Friday, April 29, 2011

Red and Green May Days

Red May Day

May 1 is a curious day on the seasonal calendar—a day around which are a variety of observances, what an old UU children’s curriculum called Holidays and Holy Days.

May Day celebrations fall into the broad categories of Red and Green. First, Red May Day:

While the US celebrates a national holiday in September called Labor Day, around the world, May 1 is the traditional international day to honor workers—the gains they have collectively made through the years, as well as fruits of their labor that benefit society. Why May 1? Well, the date commemorates a still controversial event that took place in Chicago in 1886: the Haymarket Affair.

I remember the first time I realized that I stood in what was once known as Haymarket Square, on the north edge of the loop, where Randolph and Des Plaines Streets. It was at least a decade ago. I had unintentionally rambled into what was nondescript open space and, embedded in the pavement, I came upon an inauspicious brass plaque that marked the spot where on May 3, 1886, a bomb was thrown at a workers’ rally that shook the world. I was amazed that this was the only commemoration of one of the significant events of Chicago, indeed world, history.

Here’s a recent Chicago Sun Times account that cogently describes the event:

The story of the Haymarket Incident is rich in themes that resonate to this day.

It was a time when Americans felt threatened by terrorists. When suspicion fell heavily on certain groups of immigrants. When basic civil rights, such as free speech, were under attack in the name of national security.

On May 3, 1886, two men were killed by police outside a McCormick reaper factory on the Southwest Side, where striking workers were demanding an eight-hour day.

The following night, several thousand protesters, outraged by the killings, turned out for a rally at the Haymarket, west of today's Loop. One flier promoting the rally -- and this really alarmed the police -- called for "revenge" and encouraged workers to fight back with weapons: "To arms, we call you, to arms!"

The rhetoric at the rally was just as fiery, with anarchists calling for not just an eight-hour day, but the complete overthrow of the capitalist system. The rally was otherwise peaceful, however, so much so that Mayor Carter Harrison, who had stopped by to observe, walked home early.

But as the rally was winding down, when only a few hundred protesters were still present, about 180 police officers marched to the makeshift speaker's stand -- the bed of a Crane's Co. wagon. An officer ordered the crowd to disperse and, at that moment, somebody threw a bomb into the cops' ranks.

One officer was killed almost instantly. Gunfire and general panic broke out. At least four workers were killed. Six more officers would die of their injuries in the coming weeks.

Precisely what else happened that night remains a matter of intense disagreement, but what followed is indisputable -- a shameful travesty of justice.

Eight protestors were arrested and charged with conspiracy in the death of the police officer. There was a speedy and quick trial. Five were found guilty and four hanged, the fifth condemned man committed suicide by biting on a blasting cap; the other three were later pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld. The trial drew international interest/protest and was generally considered a miscarriage of justice.

The bomber was never identified. The police had acted against the mayor’s wishes and possibly killed their comrades by friendly fire. Altgeld’s pardons seemed to verify the injustice of the trial and executions, that he did it on the day after the dedication of a martyr’s monument, had unmistakable significance. (He actually announced the pardons at the monument’s dedication.)

In 1893, just in time for the Columbian Exposition and a flood of visitors, a monument to the worker martyrs of Haymarket Square was erected in Forest Park Cemetery, where they were buried. The monument, often called the Statue of Liberty for international workers, depicts a woman representing Justice (the five condemned men before the hanging sang the Marseilles) placing a crown of laurel on a fallen worker. 8,000 attended the dedication.

This monument has been restored in time for the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket Affair. This week pay attention to the observances and perhaps even visit the monument. (This afternoon at 1:00 p.m. there will be a special progam at the monument, 863 Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park.)

The first monument to this Haymarket Affair, funded by Chicago’s Union League and erected in 1889, commemorating the fallen policeman Mathias Degan, has had a telling history. You only need to look at it to discern what it represented: law and order. It was deemed a traffic hazard, though, and a year later it was moved from Haymarket Square to Union Park at Randolph and Ogden Avenues. In 1927 a streetcar driver drove his streetcar into it, declaring he’d grown tired of looking at it. It was removed to a safer location in Union Park. In 1958 the statue was returned to Haymarket Square. During the Vietnam War protests and ’68 Democratic Convention it was so frequently vandalized, that in 1972 the statue was taken first to the lobby of Police Headquarters and then in 1976 to a protected atrium at the Police Academy, out of public sight. In 2007, after extensive refurbishment, including a new pedestal, it was returned to Police Headquarters.

Now, on the Haymarket site there’s a recently installed monument to the 1886 Affair, a sculpture by Mary Brogger erected by the city in 2004. It depicts the wagon from which the speakers spoke as well as the mayhem of that famous moment. The official narrative pays a curious homage to all participants. One of the several plaques at the monument’s base reads, “Over the years, the site of the Haymarket bombing has become a powerful symbol for a diverse cross-section of people, ideals and movements. Its significance touches on the issues of free speech, the right of public assembly, organized labor, the fight for the eight hour work day, law enforcement, justice, anarchy and the right of every human being to pursue an equitable and prosperous life. For all, it is a poignant lesson in the rewards and consequences inherent in such human pursuits.”

Given the recent and continuing brouhaha over unions, particularly public unions in the states of Wisconsin and Ohio, I recommend the Haymarket Affair as an historical window of understanding. You can make a contemplative pilgrimage among these three monuments. I bend toward Martyrs’ Monument as the one that moves me the most and contains the abding truth of the Haymarket Affair to which I resonate.

The course of organized labor has always been contentious. My experiences in Youngstown in the late 1970s, as Little Steel vanished in the Mahoning Valley overnight, led me to greatly sympathize with the steel workers over the capitalists and corporations who had run the mills. But that’s another tale. I reference it as the influence that bends me to be pro-union.

More generally, as a matter of personal dignity and character, I find virtue and value in work. And as my earlier reading suggests, I think as a cultural matter we need to respect and support workers for their sake and very selfishly for our sake. They provide us the varied stuff that fill our lives.

I’m amused at the course of Red May Day as International Workers Day in the United States, following its proclamation by International workers in 1890. After WWI, the Veterans of Foreign Wars lobbied to make May 1 Americanization Day. In 1949 Americanization Day became Loyalty Day. President Eisenhower designated May 1 Law Day as well.

In my own understanding, in this time of acute globalization May 1 is a good time to pay particular attention to workers around the world, as well as our nation.

Green May Day

I think of these early May days as “the high tide of the year,” after the 19th century Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell. He was referencing June, but then spring comes later in New England than here in the Heartland.

I say the high tide of spring is rising. You only need to look around you: leaves are unfurling, grass is growing shaggy, and the yellow of forsythia, the purple of red-bud, and the white of a host of flowering shrubs and trees bring ephemeral beauty—so delicate and cheerful.

By the solar calendar, the early May celebrations coincide with the cross-quarter day, halfway between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice—actually May 5. But it’s not the calendar, but something in the human spirit that responds to the season’s flowing tide and creates festivals, which in my estimation weave in and out of each other across millennia, so it’s not easy to identify a cultural cause and effect. However, the underlying spirit is consistent.

The more ancient of the festivals, “called Beltane by the Celts, Walpurgis by the Teutons, and Floralia by the Romans, … were a time of ‘wearing of the green.’ Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the month of May is a time to celebrate renewal of life. May is named for Maia, grandmother, the Goddess of death and fertility. Maia scorned marriage, so it was a good idea to put weddings off until June. Although less stern goddesses now oversee May festivities, wreaths and baskets of Hawthorn are still used in some May festivals in Maia's honor.”

We celebrate May Day here at UCH in the Celtic fashion that became medieval British custom. The central symbol is the Maypole that mythologists discern to have multiple meaning. 1) It represents the axis mundi or the pivot on which the earth, and also the heaven, turn. Perhaps the weaving of the ribbons in a circular dance weaves a new order on the world which has become disordered since the last spring. 2) Surely the Maypole is yet another of one of the greatest archetypes, the World Tree or the Tree of Life. The world tree has association with the Norse god Odin, who tied upon it was granted the Runes and later by, Christian tradition is associated with the Cross on which Jesus died. 3) A third, but I would argue in a mythic sense, first and preeminently, it is a fertility symbol—the male phallus—balanced by the female symbols of baskets and wreaths traditionally carried by the young girls weaving the ribbons around the pole.

In old England this was a lusty time when pretend marriages were performed around the pole, allowing young couples to “go into the green” to do what young couples have forever done. If there was a child as a result, it is said they it went unacknowledged by the father and was attributed to be an act of God.

The older English festivities included a May Queen, a lusty figure true to the very name of the month. As you’ve already learned May is named for Maia, one of the Pleiades (seven sisters) of mythology, goddess of renewal. Hawthorn sprigs, worn by all, honored her. Later tradition replaced Maia with a more virtuous Queen Marian. (Yes, the same Marian who appeared in later Robin Hood tales.)

Queen Marian, riding a white horse, was a central figure of later May festivities. How she originated is moot, but the poet/mythologist Robert Graves identified her with a sea goddess, a virgin, dressed in blue, wearing a string of pearls. These attributes also suggest Mary, the Mother of Jesus, don’t they? In later years, medieval and later, May became the month of Mary and is still celebrated as such among many Catholics who honor The Blessed Virgin with flowers. So, in this regard Mary appears to continue ancient Roman festivities fashioned to the goddess of flowers—Flora.

In more recent years, culminating in the Victorian era, there was a lovely May Day custom of secretly, anonymously leaving May Baskets on front doors/porches. These little baskets, filled with flowers and sprigs, as well as little gifts, were given without any obligation of return. I wonder if this isn’t a kind of imitation of Nature’s free gifts that come so liberally in this wondrous season.

I love all these associations, and I’ve touched upon some, but not all of Green May Day festivals and observances in our cultural heritage.

There’s no great lesson here, except what might be the greatest lesson of all: To Love Life and Life’s great surge that is in the heart of spring as well in the human breast, a rising tide of desire that keeps Life through the seasons and generations.

Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,

We are happy now because God wills it;

No matter how barren the past may have been,

'T is enough for us now that the leaves are green;

We sit in the warm shade and feel right well

How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;

We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing

That skies are clear and grass is growing;

The breeze comes whispering in our ear,

That dandelions are blossoming near,

That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,

That the river is bluer than the sky,

That the robin is plastering his house hard by;

And if the breeze kept the good news back,

For other couriers we should not lack;

We could guess it all by yon heifer's lowing,--

And hark! how clear bold chanticleer,

Warmed with the new wine of the year,

Tells all in his lusty crowing!

from “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” James Russel Lowell

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sense of Wonder: Easter Sunday 2011

In 1962, while Nature was literally dying, Rachel Carson audaciously, gently wrote of a Silent Spring, an imaginary but plausible season, when the customary birds wouldn’t be singing, because they had been eradicated by human artifice. A prime culprit was a very effective insecticide (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) with a harmless acronym: DDT. (Remember these were the days when better living was being proclaimed through chemistry.) DDT was liberally sprayed across the landscape to kill mosquitoes and other objectionable insects, but killing other creatures, causing the likes of birds and squirrels excruciating deaths. Other unintentioned consequences affected other species, such as eagles which ate DDT infested fish, their eggs becoming too fragile to hatch chicks.

In 1962 this rather unassuming but persistent and poetic woman, Rachel Carson, helped launch an environmental movement that arguably saved Nature in America. Rachel Carson is a contemporary hero and an Earth Mother whose wisdom resonates.

I’ve made a study of Ms. Carson, inspired in part by a fine, one woman presentation of her by author/actor Kaiulani Lee that I recently re-aired on public television. (I’m doing my best to give kudos to Public Broadcasting these days.)

On this Easter Sunday, in concert with the rising tide of Nature in the spring as well as in recognition of a Web of Life saved and being saved by awareness and conservation, I speak first to Ms. Carson’s understated ethical and spiritual understandings.

First her ethics, what might be called in aggregate an environmental ethic. In Silent Spring, she proposed three ethical reasons to rescue and keep Nature: 1) for purposes of human health, 2) out of respect for the inherent value of non-human life, and 3) to preserving Nature for human edification and happiness. The first, for purposes of human health is, in a good sense, a thoroughly selfish reason. The second and third reasons, respect for the life of another and the beauty and meaning that Nature brings, lead into Ms. Carson’s spirituality, though she didn’t actually speak explicitly about religious matters, as such.

She once spoke to how her reverence for life had concrete sources. That such an awareness comes “… from some personal experience, perhaps the sudden, unexpected sight of a wild creature, perhaps some experience with a pet. Whatever it may be, it is something that takes us out of ourselves that makes us aware of other life. From my own memories, I think of the sight of a small crab alone on a dark beach at night, a small and fragile being waiting at the edge of the roaring surf, yet so perfectly at home in its world. To me it seemed a symbol of life, and of the way life has adjusted to the forces of its physical environment. Or I think of a morning when I stood in a North Carolina marsh at sunrise, watching flock after flock of Canada geese rise from resting places at the edge of a lake and pass low overhead. In that orange light, their plumage was like brown velvet. Or I have found that deep awareness of life and its meaning in the eyes of a beloved cat.”

And in a magazine article (Woman’s Home Companion 1952) that became a posthumous little book called The Sense of Wonder she asked, “ Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?”

She replied, “I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. … Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after the night and spring after the winter.”

Earlier this church year, I gave a sermon that asked “Do We Need Nature More than Ever?” I answered yes, of course we do. I argued, “Parents, I’ve come to believe, have a moral obligation to ensure that their children grow up nurtured by Nature. And though an intellectual understanding, such as acquired in school, or via natural history museums, or books and videos has value in this regard, yet none of these methods approach what’s acquired by a child getting down and dirty and maybe holding an earthworm, grasshopper, snake, or even a lifeless bird. (Anecdotally, contemporary parents loathe their children being “contaminated” by direct contact with Nature.)”

I consider Rachel Carson an authority on the spiritual possibilities of a direct relationship with Nature. In her words you heard earlier, in the experience of Nature, there is something lasting and significant. What this something is, to use words that describe a mystical experience, is something both ineffable and noetic. Ineffable means that it defies description, though we strain to describe it. Noetic means it brings knowledge/understanding. Both are matters of personal experience.

I believe that with every mystical encounter with Nature in its parts and in its larger systems, in the micro and the micro schemes, you come to directly realize again and again, something deep—lasting and significant.

Rachel Carson’s posthumous little book that I mentioned earlier, The Sense of Wonder, in my opinion, is a genuine religious classic. Taken from a "Women's Home Companion" 1952 article written for parents to better nurture their children; it’s also a text for adults to keep their sense of wonder alive and vital.

[I then read an excerpt from The Sense of Wonder.]

Monday, April 11, 2011

By Their Fruits

[The person who bought one of the two sermons I offered at November's Holiday Harvest Auction made this request when I asked for a topic to speak on: "What Experiences in My Life Influenced My Decision to not Believe in the Divinity of Christ." In other words, as I have heard you preach over the years, I have come to think that you think of Jesus as a great religious thinker, perhaps a prophet even, like Mohammed, Buddha, or Abraham. But, I don't believe you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, nor is he any more special than those other guys. I'm not interested in the philosophical/intellectual reasons that you arrived at this belief, as much as learning any personal, earlier experiences in your life, as you lived it in this predominately Christian country that brought you to this conclusion."

Now, this is a theme I wouldn't have chosen on my own, in part because, relative to Christianity, I'm not reactive and I don't like to appear anti-Christian in the pulpit. If forced to label myself, I'd say I'm post-Christian.

So, here are personal, very mundane experiences that have contributed to my thorough post-Christian point of view regarding Jesus.]

A Catholic Youth

I was raised Roman Catholic in suburban (then rural) Wilmington, DE, in the 1950s. My mother and father were both Catholic, though of differing intensity. She was the daughter of hard working German speaking immigrants from Austro-Hungary. He was the son of a backsliding Irish American mother and indifferent English American father, both nominally Roman Catholic, essentially non-practicing.

My earliest church memories took place in a nearby river town, blue collar Claymont, surely the same parish where Joe Biden worshipped in his Claymont youth. I remember black granite, traditional Catholic building, solid and modest, cool and dry, and redolent of burning candles. In order to prepare for my first communion, I attended the parish school's 2nd grade class for two weeks. I have three memories from then, of being thrust into an alien environment: 1) a long narrow classroom crowded with twice as many Boomer kids as was my secular classroom, 2) the classroom sale of crackers and candy from a huge glass jug during recess, 3) and a young nun who sat with me at lunch and asked “Do you eat to live, or live to eat?” I wish I could show you the black and white photo of me in my white suit, hands folded in prayer in front of the Claymont church after the ceremony took place. The somber confessional and the wafer that stuck to the roof of my dry mouth are still vivid. We communicants had been warned, under the penalty of a grave sin, not to leave the communion rail without swallowing the host; and, oh yes, not to chew the host, under penalty of an even graver sin. I didn’t feel anything sacred. It was, in a word I might have used then, creepy.

We moved from that parish to a startup parish nearer our home. The suburbs north of Wilmington, as they were across the country, were burgeoning, turning farm fields and forests into tract developments. The new church, named after Mary Magdalene, first met in the building that would become the parish school. (To my meager understanding, St. Mary Magdalene was something of fallen women, perhaps prostitute rescued by Jesus.) The sanctuary would eventually become the school’s cafeteria. It wasn’t in the least awe inspiring, to say the least, though I didn’t know it at the time. Some of the dreariest memories of my youth took place there: a Latin mass that sounded like so much mumbo jumbo, scant majesty and little ceremony, and strange homilies that often sought to explain paradoxical gospel readings. (My father enjoyed skewering the homilies at Sunday dinner. For example, he could never accept that the prodigal son received forgiveness, insisting, in his way, that this just wasn’t fair.)

As a family we didn’t go to confession often (my father never), only at the obligatory times of Easter and Christmas. It usually meant standing in a long line, waiting for a seat in one of the two booths in the center of which sat the priest confessor. Once, as a young adolescent, I stood in line in front of my mother. I rehearsed a half-year of sins, which I made up, trying to find the right proportion of venial sins to impress the priest of honesty/sincerity. When I left the booth and walked past my mother, I had a smirk on my face at the farce of it all—a smirk she interpreted, and remembers to this day, as a beatific smile after having the burden of my sins lifted from my soul. Of course, I let her keep that impression.

A few years later, before Christmas, a few buddies and I rushed to confession after playing an afternoon of basketball. The three confessionals had exceedingly long lines. But the head priest, an older fellow, was sitting at the communion rail, hearing confession. There was no line. What sinner wanted to confess transgressions out in the open? So we agreed among ourselves to get out of there as quick as possible to get back to our game; we used the priest at the altar. We shared a common experience. When we got outside we exploded as one, “He was drunk!” We smelled the alcohol and heard him slur his words. That was the last time I went to confession.

So, by the time I entered college, I’d finished with my Catholic upbringing, though I didn’t recognize it as such. About religion I was green. I knew little and didn’t care much.

Early in my marriage to Ellie we talked about religion, what we might practice, if we were to practice. She’d been raised Federated, growing up in a small Upstate New York village where the Methodists and Northern Baptists became one congregation to survive. Her family’s roots leaned toward the Methodists. In our conversation I said one of the dumbest, most illogical things I’ve ever said, reckoning that Catholic was the way for us to go, since the Catholics came first in the scheme of Christianity. She firmly dissuaded me of this line of reasoning.

The first 20 years of my life as a Catholic gave little impression of God and Jesus, though I blessed myself with holy water “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, amen.”

A Unitarian in Training

I skip ahead, circa 1971-73, my years as an unformed theolog at the Department of Religious Studies at McGill, where I prepared for the Unitarian ministry. When I first thought of going to a theological school, still a graduate student at the University of Vermont in 1970, I’d bought a Bible, which Catholics of my era had little acquaintance with. I have vague memories of trying to read the Old Testament tales on my own, finding them incomprehensible.

A few years later, at McGill, I took both an Old and New Testament class, in the company of fellow students preparing for various traditional ministries: Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Church of Canada primarily. They were all Christian and the Bible was their primary source, as it is for all Protestants, who are truly people of the book. At the time I found them as a group to be intellectually dull, uninformed, and curiously disinterested in our studies in the scholarly tradition of the texts. I had no religious investment in these so-called inspired works, but took to biblical exegesis, a scholarly process of critical interpretation in the quest for meaning. When the grades were posted, I was amused and horrified to rank first in Old and second in New Testament—I who had scant prior knowledge and no commitment to scriptural authority compared to my Christian peers who would soon be preaching the gospel.

In 1976, in order to meet UUA requirements toward becoming a UU minister, before leaving Canada and doing an internship at First Universalist Society of Syracuse, in the company of a half a dozen other clergy-types, I engaged in an 11-week session of Clinical Pastoral Education at the Montreal General Hospital. (It was 1976, the year of the Olympics in Montreal.) We were all intern chaplains, under the supervision of a seasoned veteran chaplain. We had patient assignments, wrote detailed reports of encounters, and had daily encounter sessions along the lines of the old school of Transactional Analysis. (Remember, I’m Okay, You’re Okay?) My fellow participants seemed to me the strangest lot of clergy. I remember in particular a youngish, handsome Italian immigrant priest, a midlife Quebecois bother who looked like a woodcarving, and a paunchy Missouri Synod Lutheran midlife pastor. The priest had all sorts of sexual fantasies, the brother couldn’t talk about death, and the pastor was going through a nasty divorce and had one of the darkest personalities I’d ever encountered. I learned counseling skills and something about myself in such situations, but even more indelible was a sense of the clergy being a troubled profession. None of my colleagues seemed to embody the Christ they professed, in fact, they were tortured souls.

A final anecdote comes from my first church in Youngstown Ohio, First Unitarian on the edge of the old downtown. When I arrived, the congregation had a renter, a start-up Southern Baptist group that met before our 11 a.m. service on Sunday morning. I had nodding acquaintance with the minister. Toward the end of my 5.5 years there, they held a week long revival. In the midst of that time a small delegation of these Baptists appeared in my office one afternoon and proceeded to try and convert me. I was offended. I was their host and they had crossed a line. They told me I was bound for hell as were all in the world who hadn’t accept Jesus as Christ. All in the world, I asked? Yes, they argued, because modern technology had reached everyone. I didn’t begrudge their enthusiasm; but I thought them uncharitable and missing the mark that Jesus represented to my, by now, well-formed understanding of him. Later that week, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a phone call from an hysterical woman who'd attended the Baptist revival. I agreed to meet her at my office. The Baptist service had left her with the impression she was a sinner doomed to hell and she needed to lay herself at the feet of Jesus. When I opened the door she rushed into the sanctuary and threw herself sobbing inconsolably on the steps leading up to the chancel.

Now, these are a few memorable impressions that came to my consciousness when I searched for life experiences that further persuaded me that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, who offered his life as a blood atonement to redeem humankind, who the culture has long called God IS NOT SO. This Christ is a matter of dogma, not reputable history.

After studying theology at McGill in the early 70’s I had my own abiding sense of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament Gospels and other books, studied in the academy as an historical figure, often called the Historical Jesus and as redacted by a host of Unitarian forebears who, for two centuries have explored Jesus’s reflective question “Who do men say that I am?” (The latter was the title of a famous Unitarian book and church school curriculum written by our great religious educator Sophia Fahs in the 1950s.)

The New Quest for the Historical Jesus

I found a renewed interest in the historical Jesus in the 1990s, when under the influence of the Jesus Seminar, particularly its co-founder John Dominic Crossan of Chicago's DePaul University, a new Historical Jesus emerged, grounded in progressive studies of the texts of the era and a swelling of archeological discoveries. Here’s an apt summary of Crossan's work from a Wikipedia entry:

Crossan suggests Jesus was an illiterate "Jewish Cynic" from a landless peasant background, initially a follower of John the Baptist. Jesus was a healer and man of great wisdom and courage who taught a message of inclusiveness, tolerance, and liberation. "His strategy . . . was the combination of free healing and common eating . . . that negated the hierarchical and patronal normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power . . . He was neither broker nor mediator but . . . the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or humanity and itself.

I largely subscribe to Crossan’s portrait of Jesus and recommend his thin monograph of the Jesus who lived, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. It's an essential text for anyone interested in an historically reconstructed Jesus.

Some years ago, during Holy Week, I heard Crossan being interviewed by Terry Gross regarding this book that had just been published. (I was traveling through the Sangre de Cristo--Blood of Christ--mountains in Northern New Mexico.) Toward the end of the interview, she asked him where he would be attending services that Easter. He gently responded that he doesn’t go to church anymore, because he doesn’t want to be offended by what’s said from the pulpit. It’s often so unchristlike.

I’ve long given up, too, on finding Jesus Christ in churches—or in Christianity generally.

Where I Expect to Find Jesus the Christ

Where I continue to expect to discover Jesus Christ is in individual believers transformed by their belief and His Presence. The historical Jesus I subscribe to has had considerable influence on me: early on as a young adult drawn to his Sermon on the Mount teachings on nonviolent resistance and more recently as a preacher of egalitarianism (particularly regarding women). But I often speculate that if I believed Jesus were indeed God, whose sacrificial Atonement gave me eternal life, how passionate I would be to embody the difficult but clear example he set. No matter what demands it made on me, I would have one choice to be, in imitation of Christ, as radical—even unto death—as Crossan has drawn Jesus to be.

In the final analysis, I say that through the generations professed Christians have failed through the millennia to embody what Jesus prayed for, and even more sought to establish in his brief three year ministry: the Kingdom of God, on Earth as it is in Heaven, what 2 Peter calls a “new world where righteousness dwells.”

Like Diogenes the Cynic, --remember the Wikipedia characterization of Jesus as a Jewish Cynic--, like Diogenes the Cynic, who traveled by daylight with a lantern in hand in search of an honest person, I keep a vigilant eye, ever open for a Christian who has been transformed by the Spirit of Christ to be radically Christ-like, too, unequivocally committed to inclusiveness, toleration, and liberation, who lets nothing stand in the way or mediate a direct relationship with the Divine for self and for others, and who follows the ways of Jesus as though her or his life depended on it.

I close with a simple and, for me, compelling text: Mt 7:16 " By their fruits ye shall know them."

Friday, April 1, 2011

Holy Food

Gene Logsdon

I’ve grown fond of a blog, “The Contrary Farmer,” written by an Ohio “cottage farmer” named Gene Logsdon. He farms in the Upper Sandusky region south of Toledo. He’s 79 years old and advocates

  • small farms, though economically as a half time venture, with another job to supplement income;
  • organic methods, yet he will use herbicide in limited quantities in difficult areas;
  • and a host of compelling, alternative ways of raising crops and animals.

His attitudes are a complex cluster: idealistic, visionary, practical, critical, and appreciative.

Recently he’s become a voice for manure, including human waste, rather than chemical fertilizer. The title of his book about this, Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, reflects his persona as a down to earth, a little irreverent, and avuncular soul, who respects the old ways but looks to a sustainable future.

He was raised on a family farm not far from his current farm. He attended seminary for 10 years but chose a career that blended farming and writing, first as an editor of the magazine, Farm Journal based in Philadelphia. Twenty-five years ago, he returned to his Ohio roots and bought 32 acres with a house, 14 acres of which he now farms. (His parents’ farm had fallen to bankruptcy in the 1970s.)

A prolific writer, he has written scores of essays and a host of books, including 3 novels in addition to monographs on varying aspects of farming and the rural life—what’s left of it. What he has to say about farming and a good life touches virtue and grace, relative to ecological responsibility and personal happiness.

I rediscovered him several months ago. For more than 30 years I carried with me a poem he wrote and which I found in an anthology of the Farm Journal. (As it is often with a real book, I vividly remember the circumstances when I bought it: on a crisp and sunny winter’s afternoon on a remainder table outside an old- fashioned bookstore on Middlebury, VT’s main street.)

The poem made an impression on me then, and I went searching for it and its author at the end of December, when I thought my 93 year old mother was about to die. I was doing a little pre-grieving. My mother was raised on a New Jersey truck farm and so many of her ways were shaped by that long ago experience. The poem evokes her for me.

Here’s the poem, "Roots":

"You plant them early in July,” she told me,
The son who didn't know the pleasures of the old days."

Come February, the frost will take out all the bitterness.
Fixed right, they make the first good eating of the year. "

So I planted parsnips and planned, come February,
To take them to her to fix right, for who else could?
We 'd eat them together, relishing old-fashioned 'ways
That meant nothing except to our kind.

But February did not come for her, just November
With a cruel coldness that was not the weather only,
That was the weather least of all.
The greentops of the parsnips fell and died-their time.

A pile of leaves now 'rests within my garden,
Beneath which parsnips roots lie snug against the cold.
I stand and stare today, too long, at that low mound.
It looks like Mamma 's grave.

A last and tenuous link between her soul and mine,
Between old days dying and new ones yet to live,
Between an old woman saying good-bye
And a young man, taking root.

But who will cook those parnips, come February,
Who will eat them, relishing rich old ways?
And will the frost, by then,
Take out the bitterness?

Church of Almighty Good Food

An Internet search for the poem and author took me to Gene Logsdon’s blog, "The Contrary Farmer." I’ve read every posting since. He’s just published a third novel that joins the two chords of religion and food through a story that obviously conveys the author’s self-proclaimed contrary attitudes.

I enjoyed my reading of the novel, particularly for the way Logsdon insinuates his well-seasoned opinions and general outlook. Its obvious what he favors and what he eschews.

The book, Pope Mary & The Church of Almighty Good Food, tells a tongue in cheek tale of a quixotic priest serving two small parishes in the farmland south of Toledo, a cosmopolitan woman who returns to her home farm roots to recover after a failed romance in Chicago, and a host of minor characters rich in the ways and idiosyncrasies of the region.

The characters are thinly drawn; but the plot is thickly marbled with Logsdon’s views about farming and community, economics and ecclesiology. The plot turns on the closing of one of the little churches ensconced in the cornfields and how the community saves it by turning it into The Church of Almighty Good Food. The redeemed building, by novel’s end, has become a center for a community farmer’s market, surrounded by lush public garden plots and a public orchard. On festival days, when visitors come from as far away as Pittsburgh, a meal centered on roasted fresh corn is served in the old sanctuary, now converted into a dining hall. When people taste the corn for the first time, it was as though they had never tasted real corn before.

When I read the passages in the novel describing one of the festivals of The Church of the Almighty Good Food, I imagined a Breughel-like painting, teeming with ordinary folk enjoying one another and sumptuous foods in the midst of a sea of cornstalks. I even imagined a whisper from gently undulating tassels, “Serve it, and they will come.”

It’s clear that Logsdon doesn’t have much truck with the Catholic Church, which he apparently left behind years ago. Yet to my reading, he has abiding respect and gentle awe for natural spirituality. In an interview, he once said he wasn’t atheistic or agnostic; he was more an animist, if he had to describe his beliefs. He declared that he experienced spirituality in nature. Organized religion had pretty much gone off track, in his opinion.

In his blog, introducing his new novel, he wrote: “I was half way through the writing before I realized what my characters were telling me. In all religions (well, all Christian and Muslim sects anyway) the consumption of food is at the center of the worship ceremonies. The Eucharist or Communion service in Christian sects and Ramadan in Islam are really centered on spiritual and physical celebrations of eating communal meals, the Last Supper over and over again. Food really does, in an ecological sense anyway, transubstantiate or consubstantiate into body and blood, no big mystery about it. Food is supposed to be sacred, not fast. Maybe I should have titled the novel 'Holy Food,' to go with my other book,'Holy Shit.'"

There’s a theological term for communal meals and their affect, particularly the fellowship of the table that results: commensality. "The Fellowship of the Table" celebrates nature and human nature--bounty and community. (The root of commensality, commensal, means to live together without doing harm to one another.)

As I said in earlier remarks, I’m not a foodie, but I agree with Gene Logsdon that food holds the possibility of a spiritual connection, particularly when it connects us to Nature and to one another, and yes, to something transcendent, as the following selection from the novel suggests. Early in the novel the priest (Lone Ranger) and the title’s Pope Mary have a conversation:

"You talk about this kind of stuff in the pulpit?" Mary sounded incredulous.

"If you'd come to church you'd know that," he said, pointedly, but without accusation. He was glad she didn't come to church. She'd be a problem for sure. "I am trying to show the congregation how Christianity, especially in a rural parish like this one, should be concerned about not letting big business take our food independence away from us. Seems to me food has a spiritual value, sort of; that it is at the heart of a healthy, virtuous life."

"You know something, Lone Ranger. You have a great idea there. Why don't you start a new religion based on sustainable farming instead of praying to some God that doesn't exist? Change St. Philo's name to Our Lady of Good Food. Or maybe The Church of the Divine Wine. Or how about Good Spirits Chapel." She still tried not to smile. "You know how people are. Once they got converted to the religion of good food, they'd load up the collection plate. Not for reward in the hereafter, but for right now. Something delicious to eat, And drink. What a great idea you have there, Lone Ranger."

Fr. Ray stared at her, aware that she was making fun of him. But just maybe she was on to something that he had not dared put into words even to himself. To her surprise, he nodded.

"And then we could make sense out of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ at Mass. If a person could understand that the food chain is the creative force we call God, then bread and wine would indeed become body and blood, literally."

It was one of his pet ideas, but one which, being utterly heretical, he had never talked about out loud before. Why had he now?...

Mary, on her part, was trying to build on her teasing, wondering if she could draw him out even farther. Maybe he wasn't a stuffy clergy type at all. Why she wanted to find out she was not sure. But something else had suddenly inserted itself into her mind. That food chain analogy he had suggested was the first time the Eucharist theology she had been raised on had ever made any sense to her. In a sudden flash, she realized that the whole idea of a church of good food might be more than just a joke.

“Tell you what, Lone Ranger. I know, and you know, that you don't really go along with the bishop on this church closing. I have a hunch you don't really go along with all that religious stuff you pretend to believe either. It's time to give serious thought to what you've really been up to. Turn that parish of yours into the Church of Good Spirits. Tell the Pope to go fly a kite.

[This essay, from my Ecclesiastes series, preceded the sermon]

Eating Seasonally

Our culture is food obsessed. I credit television with launching the trend, beginning with public broadcasting that has long offered half hour cooking shows, featuring certain cuisines and genial personalities cooking them. A recent movie “Julie and Julia,” in which a contemporary blogger cooks her way through the late twentieth century classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking by the first mega food personality Julia Childs, “The French Chef,” summarizes the evolution of the contemporary food obsession.

Cable television has ratcheted up the trend in recent years, with shows driven by over the top personalities and cooking competitions. There’s even a Food Network, all food, all day, all week.

Then the subtle and not so subtle effects of globalism have introduced Americans to world cuisines. All sorts of world cuisines abound. You never know what unexpected restaurants you find across the continent. For example, did you know that Washington D.C. abounds with Ethiopian restaurants?

In another dimension America has earned the apt moniker of Fast Food Nation, helping to fuel an epidemic of obesity, particularly among children. Fast food references both the ubiquitous drive-in chains as well as over processed convenience foods purchased in grocery stores. (I live only a couple of miles from the so-called Hamburger University of the McDonald Corporation and have often eaten at the campus lodge.) Insightful articles have connected the dots between inexpensive foods and federal agricultural policy, for instance, the results of a glut of cheap corn product sweeteners—“super size it!”

We can’t neglect the ethical dimension of mass produced foods whether it’s the result of Monsanto’s virtual monopoly of seed grain through genetically engineered and patented seeds or the inhumane treatment of factory farm animals.

The term “Foodies” embraces a wide spectrum from those who espouse only organic food, or those who advocate eating locally, or those who travel the blue highways in search of regional idiosyncrasies, such as deep-fried bacon with white gravy, or those who count the stars in a Michelin Guide before having a meal.

As a result of all of this and more, I’ve become mostly indifferent to food. I hear a Taoist-like adage in my head, “Too many tastes spoil the palate.”

It really takes something special to incite my taste buds and stir my culinary imagination, as it happened yesterday. I cut into a home-grown tomato, plucked from the vine and still warm from the summer sun. It was baseball size, gnarled, and tinted with green—not at all the commercially sold, perfectly red specimens of the fruit sold in the supermarket year round. But the flesh, when cut, had that perfect blend of firmness and juice, a distinctive, fresh aroma, and a taste, sweet and savory as TV chefs intone, that made my senses tingle. I realized I hadn’t really savored a tomato for more than a year, or should I say I hadn’t eaten a “real’ tomato over that time?

The sensations of the tomato took me back to my northern Delaware childhood, the large garden that my parents cultivated each year and which sustained our little family—truly my salad days when salad was an early spring offering and the greens had to be thoroughly washed to remove the soil in which they grew.

In my memory, I’ve just strolled through a growing season from the first tender spears of asparagus to parsnips left in the ground to winter and sweeten. As a child I quickly learned the succession and anticipated the progressing harvest. Indeed, “for everything a season.”

I further indulged my memory by recounting the seasonal foods of the various places we’ve lived over forty-five years: the exquisite sweetness of treacly maple syrup poured on snow outside a Vermont sugar shack in the thin sunlight of early spring; pea soup with chunks of carrots and coarse brown bread washed down with alcoholic cider during Quebec winters; salt potatoes of the early spring of Syracuse and the crisp, juicy apples from orchards on rolling hillsides cut by US 20 through Upstate New York; and the baskets of red peppers in the village farmer markets of the Chicago suburbs where I live—red peppers from the truck farms of Michigan that I roast to eat, as is, on slabs of fresh bread.

There’s no comparison between the experience of eating an ear of corn in mid-August only hours after being picked and eating a frozen ear with its ends docked, microwaved, and served in winter.

I could continue with more examples; however such indulgence might tip me toward the Foodie sensibility that I eschew. I’m not so much speaking to food as I am to its season and the successions. Ecclesiastes (“for everything there is a season”) has continued to alert me through the years to the idea of appropriate seasons of life as well as of the self. There’s something to be said about eating seasonally, not only for taste, but also for the anticipation that embeds one’s self into the rhythms and cycles of nature, heightening appreciation.

I continue to develop an aesthetic about food. Naturally, practically food fits into an overarching spiritual scheme of wholeness and health. My subsequent remarks will explore spiritual aspects of food.