My Father Ran

My father ran.

He ran for Peddie School

over muddy paths

along New Jersey’s streams.

He ran alone

            in teams

            against himself

            against his fears

            his insecurities

            his father’s suffocating mantle.

His heart so big

            his legs so quick

he ran so free

            that when the yoke of later years

            descended on his shoulders

            he still could hear the song inside

I still can run

I still can feel the wind.

The pandemic has given us all what my friend John de Gruchy calls a “monastic moment” when we can take some time for the work of the soul and the memory. It comes with the additional onus on us oldsters to stay out of harm’s way by a more assiduous isolation in the household. For those of us with yards and workshops, it has meant well-tended flowers and greenery as well as workshops in greater order than they ever experienced in our busy years. It has also given me time to begin the tedious but eye-opening work of sorting out the archives of a life. And not only my life, but the lives of my parents, grandparents and even more distant ancestors. Maybe I’ll share the auto-tour diaries of my great-grandfather George Lains (1918-1935) if this goes on much longer.

Among the artifacts of family memory are my father’s high school and college yearbooks. Thanks to digital technology we can finally scan the meaningful parts and send the heavy tomes to their eternal reward. It is not news that my father was a runner in high school and college. But as I read through these distant words and looked at pictures of his teammates and his own youthful self, I also heard some other themes drawn from his later years and so I share those with you here. The race and the run as a metaphor for life is well-known to readers of the New Testament. (Read St. Paul’s verses in I Corinthians 9:24, 2 Timothy 4:7, Hebrews 12:1, Philippians 3:12-16.). They remind us of the effort and perseverance that life demands of us if we are to live it well, but they can also open us to the life-giving wind, air, and exhilaration of movement that are life itself. May we run and not be weary. Stay with it. Let’s break the ribbon together.


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Masks, Rights, and Covenants

Some people around us claim they have a right to refuse to wear a mask during the Covid pandemic. For some it is an appeal to a vague penumbra of rights arising from our Constitutional tradition. For others, it is “God-given,” which may amount to the same claim. Spoken in the face of overwhelming health needs, such claims bespeak the poverty of an ethic based solely on rights, yet we have been so besotted with them in our liberal tradition that we are hard pressed to lay out an alternative ethical argument, other than to mutter about the common good.

But is there another way of thinking about “rights” that might offer a broader basis for our ethical imaginations? Much has been made of our status as beings made “in the image of God.” In our recent discourse, people often see our possession of fundamental human rights as grounded in our being created in the image of God and therefore endowed with divine powers of autonomy, self-authorization, and self-expression. To my knowledge this concept only appears at two points in the Hebrew texts—Genesis 1:26-27 and, by allusion, Psalm 8:5-6. When it recurs in the New Testament it refers to the way that Christ is the image of God. All those who then enter into Christ through baptism gain this quality of the imago dei. This has always seemed to me to be a shaky religious basis for our exhaustive and near total commitment to a civil ethic of human rights. Moreover, in transferring the attributes of a certain conception of an all-powerful, immutable God to each person, it simply intensifies the individualistic ethic of our own economic order.

There is another, much wider theme in biblical thought and religious tradition that may offer a way forward to a more adequate ethic. It is that we are covenant partners with the divine source of all of life, not only in Abraham or in Christ, but in creation itself. But here, our “rights” are not flowing from some divine core in our being but from our participation in a web of relationships with all of creation. Life as a covenant partner of God is also life as covenant partners in marriage and family, community and polity, plants and animals, land, water and air. This is the basis of the “responsibility” ethic that I discovered through the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, James Gustafson, James Luther Adams, Juergen Moltmann, and others nourished in this covenantal tradition. Even though our Constitution as a whole, especially its preamble, grew out of the soil of this covenant tradition, its first ten amendments have tended to swallow up the web of covenantal responsibilities in which they have their proper meaning. It’s time to get back to this web of covenantal partnership in order to recover from our exhausted dependence on doctrines of rights with which to construct our world.

So, the next time you hear of “the right not to wear a mask” think instead of our covenantal responsibilities as participants in a wider mysterious web of creation. In short: Wear a mask, it’s part of your covenant with all others around you.

End of sermon.



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Bursting Fourth

America begins again

each year

with a Big Bang

so loud we cannot hear,

the smoke so dense we cannot breathe,

the light so bright we cannot see

the dead, the maimed, the dark enslaved,

the land now covered with forgetful night.

The guns that promise freedom from our fears

belch forth the independence of an orphan

the power of a madman in his cell,

an earthly devastation

impotent before our death.

Our fingers rise to cross our brows

before the colored cloth that covers coffins

coming back

from unknown shores.

The fire, the light, the noise, the smoke,

            blot out the stars,

            disguise the great immensity,

            the unimaginably new creation

            bursting from the heart of blackness

making all things bright with love,

dazzling with life.

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Religion and Our Constitutional Crisis

Last Sunday I made a Zoom presentation of a talk that had been scheduled BP (Before the Pandemic) with the Ethical Humanist Society of Asheville. In the talk, I returned to issues that have concerned me on these pages since the beginning, but now in a period of conflagration with intensified awareness of their import. Here is the gist of my remarks, which I entitled “Religion and the Republic: Parent, Prophet, or Problem?”

We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis that strikes at the cultural basis for our commitments to being a constitutional republic. It is a crisis riven by the historic fault-lines of slavery, racism, genocide of the original Americans and exploitation of the land itself. Now the coronavirus has laid bare these lines of fracture. Our Constitutional order sought to separate out the historic religion that had legitimated public order since the age of Constantine and replace it with belief in reason and science. The new order of persuasion, deliberation, negotiation, and compact would rest on appeals to scientifically verifiable truths of the actual world the participants hold in common.

However, the religion that had been sequestered into the private sphere, with its domesticated patriarchy, always sought the more expansive power manifested in the Biblical template of messianic kingship. In recent decades the work of reason and science has been undermined by both reactionaries and radicals by the acids of suspicion about the ways “reasonable words” can and have masked over the power interests of dominant groups and organizations. (Al Gore presents a fuller analysis in his The Assault on Reason republished with a new epilogue in 2017.) With its legitimacy undermined, our constitutional order has not been able to hold off the theocratic nationalism fostered by appeals to Biblical templates of political domination. A God with the lineaments of a despot—unconstrained, all-powerful, omniscient, retributive and mysteriously gracious—could re-emerge to begin breaking down the delicate separation of powers, the norms of reasoned debate, negotiation, compromise, and of a republic ordered by law.

To begin the exploration of where we go from here, to draw on M. L. King Jr.’s famous book, I pointed to three endeavors: A reconstruction of what it means to be “a people,” a religious reworking of our God image away from the despotic model of unitary omnipotence, retributive justice, and arbitrary power, and an intensified imagination of a form of truth arising from the ecological sense of the interconnection of the whole web of being.

I then developed the understanding of “the People” that emerged in Western civilization to mean the assemblies of face-to-face argument and mutual accountability. This is a far cry from the conglomeration of individuals or the mobs of self-appointed vigilantes that tend to clog the airwaves. Secondly, I pointed out how there are alternatives to the despotic God lifted out of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures that can better speak to the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the mutual respect and accountability at the heart of democratic republican order. And finally, I indicated a few ways we might think of the common good in the context of ecological interconnection. You can read the whole piece by clicking HERE.

We engaged in lively discussion of these challenges, free of masks, socially distanced but engaged, trying to be the public argument and mutual accountability that we need to re-activate if our public life is to make it through this epidemic rooted in our estrangement from the natural world and from one another. This wide-ranging conversation is what groups like the Ethical Humanist Societies were founded to pursue and I was grateful to be a part of their conversation. Your own experiences with this struggle are welcome in the comment section below.


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