Queen and Constitution

Queen Elizabeth II has been the only monarch of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth that I can remember. I am not alone, of course. Since her accession to the throne in February 1952 (when I was 11), she has presided over the wrenching emergence of nations from colonialism, the ongoing civil earthquakes of rapidly changing societies, the rise of the internet, the demographic pluralization of her own Great Britain and now the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. In all these 64 years she has represented the unity and culture of the English peoples in her domain. It is not a guarantee of peace, political wisdom, or cohesion, but it symbolizes a cultural glue that can help hold people in debate, common purpose, and shared memory.

When we Americans separated from England, some people wanted to retain some sort of monarch, hopefully George Washington, in order to play the same rule in our own fractious country. Instead, we chose the path of Constitutionalism. Rather than a person and a family line playing this unifying symbolic role, the Constitution would be our King. Instead of the law being a curb against the monarch, it would replace the monarch.

However, the search for some person or First Family to embody the emerging nation’s unity continued. It gradually found its expression in the office of the President of the United States of America. George Washington, who led our successful revolution, and Abraham Lincoln, who led the struggle to maintain political unity in our Civil War, were its first manifestations. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered this line in the twentieth century. Since World War II, the office of President accrued more and more symbolic power as the proper embodiment of our unity, ideals, and purposes. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan came to embody a person both “above” politics and yet engaged in it enough to secure the office. Barak Obama embodied the ideals, hopes, and visions of a broader unity in a more pluralistic America than the Founders could have envisioned.

In all this, Americans have been deeply ambivalent, because it is impossible to have a President who is both “above” the political fray (or outside it) and yet effective in office. Lyndon Johnson got more done than perhaps any President in modern times, yet he collapsed as a symbol of our unity in the cataclysms of 1968.

In all this yearning for a symbolic “monarch,” we have also continued to develop our devotion to the Constitution as our supreme King and Lord. It has taken both fundamentalist forms, as in the “originalism” of the late Justice Scalia, and more liberal forms that take account of history and context. The Supreme Court inevitably was asked to perform the high-priestly task of embodying the “living Constitution.”

Both these monarchical impulses are now at their breaking points. With the blocking of action on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee by the Republican majority in the Senate, the purely political character of the Court is now fully exposed. It may have lost its role of being the high priest of our Constitutional religion.

Similarly, with the election of Donald Trump as President, the impossibility for the President to serve this “higher” unifying function is clear for all to see. With his attack on ordinary citizens, his utter ignorance and narcissism, and his disdain for law and Constitution, not to mention his tribal tenor and image, he has forfeited the capacity and ever more clearly the possibility of playing this role.

What we face in this country is a conflict between those who would seek to preserve not only the words but the spirit of the Constitution over against those who would claim a now-vanishing “mandate” of “the One” to tear apart the bonds of civility, commonweal, and global leadership that have brought most Americans together since the mid twentieth century.

For reasons I have spelled out in various writings over the last thirty years, I have followed the path of Constitutional covenant rather than personal embodiment. However, I also see that we need our “saints,” who can express in some way the ideals, the values, the visions, and the civility that makes our common life possible. Some of them are Presidents. Lincoln and Obama, I think will both enter this line. But there are many others, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Eleanor Roosevelt who exercise the same authority. Even more importantly, we all have in our own states and communities individuals who embody the spirit of our highest ideals and common bonds. These are the “priesthood” of all who seek to live into that broader Constitutional spirit through acts celebrated and acts little known beyond their communities.

In what I believe is an emerging dark time for us it is in the reclaiming of these persons, their stories, their work, and their love of the common good uniting us that we will grow into our living Constitution to care for each other and care for this earth. Let’s get on with it.

 

Posted in Ethics, Public Life | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Hidden Life of Trees

As I walk, sit, work, live, and sleep in one of the world’s greatest hardwood forests, I am constantly aware of the world of trees around me. Cherry, walnut, ash, tulip poplar, locust, oak, maple, hickory, and many other species unknown to me send out their greenery, lose their branches, glow in autumn color, bend beneath the winter snow, and shower us with seeds and pollen when the sun is high in summer.

But I am not as conscious of the forest, of the whole organic system, that finds evidence in all these trees we name as Grandfather, Grandmother, and Old Ash. It is this life of the forest that has been opened up for me by Peter Wohlleben in his little book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (tr. Jane Billinghurst; Greystone Books, 2016). Wohlleben (fittingly, his name means good-life, even luxury) is a forester who cares for a special forest preserve in trail-in-fall-2015-webthe mountains south of Cologne (Köln), Germany. Out of his years of practical experience and the scientific research informing him, he has put together an evocative portrayal of how forests actually live and seek to survive.

From our individualistic and commercial worldview we see forests as a collection of trees, some of which are good for lumber (that’s my first interest) and others for less “valuable” purposes, like nuts, fruits, and animal habitat. Even now, loggers are taking out old tulip poplars from a parcel next to us on Wolfpen Mountain. Their trunks are trimmed and lashed to trucks bound for the sawmill. Just the other day I purchased some poplar boards for a project I am doing. This is the commercial transaction through which we view the forest.

But Wohlleben leads us into a forest of communication, where trees send out pheromones to alert others of insect attacks and diseases. Immense ganglia of fungi transmit messages among the trees about their stresses and reserves. Through intertwined roots, parent trees feed their offspring and friends on the forest floor. With their branches they restrict the youngsters’ growth to force them to build sturdy stems until they have their day in the sun. The soil itself is part of the life of the trees and they, through leaf mulch, rain diversion, and symbiotic life forms in their branches, nourish the earth.

We don’t sense this because the time of a tree is five, six, seven times that of a human. Even when trees break off at their base, new sprouts carry on their life. The basswood that fell along the trail a few years ago now has new shoots springing from its side. I see this all the time on “dead” logs in the forest around me. The forest invites me to extend my sense of time as well as of my connection to the life around me and in me.

Wohlleben’s empathic knowledge of his forest reminds me of the philosophies of organicism that were well developed by Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead at the turn of the last century. Whitehead’s theory of “internal relations” among the “actual occasions” constituting existence made a great impact on me earlier, as it did on all the proponents of a process philosophy and theology.

Germans especially have had a long romance with the forest primeval. Most of us were raised on stories by the Brothers Grimm and others that draw on the mystery of the woods’ rich depth and darkness. But there is also an abundance of research now to show us how the forest is a living organism, how it is a part of our lungs, of our medicinal armament, and, in its patient growth and dying, a resonant dimension of our spirits as well. Its welfare, with the oxygen it provides and the water it retains and purifies, is the measuring stick of our own welfare – our “Wohl-leben”— on this planet.

 

Posted in Ecology | Tagged | 3 Comments

Transgender Conversations

I live in the state with the famous “bathroom law” (HB 2) that the North Carolina Legislature, dominated by Republican extremists, passed in a one-day special session last Spring. Because it required people to use public bathroom facilities according to “the gender assigned to them at birth,” it nonsensically required people who look like men to use women’s restrooms and vice-versa. Perhaps because of its vicious ignorance it inspired large numbers of North Carolinians to study the Transgender reality more deeply. The Reconciling Conversations Group at our United Methodist Church here decided to do just that.

This Fall we were both educated and inspired by a group of Transgender women and men gathered together by Tranzmission, an organization in Asheville engaged in education, advocacy, and support for Transgender people. I want to tell you about the impact it made on me, one of over 50 people who attended some or all of the five sessions.

At the heart of our experience were simply the stories of the Transgender people who spoke with us. Laced with humor, photos, and printed handouts, their presentations led us beyond our own world of experience into theirs. What is it like to feel, from a very early age, that your own sense of who you are doesn’t fit the body you were born with? What does it mean to try to hide that “real self” in order to find the approval you so desperately crave as a child and young person? How do you deal with the impulse to end this existential split with suicide, drugs, or mental illness? What does it mean to find a person or a community that accepts you as you want to be? How does it feel to undergo the medical and surgical regimens to gain a body that fits your heart and mind? What happens when parents and families ostracize you or, as sometimes happens, accept you as their beloved child or sibling? Welcome to the journeys taken by Transgender persons.

No institution in our society has been more intolerant of people on this journey than the Church and other religious groups. And yet, again and again, it was sheer dogged faith that gave many of them the strength and grace to become who they really are. It was often a faith community that provided the love and confirmation we all need to blossom from the seed inside us. And so our conversations were not just about the individual experiences of Transgender people, they were about how faith communities can widen their embrace both to give encouragement and to receive the testimonies of those with a different story of body, self, and transformation.

In these conversations, hearing these stories, we realized once again that faith and understanding begins with an encounter with a real person who tells us their story. As a prelude to the celebration of God’s coming among us as “Immanuel,” we were experiencing a kind of Christmas revelation. No amount of statistics or scientific information can replace this encounter.

As with Gay and Lesbian people, we “cis gender” people learned that all of us have known Transgender people, but we have not recognized them because we haven’t heard their story. They have shared our families, our public lavatories, our churches, civic groups, and schools, but we have never been able to break the silence to listen to each other. Fear has silenced testimony, prejudice has darkened understanding. For most of us this was the first time we had ever had this chance to break the silence, deepen understanding, receive the gift of other people’s courage, grace, and laughter. We got some sense of how our feet might feel in their moccasins.

For many of us “straight” people, the world of Gay and Lesbian inclusion was familiar ground. The arduous path of the Transgender person was a new exploration. But both of these perspectives still worked with what we call a “binary” understanding of gender. One is either male or female, if not in anatomy then in psyche. However, these conversations were also opening the door to a more unsettling awareness that our sexuality and gender identity is spread out on a spectrum or is simply variable. We are in the body and in the world in a range of ways. In each configuration we are capable of great love or great hatred, great empathy and great loneliness. The life of the spirit is not confined to the way our bodies are made or our sexual identity or relationships take form. What the language of faith is saying is that our relationship with God the Creator is a matter of grace and spirit.

We are now struggling in the religious world between those communities and beliefs that limit the life of the spirit and of faith to a particular understanding of our biology and those that take as their starting point the life of the spirit as we seek relationship with the One who is our origin, sustenance, and end. These conversations were, as one of our participants said, a walk “on Holy Ground,” where we could sense this underlying fact of faith. I hope you, your religious community, or whatever group you belong to, can have this experience too. Here are some resources to get started. If you’ve already started this journey or been on it for a long time, let us know here!

www.Tranzmission.org

http://TransgenderLawCenter.org

http://transequality.org  (Source for latest and most extensive survey of Transgender life in the US, from 2015)

www.genderspectrum.org

www.rmnetwork.org  (Website of the Reconciling Ministries Network of the United Methodist Church. Go to “Resources”>Transgender.)

Posted in Ethics, Personal Events, Public Life, Roundtable Ministries Project, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , | 4 Comments

A Liturgy from the Roundtable Gathering

As close readers of this blog site already know, I gather every month with about fifteen other people at a round table for a time of circle conversation, prayer, song, and recommitment to the work of reconciliation. Urged on by Robert Steiner, my friend, pastor, clown, and songwriter/singer in Cape Town, as well as a few nudges from others, I thought it might be helpful to share our liturgy with you from time to time.

In this acrimonious time, when anger replaces thought and hatred of the other corrodes the love for even our friends and family, we need the power of the circle’s Spirit even more. In face-to-face conversation within the covenant of God’s care for us, we find the narrow gate out of this living prison of our fear. So the Roundtable Gathering has become even more important to me as the oasis to which I return to feed my spirit.

Thanks to the generous spirits of the “regulars,” it also enables me to share some of my liturgical impulses, which over the years have been a major avenue for my poetic life. Maybe you might want to adopt some of this pattern in your own spiritual life. Drawing on Abbie Hoffman’s memorable words “Steal this Liturgy” in whole or part. Steal away.

If you want to look into a fuller explanation of roundtable worship, you can read and download the little piece, Roundtable Worship: A Reflective Guide, that I put together with the group’s help a few years ago. Some elements of our liturgy are fairly set, adjusted only at our annual mini-retreat. Others change each month.

Each gathering focuses on a particular question that arises out of the experiences of the regular group’s members. Sometimes the focus is an art work of some kind. In November we gathered to seek a deeper center that could guide us through the difficult years that lie ahead for us in the wake of the US elections this year. Here’s the liturgy. Let me know if you find it useful for your own journey.

 Roundtable Gathering

November 20, 2016

Call to the Table

In the darkness of our journey,

You are light upon our way.

In the ocean of our tears

You create a life anew.

When our anger clouds our vision

You send a mirror of your love.

When our hungers drive us to despair,

You spread a table of your gracious care.

ALL: We come to your table, your table of peace.

Song of Invitation                        “Walls Mark our Bound’ries”

Remembrance

Elijah in the desert lived because the ravens brought him bread.

Daniel caged within the claws of power held the lions of his fear at bay.

Paul and Silas bound in jail held their captors in God’s care.

Mary known as Magdalene. astonished at an empty tomb, beheld a gardener as the resurrected one.

All held in God’s mysterious care, they bore witness to God’s love.

Reflective Moment           

Thanksgiving

O God of all Compassion,

For the love that gives us life, our hearts pour forth in praise. For the hand that soothes our pain, for the eye that understands, our lips respond with songs of  thanks. For the food we harvest from the bounty of your earth, we shout our gratitude. For your table of companionship we sing unending praise:

Thank You, God, Holy One.

Thank You God Creator*, Thank You God.

*Redeemer, Great Spirit

Nurture by Bread and Drink

“The bread of compassion”

“The cup of peace”

Reading: Romans 12: 3-13

The Conversation: What does God want to do with me now?

Gathered Prayers

The Hope Prayer

O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace.

Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Reflective Moment

Words of Commitment

In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Blessing Song: “We Are Walking a Path of Peace”

We are walking a path of peace (3X)

Lead us home, lead us home.

We are walking a path of love…etc.

We are walking a path of hope…etc.

 

Posted in Poetry and Songs, Roundtable Ministries Project, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment