Reflections on the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference

Last Sunday we concluded four days devoted to the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, we have been involved in for the past seven years. This year’s theme was “Longing for Peace/Exploring the Heart of God.” Over 200 people assembled in a space that Sylvia had set with a beautiful focus table as well as other art around the room. Behind the table was a large blue scroll painted like a Hubble Telescope view of the universe. Before it was a kind of glass curtain, reminding me of St. Paul’s phrase “Now we see through a glass darkly…” It was a way of combining awe before the

Rabbi Or Rose before the Peace Conference focus table

Rabbi Or Rose before the Peace Conference focus table

mystery of God’s creativity with a sense that we are on a journey of discovery. On the table were the three candlestands representing the three Abrahamic faiths, for the Conference is at heart an invitation to an interfaith journey to peace-building.

Leading us in this intense conversation were Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin’s in the Fields parish church in London and formerly Dean of the Chapel at Duke University; Rabbi Or Rose, Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College; and Rabia Terri Harris, the founding Director of the Muslim Peace Fellowship. Woven all through our experience was the music of Yuval Ron and his musicians, drawing us into the musical traditions emanating from the cultural cradles of this varied religious tradition.

Each left us with reverberating memories. Rabia Harris spoke about “the Project of God”—the ongoing dynamic of God’s self-revelation in and through the world, a dynamic which continually leads us into new healing beyond the false polarities of the moment. She cautioned us against despair, believing that the world is incoherent, and against a techno-optimism that we can fix everything. As we seek to go beyond our nature of fear and greed for the sake of a more encompassing need of nature for wholeness, we need to remember that  “it is better to be melted by love than shattered by force.”

Or Rose reminded us of the depth of the meaning of the Bible’s prohibition of idolatry, a command that is at the core of all these traditions. Idolatry takes so many forms—ethnic groups, nations, the market, the sports team, the self—that we don’t see its many disguises, all of which lead us away from the mysterious God who is working for the peace and healing of the world, “Tikkun Olam.” The idolatry of religion has to always remember that our mission is to be A light to the world. We are never the only light, but we are to let our light shine as A light. We need to learn to walk with other lights as sacred companions, in Hebrew, as Havrutha.

Sam Wells pointed out how a Trinitarian sense of God means that God is intrinsically in relationship. The making and healing of broken relationship is the divine work. Peace-building is not some “expression” or “consequence” of a God-experience but its very essence. Going into the heart of God is to go into the journey toward peace. In taking this journey we need to avoid the temptation to the drug of violence as well as the oblivion of despair. The crucifixion tells us that it is a journey even beyond the bounds of life as we know it. The resurrection tells us that new and victorious life is the goal of peace.

And then, like a mushroom cloud of our present traumas, the news from Paris and Beirut burst upon us. One of our global prayer partners in the conference was the American Church of Paris, which was conducting services and extending services of compassion even as we were praying for all those suffering from the brutal upheavals of a Middle-Eastern political order that is in increasing collapse. Our purpose lay in our midst as well as before us.

Knowing that “religion,” and specifically the Abrahamic faiths at the core of our understanding and longing are thoroughly implicated in this violence as well as the compassionate search for healing makes this kind of assembly even more important. Amid the decay of rationalist certainty and utopian political visions we need to find the deeper ground from which emanates both our desire for peace as well as our capacity to live into it and out of it.

Well, this gives you some words to reflect on, but it doesn’t give you the music, the conversation, the moments when there were tears as well as laughter. “You had to be there.” Yes, you can come next year, when the theme will focus on Climate Change. I will have further thoughts in an upcoming posting, but I wanted you to get a flavor of what we have been doing here in recent days.

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Remembering Jim Fowler

My dear friend of fifty years, James W. Fowler III, died on October 16 after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease that lasted over 12 years. Jim was famous for his work on faith development, a project he started soon after he entered into a life of teaching and research. His Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, was translated into several languages and became standard reading in theological and pedagogical institutions aroundFowler Festschrift 5-100 the world. I only wish more people would heed his insights when they foist mini-sermons on unsuspecting five-year olds in church services! Jim went on in his final decade to lead Emory’s Ethics Center as it found its feet in the multi-verse of a sprawling complex of teaching and research where he was situated.

As towering, as they say, as he was in the academic world, Jim was also more than that. He was a man of our mountains, who could talk with the roughest worker of roads and fields in our county as well as utter poignant prayers at the bedstead of our neighbor and friend Charlie Goodson as he lay dying. It was Jim who took me to lunch at the Golden Buddha near Emory one day over twenty-five years ago to tell me about the parcel of land that was available next to his recently completed retirement cottage on the slope of Wolfpen Mountain. We would sit, as we planned that day, on one of our decks in our later years, sip bourbon (George Dickel) and talk theology. His disease robbed us of that experience, but we still crammed in a lot of others through the years.

His wife Lurline asked me to make a few remarks at his funeral, knowing that I would turn to poetry to draw out some of our common thanks and grief. As I turned to my inner thoughts I remembered that Jim was towering in a literal as well as an intellectual sense. Above all, the image of his hands came before me and led me to the poem I share today. I’ll begin with the prefatory remarks I made last Saturday at his well-attended funeral service at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, situated on the Emory campus. I hope it gives you a sense of the man and why so many people were touched by his life.


As I sat down in the student seat for my first class at Harvard fifty years ago a large hand reached around from the man in front of me. A warm voice said, “Hi, I’m Jim Fowler.” And so our friendship began. Seminars and conversations formed the friendship of our minds, while earnest, hard contested handball games left us sweating and laughing at a nearby gym.

I soon learned about his heart’s home in the mountains of western North Carolina, little knowing that our lives would finally intertwine on the mountain that he and Lurline chose for their retirement years and where we have had a home for the past twenty-five years.

And I learned that he was full of gratitude and praise, praise I sometimes thought too lavish for some of those around him—until he started praising me. This was my first evidence that his faith was at a higher stage than my own!

But this expansive praise and gratitude really said that he was thankful for his life, a life he shared with others—a life that needed ever-deeper and broader community, a dream that many of us here today lived into over the years. So we, too, can lift our minds, hearts, and voices in praise and gratitude.

Toward the end of his mental life, we sat together for a long lunch on my deck, going over his poetry file—various writings that expressed his thoughts in forms beyond his academic prose. And so, as I have tried to integrate his spirit and his memory into mine, I turn to a form that he loved, and to his hands. Hands that reached out to me as they have to so many others over the years. Hands that are an image to me of his life. And so I share these words with you.

He was within his hands

            so deep,

            his hands so large and powerful

            to hold us up,

            to bear with us.

They were capacious as his heart,

          spread open so that they could hold it,

          give it out to everyone

           as if a heartless world would faint and fall without its warmth.

They were as supple as his mind,

         shaping thoughts,

         kneading them until they formed

          a bread to share with us.

And they were quick,

snapped shut

in rhythm with his quips and booming laughter

leaping from his mouth like

startled deer

bounding out of unseen lairs.

Yes, they could clench themselves,

impatient with an obdurate unforgiving world.

They were such human hands in that.

But they could also place a diamond

         on another’s finger

         on a mountaintop

         where his heart’s home remains.

And from his fingertips through lettered keys

         flowed forth the streams of words

         in faith that someone out there listens and responds.

They were hands that spoke of mountains overflowing

  with an apple spring of blossoms

  filled with hope, longing for the sun.

As we walked up the mountain that he loved,

  we stumbled to each higher bald

  through thickets full of blackberries and briars,

  and paused at each successive view,

  where stretching out his hands

  he threw up exclamations of his gratitude,

  “So Beautiful,” he shouted to the hills.

Even when the verbs ran off,

          the scaffold of his grammar washed away,

  the hands still lifted up and brushed against the sky to utter


  as we looked into rainbows gestured by his circling hands.

When we finally reached the top

 and looked around bewildered by the grandeur of it all,

 he stood still beyond the words,

 his head above the world,

 his supplicating hands reached out,

 became the words themselves,

 his face

 flash flushed

 against the brilliant sun,

 burning radiant with God’s Glory.

Handed On

October 24, 2015


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The Great Migration

Refugees Welcome copyLike the rest of you I have been trying to get my mind and heart around the explosive migration of refugees from war, political collapse, and drought that has engulfed us in the past months. We have been living in a refugee crisis for some years now, but it has now burst into every corner of our media and consciousness. Our first response is to meet the immediate needs before us. Many people do this first-hand, whether by providing assistance or by making changes in their everyday life in order to accommodate the changing populations in their midst.

But even beyond this, we are having to think differently about the world we live in. We are having to see it in a new way. We say we have to get at the roots of the problem in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but as soon as we expose those roots—the vicious ideologies of fear and genocide, the greed, incompetence, and moral failure of oil-rich elites—we uncover others. Yes, we are living in the inevitable collapse of the artificial boundaries and “nations” created in the wake of the twentieth century’s World Wars and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Yes, we are reaping the whirlwind of economic and religious mal-formation fed by our insatiable demand for Middle-Eastern oil. Yes, we Americans are feeling the hot blast of the blow-back from our disastrous military misadventures in the region. And yes, we are seeing the inevitable repercussions of the ecological devastation that is emerging as part of the global climate change our fossil-fuel addiction has brought about.

Yes, all this. And we are reeling, just as the actual families in flight to a better life are staggering, weeping, and dying. What good can come of this, we want to know? Where is the welcoming hand of Providence in this harsh spectacle of collapse and misery? Vast migrations have occurred before in history. Our country was created by them. The whole history of humanity is the story of migration. Is there anything to be learned here? Anything to be learned yet once again?

What has constantly assailed me in the past few weeks, with the images of suffering masses walking, sailing, flying, and fleeing toward a better life, is the way we are being knit together more and more in one global household—one “oikos,” as I have been saying for over thirty years. The tragic chasm in which we exist and which threatens us often with despair, is that we have not developed the social, governmental, and economic structures to enable us to live together sustainably on this amazing globe. Yes, we live in the hands of a global imperative as well as a quaking of the old orders of tribe and nation. As we seek to get our own country to absorb more newcomers and work with others to bring about more just and stable orders elsewhere, we need to keep our eye on the possible emergence of higher orders of governance, cooperation, and ecological responsibility to sustain not only our common humanity but the common world that is our home. Out of the ashes, even the destruction of ancient monuments, might yet emerge more brightly the vision of the blue planet the astronauts have seen from the blackness of space. Let’s look for it, like we look for the evening star.

Thanks for reading. Thanks even more for your own thoughts.


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Mortality, Autonomy, and Craft

I have been reading two books lately about two very different topics that engage the same basic question: How can we act as genuine individuals in a society that treats us all as interchangeable consumers of goods and services? One, that spoke directly to themes in Sawdust and Soul, was The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford. His earlier book, Shop Class as Soul Craft had caught my imagination and I wanted to follow up on that theme. The other was Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and medical writer in Boston, whose earlier pieces in The New Yorker evinced great wisdom and insight. Besides, my wife and reading companion Sylvia had recommended it to me.

Crawford is a philosopher and a motorcycle mechanic in Virginia. I’m not sure which of those things he does at night and which is his day job. They are probably churned together. Most of his academic conversation partners swim in the currents of German philosophy—Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and the like. But his boat seems to be constructed more out of the traditions of American pragmatism with an admixture of Michael Polyani’s insights. But don’t worry about that. What he is trying to say is that our own fetish of individualism has been based in a wrong-headed notion that we had to detach from the world around us and from traditions of work and action in order to become truly free individuals who act according to our own will and reason. However, what we need is not this detachment but engagement in the practices of the great craft traditions that demand the movement of our body as well as our mind. We are embodied selves who learn and think most fully and uniquely when we are engaged in practical activity that relates us to a whole community enduring over generations, whether that be carpentry, sailing, organ-building, or, yes, cooking.

All of this is built up with an argument that takes us into the insidious manipulations of the gambling (not “gaming”) industry as well as the fascinating and resurgent craft of building organs. It is a rich itinerary, indeed. I was struck, of course, with the parallels with what John and I were trying to get at in Sawdust and Soul. “Mindful meditation,” as I put it, is a way of engaging mind and hands with wood in order to find a kind of transcendence in the real-world particular. Just as John and I found a re-anchoring of our lives in this practical activity with natural materials, so Crawford is finding a more generous lever to get at the destructive forces of consumer culture as well as the liberating possibilities opened up by commitment to the craft traditions.

What has this to do with the reflections of a surgeon? A lot, it turns out. Gawande opens his exploration with a chapter on “The Independent Self,” in which he shows how most contemporary medicine approaches us as customers and the physician as a vendor who describes the various options and then asks us to choose among them out of our relative ignorance. This vendor-customer model was meant to replace the paternalism of “the doctor knows best” that pervaded medicine in an earlier age and still does in many rural areas. However, this notion of the individual as consumer, with its assumption that prolonging the life of the individual’s body is the main goal of medicine, is also a mistaken understanding of who we are as persons. For Gawande, we want to be authors of a coherent life story that makes sense within a community of memory and hope. Crawford is saying much the same thing in a different context. What we need is a guiding, informed conversation with physicians and medical care-givers about the meaning and purpose of our life. What goals and values do we want to pursue as our options for physical mobility and mental acuity diminish with age or impairment? Within this framework, then, doctor and patient can work together to maximize those goals and values.

This model of conversation and personally-tailored care also is emerging in the institutional models for living out our later years—a matter of increasing interest to people like me, for sure. Do we want to be “institutionalized” and fit into the routines and requirements of a “nursing home,” “retirement village,” or other large-scale “continuous care” facility? Or are there other options that enable each of us to maximize the specific goals and values we have for our lives? Gawande weaves his argument for new approaches through a number of case studies rather than forays into academic philosophy, although he picks up on Josiah Royce, one of my favorites in my college and graduate school years. Through his stories, we can try on some different scenarios to get a feel for their pain or their possibility.

In both books, then, the authors are calling for a new, embodied, way to author our identity, to live out our story in the most imaginative way we know. To do this, we will have to live against the grain of our society and find ways to remold it to enable each of us to live in conversation with our bodies, our natural world, and the communities that have shaped us and that we hope will receive our memory. It’s worth talking about. You can start with these partners, for sure.

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