Holy Darkness

As we move to the end of the season of Lent and into the Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter, I want to share with you two panels that Sylvia has created to enhance our worship at our home church. They seek to open up the meaning of “darkness,” a word we often use to describe the fearful chaos into which so much of our political world has entered in the past two years.

Here are her reflections on the two panels:

We often speak of God as light. We are told to “walk in the light.” If God is everywhere present, is God not also present in darkness, even darkness we do not understand? If we find God in nature, in a leaf or in a baby, should we not also seek to find God in an expanding universe? In the course of a year, there is an equal amount of light and darkness. We long for the warmth of the sun, yet much of life seems to be generated in darkness. We were each conceived and grew in the darkness of a womb. Seeds generate in the darkness of soil. Why do we find darkness such a fearsome place, where things “go bump in the night” and perhaps danger lurks?

Scientist tells us that our universe is composed of 68% dark energy. Another 27% is dark matter. Everything else ever seen by humankind—stars, planets, galaxies— makes up the remaining 5%. Space is not empty and is not nothing. The remaining 95% is also a part of God’s mysterious and wonderful creation and yet scientists admit that they scarcely have a clue as to its purpose or composition. It seems to be the force that causes our universe to expand at an every increasing speed.

In the liturgical year we celebrate both times of light and of dark. We use these words in both a metaphorical way and as a way to represent objective reality. We also use them to describe psychological and spiritual states. I find that their meanings bleed into each other and it is not easy to think of them separately. Some believe they influence our thinking on race and other instances where “light” is good and “dark” is bad. I argue that both are good and necessary although each also contains the possibility of danger. We think we understand something of the nature and purpose of the 5%. What are we to make of the completely mysterious 95%, whose purpose and characteristics are unknown?

These panels invite you to consider the ways in which we think of darkness as well as the place of individuals, the church, and earthly creation in a larger context. Each panel is composed of two parts. The front panel is made of painted Tyvek and suggests the flow of energy as well as observable objects. The underlying panel is composed of several layers of sheer fabric, painted, to show new possibilities behind the presenting darkness.

For further reflection on darkness, see Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor.

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Interfaith Peace Conference 2018: Some Reflections

Last weekend we took part in the ninth Lake Junaluska Interfaith Peace Conference. The political convulsions of the last few years led to the theme of “Meeting the Other — Can We Talk?” Keynote speakers drawing on traditions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam laid out ways to approach this theme, while the music of Abraham Jam, an interfaith trio, wove through the entire proceedings with spirit, laughter, and vision. Workshops and visits to services in a synagogue and a mosque in Asheville completed the four-day event. I took away two reflections from this invigorating experience.

From Traditions to Visions

First, what we call “interfaith” seems to be moving from the juxtaposition of representatives from (in our case) the three Abrahamic traditions to being an exploration of ways these historic traditions can constitute a variegated global community of hope and affirmation. We are moving from an emphasis on traditions, with the implication that they are set in stone, to one of visions of a possible future together on this planet. How is this occurring?

The respectful affirmation of people from

Abraham Jam in Song at the Peace Conference

other traditions already is rooted in core convictions of a oneness in God and in God’s creation, in commitment to a unifying though mysterious spirit at work among us, and a conviction that this spirit seeks the reconciliation of all things. These gatherings seeking to explore pathways to reconciliation are already forging a set of affirmations, beliefs, rituals, and artistic expressions that are rooted in these traditions even as they seek to go beyond them.



I am not speaking here of some kind of religious Esperanto that can simply translate the received dogmas, practices, and symbols of these traditions. Rather, there is a genuine transformation of these traditions, even while affirming the ancestries in which they stand. Awareness of the ecological unity of our planet within an expanding universe already begins to create a new stage on which people seek to grasp and act in accordance with the ultimate energies holding them in life with all beings. This activity gives rise to new prayers, new songs, new rituals, new conversations, and new sensibilities. Indeed, the symbolic actions in which we try to express and create these emerging aspirations, because they cannot simply name them literally, constitute elements of some kind of deep cultic activity, whether it is the sounding of a brass bowl, the lighting of a candle, or the circle of hand-in-hand.

These cultic elements, like any religious tradition, then long for cultural expressions in which they can send down roots to nourish actual human communities. In our conference together we are gestating cultic companions to an emerging global culture. We face steep opposition to this effort both within us and among us. It is in the deep conflicts between local loyalties and emerging global bonds that we find the intense warfare that is tearing apart the fragile civic orders of our own time. The “other” has yet to become the “partner,” the stranger has yet to become a friend. The interfaith peace conference is one way of trying to move to a higher ground of commonality in the midst of our diversity.

From Conversation to Argument and Negotiation

My second observation reminds me once again that the path from stranger to friend leads first through conversation. “Can we talk?” asked the Conference. I have spent a lot of time in the past fifteen years cultivating the art of circle conversations They have constituted core practices in restorative justice programs like JustPeace in the United Methodist Church or in my own congregation’s embrace of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations. These practices continue to be emphasized in our peace conferences. They are the indispensable beginning of efforts to repair our civic order. However, it was also apparent to me that conversation alone cannot repair the public realms so savaged by recent attacks by despots and oligarchs.

Circles of conversation must lead to development of the arts of argument and negotiation if we are to restore our public life. Argument requires the ability to articulate a position, whether it is a factual claim, a policy proposal, a judgment or a law, and then to defend it with appeals to common convictions and understandings. Argument depends on a world of common sense and of scientific validation that is being assaulted by authoritarians of all stripes. Without it there can be no work of persuasion. Every difference is reduced to the assertion of force. In resorting to authoritarian bullying rather than reasonable argument, we give up the fundamental assumption of republican governance.

Yet even argument is not enough. Public life is an engagement with negotiation among competing interests. Indeed, a frank recognition that we have interests and the ability to define and understand them clearly is necessary to the public negotiation that constitutes a democratic order. Whether this involves the work of compromise, in which we have to sort out lesser from greater priorities, or imaginative solutions that transcend original positions in an argument, we must develop arts of negotiation that secure a world in which all of us can continue to exist and even flourish together. This is, of course, the work of diplomacy, another recent casualty of the march toward coercion in the midst of fear and threat.

My old friend Russell Pregeant led a workshop at the Conference around his recent book, For the Healing of the Nation: A Biblical Vision. Its title draws on the vision of the tree “whose leaves are for the healing of the nations” in Revelations 21-22. This image inspired a tapestry by Sylvia many years ago and we brought it to the workshop. It remains in my mind as think about how the interfaith work of peacebuilding requires more than the juxtaposition of traditions. It requires conversations that lead to coherent argumentation and responsible negotiation. Even more, it requires imagination that leads us into a future we do not simply build from our past. There is a spirit of creativity that presides over our future work. It is a work of seeing the stranger, of listening, and speaking from our own hearts in conversation, argument, and negotiation. This is the work by which we seek to live into that more perfect republic grounded in God.

“For the Healing of the Nations” — Sylvia Everett


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The Dramas of Life

I recently flew over the snow-covered mid-west to Moorhead, Minnesota, across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota, to celebrate my daughter Elaine’s birthday. (Yes, she is a Valentine!) My son-in-law Steve, who is a lawyer in Moorhead, asked me if I would be willing to play the role of a witness in a semi-final round of the National Trial Competition, which is sponsored by the National Trial Lawyers and the Texas Young Lawyers Association to help law students develop trial advocacy skills. Teams of students from law schools across the country prepare to argue for the plaintiff or defendant in a colorful and complex case prepared by the Texas group. Local judges preside at these mock trials to identify students who have honed the best practices in litigation at this point in their young careers. This old ethicist, who never got to serve on a jury, couldn’t refuse the bait. We went over to the Cass County Courthouse in Fargo to be sorted into courtrooms for the two-hour trials.

The case arose from the electrocution death of a grain sampler at a grain elevator in “Armadillo, Lone Star,” whose brass grain sampling pole hit a power line over the tracks where the grain cars were being loaded. I was given 66 pages of depositions, exhibits, and related materials to study in order to play an expert witness whose testimony sought to exonerate the grain elevator company.

All four lawyers, representing plaintiff and defendant, were women, yet another testimony to the preponderance of women in most law school student bodies. I was struck by their professional manner, their poise, their preparation, and their knowledge of courtroom protocol and etiquette. Competition rules forbade me from knowing anything about their school or background. The other role players were in their twenties. I was the sole representative of the age cohort depicted in the case. The courtroom was small, stuffy, and hot, a strange contrast with the below-zero temperatures outside, leading me to shed several layers of outerware (one of which had to be retrieved by Steve later!). When I finally took the stand, I tried to remember my “facts” and provide a convincing cover of expertise for a world of agriculture and engineering far from my everyday world.

The case was, of course, a fabrication, complete with occasional irony and humor from its Texas authors. But the importance of the occasion was evident in the seriousness with which everyone took it. I felt like I was a real witness in a real cross-examination. They said I did very well, but I know my mouth was dry and I am sure my blood pressure was higher than normal! In fact, it was a drama within a drama, a play within the rituals of law that anchor and facilitate our efforts to find justice in a world of tragic ambiguity and ceaseless deception. Without its dramatic structure the courtroom and the law is reduced to the mere power tactics of the rich and powerful. Indeed, the play’s the thing!

The point in the Trial Competition was not to reach a verdict on the case but to evaluate the students’ performance, so I left after my testimony in order to cross back over the Red River into Moorhead, where we went to the spacious High School auditorium to make sets for “The Little Mermaid,” in which my granddaughter Hazel was to be a Sea Lagoon Creature and a Lagoon Animal. Somehow, the technical director must have sensed I was a woodworker, for I was soon shunted into the workshop backstage to make wooden ornaments for thrones and panels on a bandsaw and scroll saw whose blades were far past their “replace by” dates. Students from ages 12 to 16 scurried about nailing, fastening, painting, and hammering, some in anticipation of their dramatic roles, others, with parents in tow, joining in for the fun.

As I cut and fastened, I began to realize that while I was far from the formal drama of the courtrooms across the river, I was still in a play. The play of fantasy was mirroring the play of justice across the river. In spite of the contrast I was still fashioning the framework of a dramatic script for entering into adult life, if not into its full public experience. Indeed, without these dramatic forms, whether of courtroom and theater, classroom and hospital, we could not engage “real life” at all. For the children it was a drama that might enable them to begin to enter the roles of powerful adults, whether mythical or fantastic. For the courtroom, it was a drama that might enable us to pass from a world of chaotic arbitrariness to one of justice and order. I came away grateful for both and marveling that I could have experienced them in one afternoon.

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Galactic Sipapu

I hear that every spiral galaxy

            has only one black hole,

an eye to look into the nothing

            that contains the light of stars too vast to count,

            the memory of the energy released to birth a universe

            hidden in a womb that bears


            the singular child

            leading us to universes

            yet to be revealed.


Astrophysicists, like the stargazers, bards, and astrologers of ancient times, supply us with some of the most powerful images for transcendence in our own time. Loyal readers of this journal know that the black hole has conjured up a number of ways for me to look beyond the world we know to see the deeper texture of reality. That the singularity evidenced in a black hole might be the beginning of a whole new universe merges here with ancient Navajo and Hopi constructions of a hole (the sipapu) in the floor of their kivas to symbolize the birth connection of this world with the next. That the black hole is itself could be a kind of cosmic womb leads me back to more traditional Christian visions.

I share this simply as a note from the underground of my wonderment. Next time you think you might have a handle on our world, take a look at some photographs from the Hubble telescope. Breathe deeply. Exhale. Wonder.

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