Saturday, August 24, 2013

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Perhaps you have seen the ad currently running on TV for some insurance company – a man chainsaws a limb that falls on his neighbor’s car; a woman opens her car door, and someone plows the door off; then a voice says, “Humans. Even when we dot our “i’s” and dot our “t’s”, we still run into problems. Namely, other humans.”

Every August I remember August 6 and August 9: Little Boy and Fat Man destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. President Harry Truman made the decision. Truman was said to be a faithful Baptist. Jesus instructs us to love our enemies. Some six hundred years before Jesus, during what is called The Axial Age (coined by Karl Jaspers to describe that time period when people like Buddha, Confucius, Lao T’zu, Socrates, and the Hebrew Prophets were all roaming the Earth and changing the way we think about life and our lives), Isaiah wrote of beating swords into ploughshares and teaching war no more (Isaiah 2:4).

So here we are some 2,600 years later still armed to the teeth, nuclear warheads still loaded and coordinates set. More nations like India and Pakistan, and likely even North Korea and Israel have nuclear weapons, with others like Iran working overtime to build their own nuclear “devices.”
Devices sounds less threatening than “bombs” or “warheads.”

We know what happened in August 1945 because the survivors have given eyewitness accounts in books such as John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and Unforgettable Fire, a book of sketches and paintings by survivors.  “The survived and made their drawings thirty years later. With one of today’s bombs they would all have been vaporized within a fraction of a second after the explosion. What they recall most vividly, and draw most heartrendingly, are the deaths all around them, the collapsed buildings, and above all the long black strips of skin hanging from the arms and torsos of those still alive. They remember the utter hopelessness, the inability of anyone to help anyone else, the loneliness of the injured alongside the dying. Reading their accounts and wincing at the pictures, one gains the sure sense that no society, no matter how intricately structured, could have coped with that event. No matter how many doctors and hospitals might have been in place and ready to help with medical technology before hand…at the moment of the fireball all of that help would have vanished in the new sun. As for the radioactivity, a single case of near-lethal radiation can occasionally be saved today by the full resources of a highly specialized, tertiary hospital unit, with endless transfusions and bone-marrow transplants. But what to do about  a thousand such cases all at once, or a hundred thousand? Not to mention the more conventionally maimed and burned people, in the millions. Words like ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe” are too frivolous for the events that would inevitably follow a war with thermonuclear weapons. ‘Damage’ is not the real term; the language has no name for it. Individuals might survive, but ‘survival’ is itself the wrong word.” (The Unforgettable Fire, from Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: Viking Press, New York:1983) p. 5-6.

It was thought that Hiroshima was spared the regular fire-bombing which most other Japanese cities experienced because it was a known Buddhist religious center. After the bombing it became clear that it was spared conventional destruction so as to be able to measure and record the effects of the new weaponry – a human experiment that lives on in the lives of the survivors to this day.

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his I Have A Dream Speech.  He gave others decrying our commitment to war while Americans go hungry every day living in poverty. After building a monument to King on the National Mall, the words inscribed on the base of the monument have been sandblasted off, so divided are we even about how to remember the individual who called us to settle our differences with non-violence.

Whenever anyone tries to bring the danger of all this to our attention, we are urged to allow ourselves to be distracted by insignificant issues, or they are simply censored from speaking out. Harry Belafonte on the Smothers Brothers TV Hour tried. CBS refused to broadcast the segment.  Pete Seeger tried with Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, and with Joe Hickerson penned Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Not to mention The Kingston Trio and the Merry Minuet: “But we can be thankful, and tranquil and proud, for man’s been endowed with a mushroom shaped cloud/And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off – and we will all be blown away.”

It’s August again. Humans. Like in the insurance ad, humans make mistakes, commit errors. And yet, it is humans who are entrusted with the codes and decisions to use strategic and tactical thermonuclear weapons. Humans who even now appear to be using chemical weapons. Loaded in silos, loaded on submarines, humans are in place to “set the spark off.” We still laugh when Peter Sellers shouts out in Dr. Strangelove that “we must not have a mineshaft gap,” supposing that we could somehow sequester enough people underground to emerge from a nuclear attack and rebuild civilization – while deep down inside we know there would be no civilization to rebuild.

Every August we must remember.  Again, Lewis Thomas concludes, “Carve in the stone of the cenotaph in Hiroshima are the words: REST IN PEACE, FOR THE MISTAKE WILL NOT BE REPEATED. The inscription has a life of its own. Intended first as a local prayer and promise, it has already changed its meaning into a warning, and is now turning into a threat.” p..11

It is August. August is a time to remember. And a time to ask ourselves once again, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Summer Vacation

What I Did On My Summer Vacation 2004

“…you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Sythian, slave, free, [male, female]; but Christ is all in all.”

This is not the only place that Saint Paul reflects on the nature of Baptism and what it does to us, making us new, renewing us in the image of our creator where none of the distinctions exist that we come to believe are so important in making us “who we are.”

That is, if God is perfect unity, all in all, and Christ is perfect unity all in all, than those of us who are baptized are united all in all.

Now just what does this have to do with my summer vacation a long time ago?  Oddly enough, nearly everything!

July 2004 began in New London, New Hampshire on the shores of Lake Sunapee. For nearly 20 years it has been our pleasure to spend time there. In the early days I would volunteer to take the matriarch of the family who makes this all possible to church early on Sunday mornings to Saint Andrew’s chapel by the lake. Since her passing I continue to attend that service whenever I am in New London.

Even in the heart of July the Saint Andrew’s chapel can be the coldest of places on earth, so dress warmly! And the congregation can be described as flinty, conservative New Englanders. I usually would hear a supply priest since July seems to have been the rector’s holiday, but there was a new rector that year, a woman, who was on hand the fourth of July. She preached well on the gospel, and judging by the number of times she laughed a jolly belly shaking laugh, she seemed to find a lot to be humorous about the human condition before God! She got that right!

But what caught me off guard was at the Prayers of the People. There was a flinty, conservative New Englander leading the prayers, and right off the bat we prayed for Gene Robinson, the relatively newly consecrated openly gay bishop of New Hampshire. She did not flinch. No one stood up and walked out. In fact everyone seemed to like their new bishop.

And did I mention that the place was packed? Not a seat in the house at the 8 am service! Standing Room Only! I could only guess that the good people of New London had not received the memo to leave the Episcopal Church immediately upon Bishop Robinson’s consecration! Or, perhaps they really understood what Paul is talking about when he writes about there being no distinctions in the body of Christ.

That summer I was reading two very different but somewhat related books. Protestants: Birth of a Revolution by Steven Ozment, and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

In Protestants, Ozment observes that although Luther’s reform of the church was meant to break down the sort of “insider” attitudes and resulting abuses of outsiders characteristic of the Western Church at the time, inevitably as the reforms became the law of the land in Germany, the outsiders of the reform movement became the “new insiders,” with all the same kinds of problems. Not the least of which, of course, has been the near infinite shattering of the Body of Christ into smaller and smaller factions. More and more distinctions. Denominations: a pitiful representation of the Body of Christ which persists to this day.

The Red Tent is a very different kind of book in nearly every sense of the word. It tells the story of the biblical Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob. And it tells the story in her own voice. Some have suggested it is like finally having a “Bible” written by a woman!

It needs to be remembered that this is a novel. It is Anita Diamant’s imagining of what Dinah’s story might be, since the biblical Dinah gets barely mentioned in the Bible itself.

This is in so many ways a difficult, yet very important book, for us to read and consider. For it sketches in very rich images the life of women not just in the biblical age, but throughout the ages. The Red Tent itself is where the nomad women would spend those few days of the month away from the men. It is also the place for childbirth and miscarriage. It is a microcosm of life and death in the deepest and richest sense possible.

Beyond issues of ritual purity, the Red Tent is a sanctuary from the world of men, a place where women can be themselves, support one another and glory in their own sense of what we might today call spirituality.

The story examines issues that are still with us today around the role of women in church and society, religious pluralism, tribalism, the nature of faith to mention only a few.

Particular attention is given to what distinguishes one person from another: birth mother, circumcision, economic status, nationality, family lines and divisions, etc.

Because of its setting in the Middle East, and it focuses on birth, water plays a central role throughout the narrative. Water, which of course, is what incorporates one into the Body of Christ through baptism.

At the near conclusion of the entire book, Dinah, who had become a midwife for most of her life, concludes that something her sister-in-law Zilpah had told her as a child was absolutely true, “We are all born of the same mother.”

To rephrase that we might say, we all pass into this world through the same water. Perhaps that is what Saint Paul is getting at after all. Despite all the distinctions we make about our selves and between ourselves, we are in the end all born of the same mother.

It is a startling sort of a statement. It is an arresting sort of truth. Perhaps one day we can begin to embrace this truth about our selves and others. All others.

Only then will we begin to strip off the old self and clothe ourselves with the new self Saint Paul is writing about. And with that stripping off, all the distinctions we find to be so important will disappear into the total unity of God in Christ, all in all. Amen.

Proper 13-C/Colossians 3: 10b-11
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Chaplain, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Horizon Beckons

the horizon
we used to spend hours
  searching the horizon
          what lies beyond?
 near eternal speculation
set fire to imaginations
driving explorers to
it all
for the sake of the unknown, the unseen
possibilitypossibilities too numerous to
there it lies, beckoning still
almost no one even notices
             even sees
  even wonders   anymore
we think we know
know what lies beyond
there are maps
reports    photographs    
we think we know
so much
the horizon is still there
offering limitless speculation     imaginings
for those who care

Sunlight At Bethany

at dawn
the sun glints      off
the surface
of the water
clouds suspended in the glow
it only looks like this
now        in this       present moment
and then
it changes
to yet another
momentary glimpse
of the
is no one
why does no one

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Life of a Shoreline

Bethany Beach in the Morning    08 Aug 2013

It used to be

It used to be that we came to this shoreline as the end of the earth
after we had traveled from one continent to
a people who shared the land with the elk, the buffalo, the deer
a people who sought a land where we could live in peace
the shoreline recalls the straight we crossed, a bridge of land and water
we roam the plains, we hunt the forests, we fish the streams and lakes and ponds
the sound of the waves is the only sound one can hear
that and the cry of the shorebirds
and the silence of the sanderlings in little packs
running this way and that
that's how it used to be

It used to be we came to this shoreline, seeking refuge from the storms
that raged on the home continent,
wars and rumors of war, religious persecution
seeking to see if the world really is round
seeking to trade, seeking commerce, seeking new visions
seeking freedom
greeted on this shoreline by those others   who   taught us
how to work the land, harvest the abundance
fish the streams and lakes and ponds
how to share the land and all that is therein
that's how it used to be

It used to be we were chained, packed into the holds of ships only to be
dumped along this shoreline     far     far      away from our ancestors
our families      our tribes     our                  homeland
 only to be sold, worked, whipped, sold again, warehoused,
only to learn of the white man's God and Jesus and Exodus
and dreams of freedom    dreams of home    dreams of return
wishing we had never seen this shoreline
wondering, if only we could make it back to the shoreline could we make it
all     the      way      back
that's how it used to be

It used to be we came to this shoreline to get away, get back, unplug,
listen only to the waves lapping  the tide running in running out
the gulls cry overhead, the sand blows, kites soar
we read books, we sleep, we check out we walk we run
a towel, a chair, an umbrella   is   all   we need
seeking a freedom from our everyday workaday worlds
we rest   unwind    remember    remember the sounds of the sea
the sounds of the water lapping in the womb     the origins of life in the sea
returning to the moment     the present     the now
that's how it used to be

Now we come to this same shoreline trudging with oversized wheeled carts loaded with
all the gear necessary for a day a week encamped on the beach
reclining folding chairs, wheeled coolers loaded with every kind of beverage
sandwiches, bags of chips, multiple umbrellas, towels, games with paddles
games with balls, games with games, electronic games
smart phones, iPads, tablets, laptops, ear-buds, Beats
plugged in listening to rock, to jazz, to classic, to NPR, to Rush, to ESPN
incapable anymore of leaving it all behind
incapable of letting go    incapable of returning to the moment
the now
no longer able to see the origins, the beginnings, the visions,
no longer able to hear the lapping of the waves, the tides running in
      running out
the gulls cry and no one is left to hear
it is a return to the chains
now chained to electrons coursing through wires
no longer surfing the waves but surfing an electronic web
waves driven through the air    sound waves, light waves
bits and bites we can no longer live without
multiple devices blocking our view
of the sea
the endless boundless timeless sea
that's how it used to be
how it used
to be

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Transfiguration Part II: Hiroshima

Feast of the Transfiguration
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a – Luke 9:28-36
Transfiguration Part II: Hiroshima

I wish I did not have to preach this sermon. But as Jeremiah says, it is like a fire shut up in my bones. Webster’s Dictionary tells us transfiguration means:
n. 1.Radical transformation of figure or appearance: metamorphosis. 2. The sudden emanation of radiance from Jesus’ person that occurred on the mountain.

August 6 – The Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ – The Anniversary of our United States dropping an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. Both events, curiously, revolve around images of blinding white light, clouds, and feelings of dread and fear - two events evoking radical transformation.

From our perspective, looking back 61 years it is possible for us to recognize the various ways in which such radical transformation took place in Japan: an entire modern city was reduced to dust and ash in the blink of an eye; people who populated that city were instantly incinerated, or dramatically and radically changed in appearance; the spirit of the human community was radically transformed; the nature of modern warfare was restructured; whole generations of people lived under a new specter of fear, fear of a mushroom shaped cloud.

On the positive side, a devastating World War was brought to an end; out of a deep human desire for world peace the United Nations was born; many people abandoned a view of security based in military might for a view of security based in peaceful co-existence; and the Right Reverend Bennett Sims, recently deceased Bishop of Atlanta and former rector of Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore, developed a theology of Servanthood. This theology might be summed up by saying that our future depends on how we take care of the Earth and how we take care of one another – all others.

You see, Bishop Sims visited Nagasaki eleven weeks after our military instantly incinerated 39,000 civilian non-combatants, a death toll that eventually reached 64,000 in Nagasaki alone, 250,000 altogether in both cities - what we sometimes refer to as “collateral damage.” We might compare this quarter of a million civilian non-combatant deaths with the only two civilian casualties wrought from the carnage at Gettysburg. After viewing the nuclear wasteland, Bishop Sims was returning to his naval destroyer by way of coal-fired steam train across Japan. A young man of fifteen was the conductor, cheerfully roaming the aisle, punching tickets in his badly worn and patched conductors jacket and cap. He sat down opposite Bennett and in sign language asked for a cigarette. Bennett offered up one of his Old Golds. Then the lad gestured for a light. Writes Sims,

“The act of lighting another’s cigarette, with wind blowing through the open windows of a moving train, brings people’s faces very close. His eyes and mine met only scant inches apart. Unbidden in that moment tears welled up, for both of us. Until a few minutes before we were total strangers. Until a few weeks before, we were sworn enemies, separated by war, propaganda, language differences, and distant geography. But in one swift removal of all barriers, two human beings drew close in a meeting of souls. On August 14th of that fateful year the war ended.
Better still, on October 25th peace came to two of us.” Servanthood (Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA:1997), p.170.

From this experience, Bennett Sims drew several conclusions that would shape his life and ministry until his death two weeks ago: 1) humanity is created to be a community of kinship in peace, 2) the best things in life come by surprise, 3) the planet will support the human enterprise only as the human enterprise supports the planet, and 4) new life arises from the death of the old. “The human odyssey cannot continue without a quantum advance in consciousness that will build new structures of care for the earth and for one another across all boundaries.” Ibid, p.168

Bishop Sims’ life was a life of prophetic ministry, grounded in such Biblical characters as Elijah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and of course in our scripture today, Nathan. Nathan confronting David with the tragic truth of his transgression with Bathsheba, and writing the order taking her husband Uriah to his death on the field of battle, gives us a glimpse of the very origins of the crucial idea of separation of church and state. God’s independent prophet, heeded by the monarch of temporal power and authority, sets a pattern for the delicate balance between earthly and heavenly powers that has challenged and bedeviled nations for all of the 3,000 years that have passed since Nathan says, “You are the man!”

David has attempted to cover-up his sinful behavior with a military diversion and solution. It has been suggested that Israel’s demand for a monarchy came in part to provide leadership for national security against a Philistine threat. It has been further suggested that this was really a cover for those who had monopolized wealth and who wanted a strong central government in order to protect and legitimate their considerable economic and political advantage and privilege, so that the Philistine threat was really offered as an external cover story to pursue this internal consolidation of power. Even a casual reading of history reveals that this is not the last time the “Philistine threat” has been used to warrant internal political manipulation. Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Fortress, Philadelphia:1997) p.601.

How that may or may not relate to current events at home and abroad is for others to decide. It is interesting for us to note, however, that God feels it is necessary to provide checks and balances on the monarchy/temporal authority through the person of Nathan and others like Nathan who are called upon to reveal and speak Truth to Power in every generation. We might also note how Nathan cleverly appeals to David’s best qualities leading David to convict himself. And we might finally note that David accepts public responsibility for the wrong he has done, so utterly unlike any single similar situation in recent U.S. and World history.

One might strain to identify who the Nathans are in any given generation, but we can rely upon the truth and promise of such narratives that God does provide us with one Nathan after another. It is our job to hear them, listen to them and act accordingly. Their voices may come from the church, the synagogue or the mosque. Their voices may be found on opinion and editorial pages. Their voices may be on the front page quoting “unnamed sources”: how else would we ever know of what goes on in places like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and elsewhere. And since most of the Biblical prophets wrote in Hebrew poetry, modern day Nathans often come in the form of poets and song writers like these:

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore

Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore…
Music and lyrics © 2004 by James McMurtry
Men of anger, men of war
My heart is filled with love
Tell me what you are fighting for
My heart is filled with love
The death I see won’t make me numb
My heart is filled with love
Every boy a mother’s son
My heart is filled with love
Raise your voices, spread the news…
Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jew…
They all teach the golden rule…
Do unto others as you’d have them do….(Joyce Anderson, Joyscream Music ASCAP)

God knows that without Nathans in every generation we would be blind to the machinations of the David’s in this world. Yet, it is safe to assume that in that moment of realization as David utters the words, “I have sinned against the Lord,” that he too is radically transformed or transfigured, and thereby utterly different from most of his successors. His life from that moment is changed and influenced by such transfiguration. Just as Bennett Sims and the young Japanese man on the train were transformed and transfigured in the blink of an eye. Just as Peter, James and John were transfigured before Jesus on the mountain top, their lives changed forever.

On the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration I believe we are meant to stop everything we are doing and reflect on such questions as: What will it take to transfigure our church? Our nation? The World? Do we as a people have the courage to utter the words, “I am the man,”? “We are the nation,”?  Where do the cycles of violence end? In what can National Security truly be based? Are we open to listening to the Nathans speaking Truth to Power?

On another mountain top, on another day, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Bennett Sims concludes that the Transfiguration of Christ and the World is based in a kind of servanthood in which “great power functions as an exchange of power, never as coercion by superior forces. The universe is built this way. As the revealer of the Power that blew the cosmos into being and keeps it evolving, Jesus never coerces. Instead, it is his concise insistence by word and deed that greatness lies in giving – that superiority is embodied in serving. Persuasion is the posture of God.” Ibid, p. 173

The history of the past few generations on Earth has given us ample images of Transfiguration, both tragic and good. Jesus stands up on the mountain issuing the invitation to be transfigured for the good of the world into his servant people – to care for our planet and one another across all boundaries. To recall the last verse of one still sadly relevant song, “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn….” (Where have all the flowers gone?,Pete Seeger, Joe Hickerson – Fall River Music, Inc.)    Amen.