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Monthly archives for May, 2018

On Time

Beltane                                                                      Sumi-e Moon

out-out-brief-candle“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”  Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5

 

And, then, time. Last qabbalah class on time yesterday evening. Next week presentations. I have to come up with something and I got nothin’. Might go with an hourglass. It’s a nice physical symbol since in it time seems to run out, then be restored with an easy flip. Hourglasses, on their sides, are also shaped like the infinity image. So, there’s measured time, yet measured time that can be reversed, and eternal time, running on past the end of earthly time. Might go with Shakespeare.

time-managementWe’ve been pulling at the strands of various ideas about time, from measured time to eternal time to shabbat moments and the radical obvious, time is only ever the present. The past and the future have no reality, no agency, save in the present.

Rabbi Jamie asked an interesting question last night. Why do any of this? What’s the point? He leans toward the practical, unwilling to dwell only in the abstract. Learning has to count. As readers of this blog know by now, I’m more on the dwelling in the abstract end of the pool, so I appreciate his pulling me back into this life with questions like this.

Look insideThe answer he gave to his own question, with which I agree, was this. I’m not quoting. We do it to hold our notion of self more lightly, to give the ego a rest from its orientation to survival, to making it in the world. At the soul level, the most basic level of our human existence, we all connect. Think the collective unconscious, the divine spark, in the image of the sacred. In effect qabbalah posits an Oversoul, or better, an under or inner soul, the quality of which is the same for all humans.

I mentioned the irony that we spend our time developing a firm sense of self, striving for authenticity and compassion, only, at the end of life to give it up. Yes, we all agreed, that’s a good reason for holding the self lightly. We have to let it go. The soul, if there is such a thing, and I’m not ready to say there isn’t, that links us all to all, does not need the self.

The image, from Rabbi Rami Shapiro, that makes this clearest for me was that of waves on the ocean. Our life is a wave on the ocean. It rises out of the ocean, exists and moves on its own, and at its end, sinks back into the ocean. Never was it anything other than ocean.

A Revelation. Say what?

Beltane                                                                                       Sumi-e Moon

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smBeen thinking about revelation. In a way I’m not sure is new, but I don’t recall seeing it anywhere. So, we have all these sacred scriptures. What makes them sacred? The claim is their autographic nature, written in some mysterious way by the hand of a god or gods. I’m going to bracket the claim of divine authorship and ask not about the content of the tales, at least not the content usually involved in exegesis and hermeneutics, but about the way revelation shows up in them.

I came to this idea at a mussar class last week when we were discussing Abraham (Avram) as an example of emunah, or grace/faith. Emerson came to mind, his words about having a revelation to us and not the dry bones of theirs. We were discussing Abraham as a model of emunah. What we’re trying to do, I said, is learn from Abraham’s story why he trusted God. We’re trying to learn through the veil of thousands of years and through the words written about Avram. Words, for most of us, in translation. Words we know passed through many different redactors. We want to know how Avram experienced revelation otherwise why would we find the stories sacred?

Abraham_Serving_the_Three_Angels Rembrandt_

Abraham_Serving_the_Three_Angels Rembrandt_

God appears to Abram. God comes to him in a vision. God speaks to him. God comes to Abram in sleep, in darkness and dread: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram…”  Gen. 15:12-13a, RSV Abram asks God how he will know that what he says is true.

It came to me then that the fundamental question of Biblical, Vedic, or Koranic texts is an epistemological one, not first a metaphysical one or a hermeneutical one. That is, how does revelation show up? How do we know it when we see it? How might we realize Emerson’s plea for a revelation to us, not the dry bones of theirs? What is the nature of revelation? How can we experience it now, not rely on an ancient game of telephone?

Well, one way might be to use the sacred texts not as either mythology or divine communication through their content, but as clues to the nature of revelation itself. How, in other words, did the sacred texts represent the experience of revelation? What was it like? How did it become confirmed as revelation? At least to those reported to have experienced it directly?

Please note that I’m not making an assumption here about the source of revelation or its truth claims as evidence of divine communication. I’m asking the question, what has revelation looked like? How has the experience of revelation been identified? What are its marks? Can we seek it? Might we find it if we did?

Abraham's Counsel to Sarai (watercolor c. 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Abraham’s Counsel to Sarai (watercolor c. 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Going back to Abram. Let’s use him not as an example of faith or of covenant or of divine nation-building, but as an example of one who experiences direct revelation. What is it like? How does he know (the epistemological question) that he has experienced revelation? The writers of the story, or the editors of the oral tradition when it was written down, or the embellishers and editors of the story as it passed both through oral transmission and different textual editions, use particular verbs: Avram heard, saw (a vision, an appearance), dreamed, felt (darkness and dread), was delivered (defeat of enemies).

Following Avram’s story we might say that revelation comes through language, through emotions, through dreams, through particular actions to him. Not very distinctive in its medium, then, at least not distinctive from usual human experience. So what is it about a communication or an interpretation of an action that identifies it as special, different, sacred?

rev.4-blankMy first suspicion is that it is much like the nativity story, and perhaps the crucifixion and resurrection narratives, too, ex post facto events created to explain the origins and influence of remarkable individuals. Who would receive communications from beyond this reality? Individuals who’ve already been established as significant, powerful, influential. Like that guy Abraham, warlord, father of many children, father of our nation. How did he get where he is? He heard the still small voice. He understood things others of us missed. He was in touch with, what? Something many of us ignored, perhaps.

But, let’s say for the sake of this investigation that it’s not only this reading backwards into an important person’s life, well after the fact; but, that revelation is just that. Revelatory. Forget of what for now. Why are some dreams revelatory? Why are some appearances revelatory? Why are some inner voices revelatory?

Full title: The Agony in the Garden Artist: Andrea Mantegna Date made: about 1458-60 Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk Copyright © The National Gallery, London

Full title: The Agony in the Garden
Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date made: about 1458-60
Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/
Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk
Copyright © The National Gallery, London

I’m not sure we can penetrate this. We have the after story. After the garden. After the promise to Avram. After Sarah’s miraculous births. After the Garden of Gethsemane. After the journey by night to the Temple Mount. After the birth of Krishna. Yet how can we know the inner experience of personages from thousands of years in the past? We barely understand our own inner experience. And if we can’t answer the epistemological question, how did Avram know what he claimed to know about God, then we can’t decide the value of his claims. Aside from their value as myth and legend.

Perhaps then Emerson’s quest for a religion of revelation to us rather than the dry bones of theirs is fruitless. Perhaps. I would say and will stop here for now, that the only way we can understand the nature of revelation is to search for its marks in our own lives. We will not find answers in ancient texts because the layers, the barriers to knowing the mind of another becomes insurmountable in them. What has been revealed to you? What was its source? How do you know?

 

How I Got Here

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

(for Tara)

Rev. John Ackerman, my spiritual advisor in the mid-1980s, now dead, said to me during a session with him, “Charlie, I think you’re a druid.” This was while I was still an Associate Executive for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, responsible for urban mission and congregational development. That made me pause.

I had just started a Doctor of Ministry Program that I had organized and brought to the Twin Cities, one taught by professors from McCormick Seminary of Hyde Park, Chicago. The full program was largely unremarkable; but when it came time, three years later, to write my doctoral thesis, one documenting the decline of Presbyterian membership over the century, I sat down one day and came up a week or so later with 40,000 words of my first novel, Even the Gods Must Die. That surprised me.

Raising Joseph, born in Calcutta, was also challenging my theology. I was always suspicious of monotheism, if there are more than one one God, doesn’t that negate the whole idea, but with Joseph my suspicion had an existential bite. If Joseph had been raised in the rural village of Bengal from which he came, he would likely have been Hindu. And outside the pale of salvation. I loved him and would have loved him as a Hindu, too. If Christianity would not have allowed someone I loved into eternal peace, then Christianity was wrong.

All this was problematic for continuing to work as a clergyman. In Christianity, unlike Judaism, belief in God is a job requirement. Otherwise we’re in Grand Inquisitor territory. Kate (not fate) intervened. I was already on my way out of the Christian ministry, but I couldn’t figure out what to do next. I was 41, mid-career, and leaving the only long term job I’d ever had, while being responsible for raising Joseph, seemed impossible.

Kate allowed me, in a move that was typically generous of her, to resign from the Presbytery and take up writing. Those novels had me pretty excited. I left the Presbytery on good terms. I’d moved away from Christianity, but I didn’t bear the church any animus. I had, I guess you could say, fallen out of love, but I remained friends with my ex-faith.

Later, when I had trouble selling my writing, I regressed and transferred my credentials to the Unitarian-Universalist Association, thinking I could pick up work familiar to me in a context friendly to my changing, evolving theology. In 1996, in Phoenix, I became a fellowshipped clergy in the UUA. I say regressed because I was done with church leadership, but wasn’t ready to admit it. I preached on occasion for a small UU congregation, Groveland, sometimes frequently, and I enjoyed that opportunity to write about my religious thinking.

When we moved to Colorado in 2014, I delivered a final sermon at Groveland, in my mind ending my ministerial career at last. That was 44 years after I entered seminary.

Influenced by the feminist reimagining movement in Christianity from the 1980’s, I decided to reimagine the idea of faith itself, a project I’ve worked on in spurts for 15 years. At first I thought I would create a new theology, something I called for a while, Ge-ology. My idea was to find a way to express in a coherent system the kind of sentiment underlying Thomas Berry’s Great Work.

Berry was a Passionist monk, a deep ecologist and author of a little book called, The Great Work. In it he proposes that the great work of our time and, in specific, the great work of our Western civilization, as creating a sustainable human presence on this planet. It’s important to note that this is not about saving the planet. The planet will be fine. The question was, and is, can we humans devise a way of living here that does not destroy our species.

What, I wondered, would faith look like if we could focus it on that which sustains us. What sustains us? The sun. The sun and plants. The sun, plants, and the soil. The sun, plants and the atmosphere they supply with oxygen. All these and the animals which nourish us, but are themselves also nourished by the plants. Yes, we humans have a rich inner life, one that allows us to imagine gods and heavens, but as animals, we can only have that rich inner life if we live. And living requires these complex interrelationships we call the web of life.

Over the years I’ve generated bits and pieces of a reimagined faith and added to reimaging, reconstructing and reenchanting. Reenchanting means becoming aware and responsive to the forces and powers that sustain us, but as beings in and of themselves. When the residents of the Big Island refer to the new Kilauea eruptions as the work of Pele, the Hawai’ian goddess of volcanoes, they have been enchanted; and for many, haoles (non-native Hawai’ans, often white people) and native Hawai’ians, reenchanted.

Another example of reenchantment was the visit I had from three mule deer bucks in October of 2014. I had come here for the closing on our purchase of the house on Black Mountain Drive. I went out in the yet unfenced back yard and encountered the three bucks about a hundred feet from the house. They stood there. I stood there. We looked at each other and I felt a distinct connection with them. The connection felt reciprocated. After a while, they left and I went back to the mechanics of taking possession of the house and property.

On reflection I felt I had been visited by the spirit of the mountain, that I had been given permission to live here among the forests and wildlife of the Rocky Mountains. The mule deer were the messengers, the angels, of this new world into which we were moving.

Or, bee-keeping. I kept bees for six years in Minnesota. It was early in the process that I felt a partnership with the bees. The colonies themselves and the surplus honey they produced that Kate and I could harvest was a collaboration. We were working together toward a common end. The closer I got to the bees, the more I understood the mystical nature of the hive, a super-organism created from apparently individual bees engaged in the world as one entity.

The final R of my new 3 R’s, reimagining, reenchanting and reconstructing, I have borrowed from Congregation Beth Evergreen. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, said, “The past gets a vote, but not a veto.” In the Jewish ambit within which he remained though a convinced non-supernaturalist that meant taking the tradition and reconstructing it for contemporary life.

Reconstructing faith is, in my current understanding, a similar work. The traditional religious faiths get a vote, but not a veto. We can pick up strands from various traditions and rebuild them into a new faith, what I call an ur-faith, one we can all embrace, not as a replacement for our tradition if we don’t want that, but one expressing a new/old faith, one that trusts in the sun, in plants, in photosynthesis, in the sustaining powers of the soil.

Or, without visiting the old religions, we can create this new faith inductively from our lived experience. The miracle of new plants each spring. The wonder of soil complexity and its role in sustaining that miracle. The snow and the rain that bring fresh water to us, to replenish our rivers and aquifer. Consider the tomato on your table or the steak on the grill. They both store the energy of the sun and pass it on to us through the true transubstantiation as food becomes our body. The close, intimate bond between humans and animals that live with us like dogs and cats.

Stand outside at night. Look up. Stars and galaxies and planets. All there. So far away. Yet we are a part of them and they are a part of us. We need no other mystery, no other miracles, no other metaphysics.

Mountains

Beltane                                                                                     Sumi-e Moon

Black Mountain this morning

Black Mountain this morning

Lava fountains, Big Island, Leilani Estates

May 27 Pāhoehoe lava advancing west from fissure 7 (lava fountain in background) on Leilani Avenue. USGS

May 27 Pāhoehoe lava advancing west from fissure 7 (lava fountain in background) on Leilani Avenue. USGS

Engines and Basketballs. Indiana.

Beltane                                                                                  Sumi-e Moon

novicutawayThe 102nd running of the Indy 500 is over. Will Power won; Danica crashed. Big traffic jams and lots of beer. Noise. Green flags, yellow flags, and one checkered flag. I went once, long ago, maybe 1958. The mighty Novi V-8 was in the race and from our seat near the fourth turn we got to hear its roar every lap as it accelerated for the long front straightaway. Watching the 500 was a sensual experience. It wrapped us in sound, flashed colors and tires and driver’s heads before our eyes, briefly, and put us among the 250 to 300,000 people in attendance. “Gentlemen, start your engines!” (no. no women drivers back then.)

hoosiersLebron James carried the Cavaliers to the NBA finals, his 8th straight. I’m beginning to see that he might be Michael Jordan’s equal, or better. Certainly his will and drive match Michael’s. Basketball and the Indy 500. Hoosier themes not removed from my life though I watched neither the race nor the NBA playoffs. They still crank up my interest.

My Sunday was much less exciting. Garage cleaning. Getting back to a task I had almost completed when Jon moved in following the start of his divorce from Jen. Nap. Money meeting. Another Midsomer Murder, number one of the twentieth season. Dreams.

 

Hell Comes For a Visit

Beltane                                                                                    Sumi-e Moon

Kilaeurea May 25 An aerial view, looking west, of the two active ocean entries on Kīlauea Volcano's lower East Rift Zone.

Kilaeurea May 25 An aerial view, looking west, of the two active ocean entries on Kīlauea Volcano’s lower East Rift Zone.

Sad. Conflicted.

Beltane                                                                               Sumi-e Moon

decoration-day-190x300Memorial day. Means honoring war dead and veterans. Means the 500 mile race in Indy. Means parades.  Means heat and sticky asphalt depressing under the weight of tanks and half-tracks in small towns.

In my immediate family. Mom and Dad both veterans of WWII. Mom overseas in Algiers and Italy. The Casbah, Capris, Johan the ceramic dachshund. Dad flying liaison planes, dropping sacks of flour as “bombs” for training, ferrying Manhattan project scientists, flying under utility wires for fun, getting caught in a thunderhead, wanting to jump but unable to open the door due to air pressure.

Joseph, now a major, serving longer than either one. A weapons officer. Calling a B-1 bomber to overfly North Korea during his deployment there. Directing bombers over Libya during the elimination of Qaddafi’s regime. Meeting SeoAh in Seoul, spilling coffee on her. Training flights, check rides, top secret security clearances. Now considering what his next career move might be. Could be part of any action in Korea.

weapons school graduation

weapons school graduation

And me. In the struggle against the Vietnam War, before Iraq and the forever war in Afghanistan our stupidest military intervention. Embarrassed now at the fact that I took some of my anger out on U.S. military folk. They act under orders and we need them for defense. They don’t choose where they fight. The evil bastards were the McNamara’s, the Cheney’s, Bolton’s, Wolfowitz’s. They were war mongers, playing out their racist, jingoist fantasies with the lives of my son and others like him. Let me say that again. Bastards.

I remember all of this on Memorial Day. The great sadness of rows and rows of crosses decorated with flags. Speeches made in cemeteries where lie those sacrificed to Ares. War planes flying over head, bands playing America the Beautiful, the National Anthem. Old women with sashes and young children waving small flags. The colors marching on before.

memorial day casbahConflicted. Glad beyond words that the Nazi’s dream died and at the hands of some of us, my parents included. Glad that Korea, South Korea, remained free so Joe could meet SeoAh, who grew up in that same Korea. Glad that we are strong, able to defend our homeland. Wary, but sometimes proud, that we can intervene on behalf of others. Angry that we too often spend lives and treasure in pursuit of one ideology or another, ideologies held by crass men like Trump and his kind. The Bannon’s and the Pompeo’s. There is no clear yes, no clear no, only a muddy world in which bad things happen to good and bad people alike.

Yes, I remember. On Memorial Day. These things.

 

Beezzy

Beltane                                                                            Sumi-e Moon

Snowtires off and away. Oil changed. A/C an issue that took all day yesterday with no joy on finding a leak. Frustrating. Rear brakes had to be replaced, too. That’s fine. Tires and brakes in good operating order are a must for mountain driving. The A/C is also a must with my Nordic Goddess always eager to have the temperature regime of her genetic homeland. Hopefully all will be finished by noon or so today.

20180522_174843

Ruth and Kate made this. Kate’s from yesterday looks as good.

Kate continues to gain stamina and increase range of motion for her right shoulder. She made challah yesterday, and challah rolls. With some tweaking thanks to a high altitude info sheet from King Arthur Flour she’s really got it going on. This is beautiful challah and rolls. She gave one to Tara yesterday and we’ll give the rolls to Sally today when we visit her in Golden.

Yesterday late afternoon we went over Tara and Arjan’s home for a session with their bees. Like Rabbi Jamie and Dan, they’re first year beekeepers. They’ve got the derigeur, for the Front Range, electric fence. Bear strength. Bears really like honey. And we’ve got bears.It was fun seeing their enthusiasm and a healthy hive.

Tara, Arjan and bees

Tara, Arjan and bees

Their Italians are much more docile than my Minnesota Hygienics. The four built out frames I gave them were filling up with pollen, honey and brood. They’re queen right and the colony is growing. They moved slowly, did a hive check looking at each frame while I stood off to the side and examined them, too.

Their home is on Kilimanjaro Drive. You’ll get the naming convention when you know we passed Jungfrau, Annapurna and Zugspitz drives as well. Kilimanjaro is long and winds way back into the mountains east of Evergreen. The views are wonderful with the continental divide just visible to the northeast. Still snowpacked. It was a clement mountain evening with blue sky, lots of rock and pine trees. And friends.

 

Life in the Big Mountains

Beltane                                                                                     Sumi-e Moon

Yesterday at 8 am Kate went to P.T. and I went to On the Move Fitness. They’re next door to each other. While Kate continued rehabbing her shoulder, I went through my new workout for the second time. The previous session had ouched my lower back some, so Deb modified some of the exercises.

I felt so righteous about having my workout done at 8 am, I relaxed until time for mussar at 1 pm. Anyhow new workout under my belt.

Over to C.J.’s Chicago Dogs to pick up a couple of Italian Beefs for supper. Tasty and nostalgic. Good Chicago memories. I’ve always liked Chicago and spent a good bit of time there earlier in my life.

Then, a little t.v., Midsomer Murders and reading a new book, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, a post-modern feminist riff on the story of Jekyll and Hyde. It includes Dr. Moreau and Sherlock Holmes as characters. Fun. Been doing a lot of heavy lifting with books like the Order of Time, qabbalah and the Dead Sea Scrolls, so something just for entertainment.

Today our first Blizzaks go off and away, three and a half winters of service, time to buy a new set for the upcoming winter. Oil change. Air conditioning rejuvenation. Lot of driving today. Going over to Tara Saltzman for tea and bees. She and Arjan want to talk about their bees, maybe I’ll do a hive inspection.

Memorial day weekend. Feels holidayish already. Camper races have started, 285 will be a parking lot later today. Lots of preliminary complaining by locals. Fortunately we don’t have to drive 285 unless we choose to, so we can work around holiday traffic.

from Delancey Place

Beltane                                                                                    Sumi-e Moon

Today’s selection — from What It’s Like to Be a Dog by Gregory Berns. Experimentation with dogs suggests that they understand human words as verbs (action items), but not as nouns (abstract symbols):

 

“How do animals treat names? If an animal doesn’t have the faculty to understand that words are symbols, it is unlikely that they can translate their names into a sense of self. More likely, animals learn that a particular utterance means something interesting is about to happen and that they’d better pay attention. Whenever someone said (to the dog Callie) ‘Callie,’ Callie directed her attention to whoever made that noise. I never got the sense that she equated her name with ‘me.’

 

“The experience of animal trainers would support the attention grabbing function of names. ‘Callie, sit,’ is thought to be more effective than ‘Sit, Callie.’ … Callie responds better to the first because her name gets her attention for the subsequent action. The reverse order requires her to remember the action that precedes her name. …

 

“We humans take it for granted that a name refers to the whole object. But there is no reason to expect other an­imals to think like us when it comes to language. Dogs could be feature-bound where we humans take a gestalt view. The evidence was scant, but a few studies did support my idea that dogs mapped words to objects in a fundamentally different way from humans.

 

 

“In 2012, Daniel Mills, a psychologist at the University of Lincoln in England who had published extensively on canine cognition, described how a single dog generalized from learned words. Again, the dog he used was a border collie. The dog was taught to associate a nonsense word (dax) with a furry object in the shape of a blocky U. Then, the researchers presented the dog with slightly different objects to see which ones he would choose as most similar. These objects varied in size, shape, and texture, but otherwise had similar characteristics. When hu­mans do this task, they typically generalize to shape, a behavior that appears around age two. But Mills found that the dog he studied tended to generalize initially on size, and then later on texture, but never by shape. Size and shape are global proper­ties of objects because they are defined by the whole thing. But texture is a local property, only discernible up close.

 

“Beyond the question of global versus local properties, when I began my work with Callie and the [toy] hedgehog it was not clear whether dogs understood that words referred to ob­jects. In most language tests, the words are nouns, which hu­mans have no problem understanding as referring to things. Even two-year-old children get this. But it could be that when Callie heard ‘hedgehog,’ she interpreted it not as a noun but as a verb-object action meaning ‘get hedgehog.’ It may seem like a subtle difference, but if we are to communicate with animals, we need to know whether they interpret words as actions or things.

 

“It is easy to teach dogs tricks. But tricks are actions. Teach­ing dogs that words could refer to things turned out to be much harder than teaching them to perform certain actions when they heard certain words. It may be that most dogs cannot un­derstand that words can refer to objects. After all, the only way a dog can demonstrate knowledge of a word is to interact with an object in some way. In a dog’s mind, a word may be a com­mand to do something. …

 

“If the semantic space of dogs is organized around actions rather than objects, then this would explain why they failed the usual tests of self-awareness, namely, the mirror test. Humans know that a reflection is a visual representation of something or someone. We take it for granted that the reflection is not the thing itself. But this cognitive operation requires the mental hardware for symbolic processing of things. If dogs’ brains are not wired to symbolically represent things, then they do not have the ability to link their reflections with a sense of self.

 

“This would not mean that a dog doesn’t have a sense of self. It would just mean that a dog doesn’t have the ability to represent that self abstractly, either by name or visual image.”

Breadcrumbs

Trails