to the ground. My back hurt and my backside was wet.

I was focused on a snowy owl that had chosen to winter in this place.

The only way I could get a decent photograph was to get low and make the sky the background.

The owl sat on an old concrete building foundation barely three feet above the ground.

Central Kentucky is an unusual, even rare, location for this arctic native.

I heard footsteps and turned as a lady in rubber boots wearing a coat with a hood sat down on the ground beside me and started to talk.

She told me we could park in her driveway at the top of the hill, apparently as a polite and subtle way to tell us we were improperly parked.

Then she began to relate her experiences with the owl. It has been hunting on her side of the road, finding water at her stock pond, and landing on fenceposts nearby.

She shared photos she had taken.

I listened. She spoke of family, nature, the owl and her beautiful dogs. I take great joy in moments like this. Unplanned, authentic, spontaneous connection.

Spontaneous Connections

But she was only one of the half dozen folks I got to talk to that day. There was the farmer who owns the land on which the owl was resting, a local man who bragged that the owl came to his place in the evening to hunt, a local newspaper photographer who interviewed me about my interest in the owl, a mother and adult son who had driven about as far as Sharon and I to see the owl and take photos.

Some people stopped their vehicles in the middle of the road to talk, such is the lack of traffic in this beautiful farm country.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

I’ve been thinking lately about nature, and how it is more than a resource for humans to exploit, despoil and use up.

Thoreau on Nature

Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1857, “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.”

I understand Thoreau. I’ve come to myself in solitude. But I’ve also come to others when we share a deep respect for nature. We connect. And when we honor it, nature makes healing connections.

Original Blessing

What I’ve been thinking about is this. Religions that speak of original sin need to be reconsidered. As Fransiscan friar Richard Rohr writes, it would be more accurate to think of our presence on this earth as “original blessing.”

“The first act of divine revelation is creation itself. The first Bible is the Bible of nature,” says Fr. Rohr.

In one of his meditations he shares the words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore:

Silence my soul, these trees are prayers.
I asked the tree, “Tell me about God.”;
then it blossomed.

 

We sought a little owl far, far from home. We found, however, connection, community, beauty and joy–a shared experience of the divine.

Teilhard writes, “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined [the divine] as distant and inaccessible, when in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”

Snow Falling Gently

A pileated woodpecker goes about finding food.
(Click to enlarge photos.)

Snow falling gently in a quiet wood is sacramental, a gracious act revealing the sacredness of Creation.

I was reminded of this on a cold winter day as I listened to the rat-a-tat-tat of a pair of pileated woodpeckers and the low hoot of a distant owl as snow covered the woodlands where I stood.

The ethereal rustle of snowflakes alighting on trees provided a musical undertone.

Shhh, shhh, shhh whispers the snow. Be quiet. Be still. Listen. See.

A quiet snowfall is so completely innocent and deeply authentic.

Snow covers the forest bed.

In contrast to the noise with which we all live these days, and to the tawdry artifice of popular culture, this beauty leads to contemplation and reflection.

Before your eyes, the wood is transformed. How can you not be swept away from the mundane and led to consider the sublime?

If the place in which you stand can change so quickly and beautifully what other surprises might nature teach about “reality?”

Snowflakes fall ever so gently.

Well, there is much to learn: Creation is dynamic, an on-going process, as is life itself, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Life need not be bound by limited expectations. Reality need not be immutably fixed. Transformation happens, sometimes simply and quickly. And it can be beautiful.

Nature awakens us to a higher level of consciousness–or is it a deeper, more interior way of comprehending?

Snow gathers on a reed-like stem.

Of course, the scientist can explain how moisture condenses as warm air rises, clashing with cold resulting in ice crystals that fall to earth. But science cannot explain why we are transfixed with wonder, mesmerized by its beauty and led to contemplate and reflect as it happens.

We can lose ourselves in higher thought and our trivial cares melt away in a snowy woodland day. That’s beyond the ability of science to explain.

A tufted titmouse collects a kernel from an icy plant.

We are invited, however gently, to cultivate the ability to be present and fully attentive, so that we can see and hear in more profound ways, to reach beyond the obvious limits and break out of the binding cords that can make life seem routine and wearisome.

We live in an age that makes a fetish of being productive, an age of doubt, violence, fear and alienation.

Religion has, for many, been turned into uncritical certitude devoid of mystery and wonder, a refuge for exclusion and authoritarianism.

It is diminished, and as a result, matters less to the truly inquisitive.

And yet we yearn for the transcendent.

We must answer the question Einstein said is the first and most basic: Is the universe a friendly place?

I say, “yes.” And more.

What is sacred is not “out there” in some distant nether land. It is here before us and within us. Emmanuel, the holy in-dwelling.

The very ground upon which we stand points to the holy. That we do not see does not make it untrue.

The holy, or, if you wish, that which offers meaning and inspires us, is already before us to apprehend, to discover, with insight, compassion and concern.

That is why snow falling gently in a quiet wood is sacramental.

Surveying Our Ethical Landscape

I’m about half-way through Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls and I was struck by the recounting of Thoreau’s survey of Walden pond.

The pond had never been surveyed and local lore had it that the pond was bottomless.

In the depth of winter, when he could walk on the frozen water, Thoreau set about surveying it.

He determined it was 102 feet at its deepest point. But more importantly, the survey became a symbol for truth that would guide Thoreau throughout the rest of life.

In his journal Thoreau wrote, “The line of greatest breadth intersects the line of greatest length at the point of greatest depth or height.” This seemingly simple mechanical observation became a measure for ethics as well as mechanics, writes Dassow Walls.

In his journal Thoreau said: “It is the heart of man—It is the sun in the system…Draw lines throughout the length and breadth of the aggregate of a man’s [sic] daily experiences and volumes of life into his coves and inlets—and where they intersect will be the height and depth of his character.”

In Dassow’s words, “The angle intersection inscribed by our particular daily experience, the coves and inlets of our lives, will ground the decisions we make, our actions in the world. And the sum total of all our moral actions combined will constitute the ethical character of the society we build together.” 

As I was reading this I also saw an interview Donald Trump gave to the New York Times in which the fact-checkers for the Washington Post document that he gave misleading or false statements every 75 seconds—twenty-four inaccurate statements in 30 minutes.

And these were the on-the-record statements. His off-record lies were not counted in the Post’s tally.

In this light, Dassow’s summary of Thoreau is deeply unsettling—“the sum total of all our moral actions combined will constitute the ethical character of the society we build together.”

Blatant disregard for truth matters. Claims of fake news matter. Accuracy matters. The sum total of our actions constitutes the ethical character of the society we build together.

The Trumpian society is built upon falsehood, exaggeration, bullying and racism—undergirded by political sycophants and apologizers from the white Christian evangelical tradition.

The conservative former Congressperson Joe Scarborough writes in an op-ed in the Washington Post of a gathering storm.

“America’s constitutional norms tremble in the balance as Trump unleashes furious attacks on First Amendment protections, independent counsels and law enforcement officers who refuse to be bullied. While the framers of the Constitution foresaw the possibility of a tyrannical president, they never let their imaginations be darkened by the possibility of a compliant Congress,” writes Scarborough.

What is at stake in these troubled times is the ethical character of the society we build together. Will it will continue to be a democracy, imperfect to be sure, built on justice and equity, or an unequal and unjust morass of lies, deceit, ignorance and racist alienation?

The coming months will reveal the angle of intersection inscribed by our daily experiences, the decisions we will make, the sum total of all our actions.

Will we survey the breadth and depth of our responsibilities and return to leaders of integrity who observe constitutional norms, justice and honesty? 

Or will we normalize falsehood, ignorance and bullying, and lose our democratic ideals, and perhaps more?

Jordan: Awe-inspiring beauty, culture, people

Temple of Hercules ruins, Amman

Ruins of the Temple of Hercules at the Roman Citadel, Amman

Standing in the Roman Citadel on the highest point of the modern city of Amman, Jordan before sunrise, the pale light of dawn revealed the ruins of the great temple of Hercules built by the Romans around 30 BC.

The site is considered by some experts to be among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places with pottery shards dating from the Neolithic period.

I felt my heart beat with excitement as I set a tripod to catch the gathering light. “It can’t get any better than this,” I thought.

Later, when we entered the Roman colonnade city of Jerash before sunset, the blue sky was punctuated by puffy white clouds that would bring a brief shower.

Hadrian's Arch, Jerash

Hadrian’s Arch, Jerash

The orange glow lit Hadrian’s arch, the impressive entrance to the city, constructed around 129 AD. And I thought one more time, “It can’t get any better than this.”

The next evening as we turned in for the night at the Dead Sea, I watched the sun set over Jerusalem across the way as the sunlight splayed like diamonds on the surface of the water, and I thought once again, “It can’t get any better…”

And so it went for 9 days across the country of Jordan, a feast of history, culture, food, wonderful people and haunting beauty.

Wadi Rum sunset

Wadi Rum sunset

From Amman to Jerash; from the Dead Sea to the evocative beauty of the desert wilderness of Wadi Rum (where the movie The Martian was filmed); from the ancient city of Petra carved into the sandstone cliffs to Dana, the northernmost point of the Great Rift Valley that extends southward through east Africa, each day brought its own awe.

I was traveling with a group of seven photographers led by noted photographer Ken Keminesky of Discovery Photo Tours. In addition to our Jordanian guide, we were an eclectic collection of ages and nationalities from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Singapore, the U.S., and a U.S. expatriate living in the Netherlands.

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

Traveling with the group was a joy in itself. Our travel time was marked by bright conversation, humor, and helpful sharing of ideas and information.

I will be posting photos from the trip on my Facebook photography page as well as my personal Facebook page and Instagram. I hope you’ll take a moment to view these brief photo stories and I hope they convey the wonders of Jordan that so captivated me.

The People, The Science, The Eclipse

A sunspot stands out in the lower section of the sun’s orb.

Having never experienced one, I’m looking forward to the eclipse on August 21, 2017. 

Totality is said to be a life-changing event. Some claim to find spiritual renewal, while others report it leads them to new or renewed interest in understanding the natural world, cosmology, and a broader appreciation of science.

In a day when science is under assault from the religious right–and some corporate and political leaders–it’s worth recalling how science helps us to understand the universe and our place in it.

In his wonderful account of the American eclipse of 1878, David Baron assesses the unique role of the people in a democratic society in support of the advancement of science.

Baron reports that Simon Newcomb (an American astronomer in 1878) wrote, ‘“In other intellectual nations, science has a fostering mother,…in Germany the universities, in France the government, in England the scientific societies…The only one it can look to here is the educated public.”’ 

Baron concludes: “In a democratic and egalitarian America, the citizenry was in charge of the nation’s destiny, and therefore advancing science in the United States required convincing the populace of the value of research—that it was worth promotion and investment.” 

The support and curiosity of citizens made it possible for scientists to mount expeditions to observe the eclipse of 1878 in the western territories, and many of those expeditions experienced great hardship.

In this light, the debate about science and religion today is even more vital.

The science of global warming, genetic intervention, evolution, and the potential for a sixth mass extinction, makes it critically important to reflect how we approach scientific curiosity today, and how we view our place in creation. 

Father Richard Rohr makes a key point when he writes, “The first act of divine revelation is creation itself. The first Bible is the Bible of nature. It was written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words.”

The dichotomy between religion and science is false. Father Rohr says, “The basic ‘sacramental principle’ is this: we can know spiritual things through the physical world and bodily actions.”

I’m looking to the eclipse with both spiritual and scientific curiosity. Annie Dillard says it best for me: “We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so that each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other…Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.” 

Sharon and I will be watching with friends on a hillside in Tennessee. I’m waiting with great anticipation for the illuminating darkness.

_____________________________________________

When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?

Psalm 8:3-4 Common English Bible

 

Impending Famine

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

Examination by a community health worker in a Somali clinic.

I just finished watching We Who Remain, a new virtual reality film from the New York Times about survivors of the Sudan civil war. They are from the Nuba mountain region that was retained by the government in the north when South Sudan was created.

But rebels from the south continued to operate in the Nuba mountains, resulting in ongoing warfare between the northern government and southern combatants.

The immersive film, which is viewed by placing a cellphone into a simple two lens cardboard device, provides a 360° view into the lives of those who remain in the region. It’s also viewable without the 360° viewer.

While they feel trapped by the horrific fighting, this is their home. They have no place to which they can flee, so they remain.

Their stories are touching, engaging and sad. Children have seen bodies dismembered by bombs dropped from the air. They have learned to jump into large holes dug into the earth when the bombs drop or the shooting starts.

This is, unfortunately, not a new story. It’s one of the oldest conflicts in recent history. 

Social Conflict

It’s continued, in part, because the region for many years was not viewed as strategically important to the Cold War powers. After the end of the Cold War, Eritrean separatists fought and won independence from Ethiopia. Somalia came apart and descended into anarchy. And in Sudan rebels in the south took up arms and won independence from the north.

Then the Middle East region became a hotbed of violence. Today the U.S. has a base in Djoubti and China is moving in next door. After displacing its residents and leasing it from the British, the U.S. established a base on the Indian Ocean atoll, Diego Garcia. The area is strategic due to its position between East Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

I’ve traveled in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia several times and the region looks today much as it did when I was there several years ago. Southern Sudan, including the Nuba mountains, is an arid, bare landscape. The people have adapted by learning to live on the edge of survival, primarily by tending cattle.

Many of the children have grown up knowing nothing but social conflict. Many have lost parents, siblings and whole families. The conflict seems intractable and the suffering unending. Only days ago seven humanitarian aid workers were ambushed and killed in South Sudan.

Perhaps this intractability is why it doesn’t attract much attention anymore. But that’s an unsatisfactory reason for not attempting to alleviate the human suffering that is growing by the day.

Impending Famine

The United Nations says it needs $4.4 billion by July to prevent famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria. Famine threatens 20 million people. Some reports claim it could be the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

In addition, millions of Syrians are displaced and living in temporary conditions that are miserable, or worse. 

While this global crisis develops, the U.S. and some European nations are engaged in interminable debates over national politics to the neglect of a world that is broken and divided. We are preoccupied by a nationalist, nativist ideological dispute that detracts from global perspective.

For people of goodwill, and most especially, for people of Christian faith, this is also a distraction from the historic teachings of the faith. Scripture tells us we are citizens first of the kingdom of God, and that our responsibilities for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, offering water to the thirsty and making peace have no boundaries. It is all God’s world. And we share responsibility for its nurture and care.

A World of Abundance

Thus, despite the false preaching that offers Bible-blessed nationalism, the call to Christians today is to maintain a global view and to act accordingly. This means to provide aid to those who are vulnerable, those who for no reason but birth, find themselves living in life-threatening conditions. It means caring for people within the borders of our own nation and beyond. It means understanding that there’s enough for all. We live in a world of abundance, not one of scarcity.

And it means advocating for funding for humanitarian aid and keeping foreign assistance.  

Among those groups that I support offering direct service and advocacy are the International Rescue Committee and Church World Service. Both organizations help me keep this perspective.

 

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