Spirals and Labyrinths at Easter

This year our Easter experience emerged as an exploration of the spiral that is often seen to be at the source of all life, whether in the galaxies of space or the double helix of our DNA.

For Holy Week we helped build a labyrinth of stones in the Sanctuary space, led by Scott Taylor, our Director of Music and the Worship Arts here at First United Methodist Church of Waynesville, North Carolina. During the week, we and others walked the labyrinth, often carrying a pebbleLabyrinth 2016-1_web we placed among the stones as we walked. Palm branches lay at its entrance to lead us from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The walk of the labyrinth has become very popular in recent years, probably as a way of reclaiming the spiral of creative power at the heart of life in a world of so much destruction, disruption, and anger. A small journal was placed on a lectern so we could leave our thoughts behind for others.

On Saturday the stones were removed and Sylvia’s new art pieces were placed in the sanctuary. They consisted of two 14-foot panels of sumptuous fabric glowing against he cherry walls. The paraments on the pulpit and lectern, as well as runners on the altar table, echoed their vibrant, almost iridescent gold. Here is what she said about them:

Banner LeftThese two panels, with echoes of the theme in the paraments, are a visual meditation on the gathering and dispersing of life energy. This energy, which some of us call God, is most readily recognized by us when condensed into a finite, earthly manifestation, such as a human life, a tree, or a flower. On a grander scale we recognize light, love, music, and the cosmos as other showings. These mysteries are both metaphor and reality at the same time.

The Righteous Branch (The “Gathering” on the left)

In the story we call “The Stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11) we trace the genealogy from Jesse through several generations to culminate in the birth of Jesus. In this panel I have attempted to use this story as an example of the gathering creative life energy until it becomes manifest as a new life. The dark form at the bottom of the panel represents this “stump” which will grow through succeeding generations as it flows upward. The spiral, found throughout creation, represents the coming together of this flow of energy as the birth of Jesus.

The Flower Full Blown (The “Dispersing” on the right)

Here the life-giving energy flows out of the dark cave of death/renewal toward the spiral of dispersion. The life force which became manifest in the birth of a child has grown and matured. The flower has become full blown.Banner Right It is once again returned to its source, but not lost or dissipated. It is in this ebb and flow that we participate, both in our lives and in our faith.

The great cosmic manifestation of this gathering and dispersing is the birth and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Each panel moves from a place of darkness through successive places of light. The blue and white crosses we observe in our central window above them come together and dissolve as a motif in the panels. The flames in the window become sparks given off by the suggested intense heat and light in the spirals. The pieced background refers to our Appalachian “crazy quilts” where bits of precious fabrics were used to form a new whole.

As Sylvia worked on these pieces over the past months, we talked often about what to name this “life force,” which we have tried to capture with words like “God,” “Allah,” “Creator,” and the like. But it is always a reality beyond naming, as we learn in the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moreover, it is bound into the core of our very existence, not as isolated individuals but as creatures within a lineage transmitted by DNA as well as the collective DNA of our libraries, customs, language, habits, and manners. So the DNA fragments came to be a kind of linkage of incarnation, the bridge between the material and the spiritual, the mundane and the transcendent.

This is a precious linkage, as our ethical disputes over gene research, preservation of memory, and respect for deep traditions tell us. But there is always a power transcending as well as working through that which binds us together over time and space. I hope that these pieces from her mind and hand will continue to arouse wonder and conversation as we walk the labyrinth of life in the years ahead.

Easter 2016 Lower

Posted in Arts, Personal Events, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Trumpism and the Struggle for (Re)Public(an) Life

Like most Americans and many of you in other countries, I have been trying to put together my own understanding and response to the rise of a vicious demagogue to be the putative Republican nominee to the US Presidency. While there are people much more informed about our political life who can trace the fracturing of the Republican party to its so-called “Southern strategy” and its inability to address the aching injustices of poverty and disintegrating local communities, my own thoughts have turned to some key themes that have been with me since I wrote God’s Federal Republic some thirty years ago.

In that book I traced the way our deep desire for personal confirmation finds expression in a desire for fuller public life as well as in demonic forms of narcissism and fraudulent celebrity. There are two deep religious strands in us: a yearning for “publicity” and for covenantal relationship. The first is the ground for our desire to found and preserve republics which can maximize our public life; the second builds a commitment to forms of federalism (derived from covenant) that knit these republics together in more expansive care for the common earth we inhabit.

This drive for publicity has now secured a technology that threatens the very covenants that hold us together as a people. You’re carrying it in your pocket or purse right now. That is, every individual is able and encouraged to become a kind of celebrity universe who Tweets, “likes,” and Instagrams his or her way to ever more expansive forms of celebrity fame. Donald Trump, along with ISIS and other terrorists, is its most virulent expression.

But not everyone can become a narcissistic universe, and so most of us live through virtual surrogates whom we follow in the digital universe. But in following these surrogates we expose ourselves to their power to shame as well as save us. (David Brooks has just written insightfully about this in “The Shame Culture,” New York Times, March 15, 2016.) Trumpism is only its most obvious expression. In building up a following of “the saved” they cast others into a fearful world of “others.” Their salvation becomes a cataclysm of vengeance and banishment. Narcissistic leaders seek to build a universe of Black Holes sucking everything else into them.

The decision to follow others to our own heart’s goal is found in every religious tradition, whether the figure we follow is Jesus, Mary, Muhammed, Moses, or even Buddha. And these religious tendencies can be hijacked at any time by the authoritarians and demagogues among us. Of course, every profound religious tradition also has traditions that lead us deep into our own hearts and souls to find the Holy One within, directly communing with our whole self. That, we know, is very hard to do. It takes disciplines of meditation, prayer, study, and service outside ourselves.

And yet it is precisely this claiming of a self grounded in confirmation before the One who presides in a greater Republic and a fuller Covenant that enables us to begin to think, feel, hope, and love in a wider and deeper way. In one sense, our problem is not so much the technology of digital communication as it is the destruction of smaller communities of truth-testing, cooperation, and face-to-face conflict resolution where we can participate in common work to change our lives and our world. In spite of the ravages of globalized capital, massive militaries, and sclerotic national politics, local communities can still be the places genuine public life and sustaining covenants can emerge. (I was especially encouraged recently by the “American Futures” work of James and Deborah Fallows, who published their findings in the March 2016 Atlantic as “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together.”)

I hope that our more engaged and informed citizens can resist the demagogue flailing in our midst, even though much damage has already been done. And I hope that out of this we can begin to deal more thoughtfully and energetically with the financial, political, and economic forces that have kept generations of my fellow citizens from participating fully in the publics and the economies in which they live. It begins in local communities—religious, civic, mutual aid, and voluntary associations—where we once again ignite a flame of citizenship through which to address our need to care for the earth and other creatures on whom we depend for life.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

My Life with Words, Images, and Acts

Words, images, acts. They constitute the three-legged stool of my life. This is a matter of not only where I sit but of how I express myself in the world, see the world, and seek to change it. Yet, as Roger Cohen points out in his recent New York Times column, “Smartphone Politics,” of February 22, the connection between word, image, and act has become strangely unsettled, not only in our public life, but in how to proceed in my own. The way we combine them to form communication in a digital age is reshaping our deepest relationships.

I grew up in words, the building blocks of sentences. Each sentence helped build a paragraph, each paragraph an argument. Words and thinking were the engine and the car, inseparable in navigating a human life. The words I learned to use were lawyerly, realistic, scientific—the kind you saw in the mail-order catalogs or the hardware store describing articles to buy and use. They were the words of prose that filled my National Geographics, even while I imagined I was climbing Everest or descending into the ocean’s depths.

But as a child I also heard and used words that spoke beyond the hard and fast reality of common sense. They spoke of flying dragons and of my imaginary friends, whom I named Friends, Corners, and Britches. They existed in my mind and were my closest companions, but they weren’t, my mother said, “real.” With them I knew that words could build a fictional world. And so, I have written some fiction, but that isn’t the main way I seek to go beyond the conventionally “real.” That came with words the poets use.

It was in my teens that I found the world of poetry, where words could conjure up realities existing only in the spiderweb of connotations and images they constructed in strange juxtapositions, jarring expectations of ordinary logic and perception. They argued without arguing, created worlds without a formula, evoked emotions without visible instructions. Poetry is how I plumb the emotional depths to find a way between perception and action.

While I have learned to use all three types of words and writing, I still find it hard to enter into one type without giving up the others for a while. So now I am working back in prose as I decipher the meaning of old photographs and correspondence by my grandparents. Poetry and fiction scuttle to the sidelines as I strive for clarity about what “really” happened a century ago on Cyprus at the copper mine of Skouriotissa.

With that book on its way to find a publisher I have turned to another work of recollection—assembling photos of Sylvia’s thirty years of artistic production so we can create a complete catalog for a revised version of our website, WisdomsTable.net. So I am once again absorbed in a world of images—images that are not recording people and places of a land, but images of works in cloth, mosaic tile, yarn, paper, and found materials that take us beyond our everyday world to one of more transcendent meanings. It is the world of the “ineffable word” intimated in this stitchery from her Wisdom Series.

The Ineffable Word, by Sylvia Everett

The Ineffable Word, by Sylvia Everett

Just as I am absorbed more deeply into working with these images, I am buffeted, as are you, with shocking images pouring from the electronic devices in our living rooms, our pockets, on our desktops, in our waiting rooms and restaurants. Raw images of politicians bellowing for our loyalty, of catastrophes off the shores of Greece as people flee barbaric atrocities of war, of seductive blandishments by manufacturers and marketers. Images, as Roger Cohen says, short-circuit thought—the thought that comes in words, sentences and paragraphs. As images overwhelm our political process, thought and reason recedes, the demagogue holds sway, conflicts seek their resolution in violence rather than negotiation and persuasion.

Perhaps this unease between image and word is what has turned me increasingly to the importance of rituals—the acts that seek to form the disciplines of living in our world without being reduced to it. In particular it is the rituals of listening, praying, speaking, gesturing, and walking through the choreography of worship. These are the kinds of acts that form the third leg of my stool. They create a still point where I can let my words wrestle with my images, discover and assess their meanings, and evaluate their truth or import for my life.  In all the distractions of smartphones, TV, radio, and breaking news, these times of ritual come to be my central nervous system for response, for judgment, for genuine expression, and for relationships that endure.

As Sylvia and I sort through the many images of her work we sometimes have to re-assess their proper names, when they were created, where they might now reside. Even as we name, explain, and locate we know that it is the image itself which is speaking in its own way. It is a work of image and word, but it is also a work of providing a space for rituals in which to integrate them in a life that is whole and healing. Many of these works have been created to shape times of worship—in  churches, at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, and in workshops over many years. Others are for personal meditation and illumination, as is the process of creating these works itself. These images lead us to connect word and act in new ways.

In the cacophonies and distractions of the present I am aware of my need for a balance among the work of words, of images, and rituals. I think we all need some sort of stool like this. How does this process look from where you are sitting? Let me know, by whatever image, word, or act you want to use.

Posted in Arts, On Writing, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Gaul of Grace: Thoughts at Lent

It’s Lent again. It’s the season of the Christian year looking for a suitable practice beyond Mardi Gras and ashes. Do we give something up that’s “bad” for us? Do we take on a service project? Do we pray more? Study more? Our church puts out a booklet of brief meditations by our members that everyone is asked to read, providing something common to think and talk about for forty days that is not consumed by the daily deluge of media incitements to groan, purchase, desire, or flee.

"Stations of the Cross (2004), by Sylvia Everett

“Stations of the Cross (2004), by Sylvia Everett

When I was asked to contribute something this year, I was given the Scripture passage in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter two, verses 15-21. Here’s today’s academic note: Galatia was a region in modern Turkey named for the Gauls that the Romans brought there as soldiers when they took over. I couldn’t fit that in my little meditation because they told me I had 500 words or less. It was the passage that turned around the life of Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century, igniting the Protestant Reformation. I had been over this ground before, but not in 500 words. Here’s some of what I said:

We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This simple sentence turned Martin Luther’s life around and began the Reformation of the 16th century. In his time it meant the overturning of the monastic disciplines of penitence and good works, the end of a celibate clergy, and the radical transformation of a church establishment that had grown rich by extorting money from Christians with the promise of heavenly bliss. But what might it mean for us today in a society that has lost most of the conditions that Luther rebelled against? Yes, many of us are still trapped in a religion based on rigid rules and doing good things in this life in exchange for an eternal life of blessedness. This message is still a liberating one where Christian faith has been reduced to obeying the law, doing good works, being nice, and upholding community life, even when our hearts are mired in fear, anxiety, and bitterness.

Even if we feel liberated from this strait-jacket of moral self-concern, we can see that there are other “works of the law” that seek to command our inner souls: the feverish idolatry of economic growth and its accompanying ecological destruction, the anxiety of trying to be famous in a celebrity culture, the endless temptation to seek security through violence in response to violence, and the daily struggle to live up to the standards of others. Many of us are crushed by the demand to live up to some false ideal of “womanhood” or “manhood.” Many of us cannot buy the things that can tell the world we are OK. We all can name the “works” through which we seek to justify and secure our existence, even as they cannot heal the deep alienation and anxiety within us.

That’s not all I wrote, but these thoughts have kept reverberating in my noggin ever since. Through conversations with family, friends, and myself I thought of how much we are struggling between moral exhortations to do the right thing and our soul’s inner need for confirmation beyond moral perfection and for expressions of our hearts beyond mere obedience. Some of us struggle with obsessive self-demands to be perfect in every way, controlling our anxiety with rituals that diminish and enslave us. Others live in constant fear that such an imperfect world will collapse around us in an apocalypse. Others are paralyzed by the enormity of the moral crises of ecological destruction and mental illness and addiction. Still others are driven to deception and violence to bring in a lost Eden or a promised land.

The very good that we would do (and ought to do!) becomes the source of the fear and anxiety that enslaves and destroys our sense of worth as human beings. The prophets of Goodness, including the ones in the pulpits, become the bearers of our psychic death.  But not only our psychic death: In our frantic desire to do good, we fail to realize that our own well-intentioned acts can yield destructive consequences.

Once these realizations pile on, I start really living in Paul’s dilemma. But Paul experienced release from this prison of anxiety. In his experience, he simply gave up, dying into the life beyond death he experienced in being blinded by the light of what he called the resurrected Christ and being resurrected by living into this new life, with its vision of loving grace.  While this new life was still “in the flesh,” he wrote “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In the deeply frightening act of letting go, Paul is captured and upheld by the underlying love of God—the Creator and also the Redeemer of all creation.

All this has been rumbling around in me, trying to slough off the barnacles of two thousand years of pious verbiage and open the kernel of Wisdom here. It is not just a matter of finding some practice that can alleviate or shield us from the pain inherent in the gap between our world and a “perfect world,” whether it is meditation, diet, or massage. It is in finding within the power of forgiving love the budding of a new way of living. For Paul it was simply to feel the “love of God.” The life of gratitude, of love, and dignity and power that confirmed his soul could now be the lattice of a new ethic, a new way of life that arises from loving embrace of the Giver of Life rather than fear of failing to do the right thing.

Well, it was radical in Paul’s day, radical in Luther’s, and equally radical in our own. As we are crushed in so many ways beneath the enormity of moral failure in our world, it still seeks to present itself as the “Way” into a life beyond the deaths we fear. Well, in Paul’s day they called it simply “the Way,” sort of a Tao of new life. This may not have helped you take another step, but that’s the one I’ve been thinking about. Maybe I’ll even take a few more baby steps. Let me know about yours. I’ve included a mosaic Sylvia put together out of broken beer bottles as an image to take with you.

Posted in Ethics, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments