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.

Posted in Poetry and Songs, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment

Our Struggle over Religious Freedom

On the heels of our day to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., comes a little known Religious Freedom Day to remember the commitment that anchors our Bill of Rights in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Many of us can recite the words — “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The date of January 16 was chosen for this day because it is the anniversary of the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786. Most Americans trace this fundamental right to Thomas Jefferson, the author of this resolution, but as John M. Barry has recently pointed out in Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul (2012), the long road to religious freedom in this country begins with Roger Williams.

In reading through Barry’s vigorous and well-documented narrative, I gained a new appreciation of this founding American figure, who is one of my ancestors on my mother’s side. Whether through DNA, family heritage, or cultural transmission I can see how my own work continues many of the ideas and values that inspired Williams. Moreover, the conflicts and commitments in which he struggled are as heated and important today as they were in his time. Indeed, I am also descended from those who contested with him in seventeenth-century America. Their controversy still echoes in conversations within myself as well as among my fellow citizens.

Williams and his wife Mary fled the religious and political persecution of Charles I and Archbishop William Laud and arrived in Boston in the winter of 1631, where he began serving as a minister in the small community that John Winthrop had just begun as a “citty upon a hill” to spread God’s Word and Law as a beacon to the world. In Williams’ subsequent resistance to the authoritarian religiosity of Winthrop’s “citty,” his eventual banishment from Salem into a winter storm, and his founding of the “plantation” that would become the state of Rhode Island we find the essential controversy over the meaning of religious liberty in this country.

On the one hand stands the freedom to create a holy community without outside interference. This was Winthrop’s colony of Massachusetts Bay. On the other hand is the freedom to follow the dictates of one’s own soul, unhindered by either religious or political authority. This is the freedom Williams sought, first in fleeing England, then in escaping the authority of Massachusetts and founding not only Rhode Island Plantation but also the first Baptist Church in America. It is a freedom he sought in leaving the Baptist church he founded to be a seeker, often in a remarkable companionship with the Wampanoags, Narragansetts and other Algonquin tribes whose language he learned and whose culture he esteemed.

The religious freedom Williams sought for each soul soon led to a defense of the political equality of all persons, including the Natives whose land, he held, was being unjustly taken from them and should only be settled with due compensation to them, the rightful owners of the land. Thus, Williams anchored political liberty in religious liberty. Just as religious liberty requires the civil liberties that his mentor Edward Coke saw as the core heritage of the English people, so it also requires that no “established” religion could dominate the civil order and require a religious conformity that violates the dictates of the soul’s own leading.

The conflict between Winthrop’s desire for the freedom to be a holy community and Williams’s search for freedom to follow the soul’s requirements has riven our common life ever since. In Winthrop’s mind, Williams’s commitment to soul liberty would finally undermine the common good anchored in the Puritan’s covenant with God. In Williams’s mind, Winthrop’s demand for conformity could only result in the damned hypocrisy of an outward show of religion devoid of its inner truth.

There is no simple way out of this controversy. The seemingly trivial conflict, now before our Supreme Court, over whether a baker must violate his soul’s dictate and sell a cake to a gay couple, is only a debased expression of it. Williams’s struggle for soul liberty was always an effort to reach a higher ethic of respect for the “Savages” whose hospitality saved his life, and for the refugees as well as scoundrels who flocked to Rhode Island for a new life. Soul liberty deepened the longing for community and truthfulness underlying any common good. There could be no common good without the integrity of the souls of the community’s citizens.

Williams’s “soul liberty” has indeed been widely debased into the freedom to fear the other, pursue self-interest, and ignore the inherent dignity and soul liberty of others. The holy commonwealth of Winthrop has likely been debased into “America first” and an arrogant disdain for the reasoned opinions of the world. However, Winthrop’s vision still asks whether America will indeed be a city of refuge for those fleeing oppression or simply a self-interested, greedy, and huckster-filled marketplace dominated by the code of caveat emptor. Likewise, Williams’s appeal to soul liberty still stands as an invitation to pursue a personal vocation of deep communion with God, with the strangers around us and with the land itself, on which we depend for our very life.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The Ashes Are Falling

Living in one of the world’s great temperate hardwood forests, I become familiar with the trees around me. Not all, by any means, because we have such an expanse of species, but I do know those that can be transformed into the bowls, turnings, cabinetry, and sculpted artifacts that release their beauty and strength into our realm of use or beauty. Trees talk to each other, support each other in the wind, share their resources, and dance their seasons of green, gold, red, grey, and brown. Some became old friends whose signs of age raise our concern, whose loss of limb or crown distress us, or whose seedlings volunteer to fill the spaces left by those long gone.

Over the centuries, they have adapted to their environment and the slow epochal changes of ice ages and hot or humid times. They live at an evolutionary pace. But we humans have dragged them into the faster tempo of our history. As we have spread across the globe, we have brought sicknesses and parasites that have overcome their natural resistance. The chestnut blight from China reduced the mighty chestnut to struggling sprouts among the stumps that testify to their former glory. The Dutch elm disease took down those stately witnesses to our streets and parks. The wooly adelgid decimated our balsams. The hemlock adelgid is still making its way through the moist coves and streambeds of these mountains. And now the emerald ash borer has made its way to us from Michigan, where it arrived from Asia in some wooden pallets. Sometimes, given time, the trees can stimulate their own resistance, but other times we lose them entirely, except for specimens in labs and arboretums.

We identify with these trees. They inspire us with their strength. patience, and endurance. Tended well, they supply us with things of use and beauty. This winter we will have to cut down one of our friends, whom the borer is reducing to a skeleton. I share with you my lament as we watch its demise, among many others, and hope that some of it can find its way into a new life.


My ash trees are dying,

            their leaves are faces of grief,

            they are weeping bark,

            my saw is chewing them into firewood,

            they are rendered into ashes in our stove,

            I am turning their limbs into plates and bowls,

            their trunks into table legs and planks..

The emerald beetle eating out their life

            rings their trunks with burrows for its larva,

            girdling them with living death.

The borers will move on,

            the ash their only home.

They do not know

            of baseball bats and tables,

            rakes and chairs and hoes.

They eat,

            lay eggs,


            and leave destruction in their wake.

Why do I stand among the ashes in amazement?

Did we not bring these predators?

Is our destruction not the same?

Will there be survivors

            who will weep for me?


Posted in Ecology, Poetry and Songs | Tagged | 5 Comments