Black Holes Exist

As I try to orient myself to the new political realities before us, I find myself diving beneath the waves of political analysis and commentary to deeper levels. I have finished J. D. Vance’s powerful memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which speaks of the displaced and often traumatized mountain people who live in my beloved Appalachians. I am also reading Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land, an empathetic study of the Right-wing culture of southern Louisiana, both of which I strongly recommend to you.

But then I find myself going deeper, down to the nearly archetypal images that move like tectonic plates beneath the episodes and events that frighten and disorient us in these times. This was an election of images at the tectonic level. These we can only approach in dreaming and in poetry or song. Two weeks ago it was the robin and today the Black Hole. Your reflections in response are always appreciated.

The astrophysicists proclaim

Black Holes Exist.

I believe them.

Yes, within my mind I see them

Black against the Black of space.

But now I ask

What are they?

Are they Everything that looks like


Are they Nothing that is also


Are they the narcissistic ego

of a cosmic body

swallowing the praise of every star?

I think I’ve seen them walking on Fifth Avenue

and preening in their offices

swallowing the little lights around them

sucking in their hopes of everlasting fame

leaving nothing in their wake

readying their vacuumed contents for a vast explosion

littering the universe with burning gas

the trumpet of collapse.

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Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs, Public Life | Tagged | 1 Comment

Climate Change and the Work of Peace

The day after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, we gathered at Lake Junaluska for our seventh annual Interfaith Peace Conference. Our theme this year was “The Climate Crisis and Peace.” Planning had begun over a year ago, with little awareness of the storm of fear, despair and anger in which we would meet. With ice caps melting, sea level rising, droughts, fires, andPeace Conference 2016 ed 72 intense storms increasing their tempo, we met with an intensity and purpose that began to heal the trauma we and the world have suffered. I want to give you a sense of that meeting.

Our keynote speakers were Prof. Norman Wirzba, from Duke Divinity School; Rabia Terri Harris, founder of the Muslim Peace Fellowship; Rabbi David Seidenberg, founder of Neo-Hasid, a Jewish religious movement; and Jacqueline Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

Norman Wirzba, working out of his family’s farming traditions in western Alberta, drew us back to the soil itself and the agrarian roots of our civilization and our religious heritage. For him, God is a gardener of this creation who calls us to join in the work of living as responsible earthlings. The table at which we gather to partake of the bounty of the land is the center of our worship life, something I might add, that all three Abrahamic faiths have in common, whether in Passover, Eucharist, or Ramadan. For me, this dramatically positions the round table of circle conversation and reconciliation firmly in its ecological basis. There can be no separation of reconciliation among humans from reconciliation with the earth. This has to be the lodestar that keeps us moving as we negotiate the chaos of climate change denial and belligerent exclusion that confronts us in the years ahead.

David Seidenberg, who refreshingly confessed that he had never been with so many Methodists in his life, let alone in the American South, drew us back to the riches of the Kabbalah and its cosmology of a world that is the emanating presence of God. The whole world is the “image of God” and each of us is a fragment of the original vessel of the world. God’s own power in this world is one of hesed —covenant faithfulness. With Norman Wirzba, he emphasized the importance of our Sabbath traditions as the core of our religious response to ecological crisis. In the Sabbath, we honor God’s work of Creation, remove ourselves from the feverish and often idolatrous effort to dominate it (including the animals), and engage in an awe-filled moment of beholding the beauty of God’s image in this world.

As he too drew on the stories of Genesis and the Creation, I was more vividly struck than ever that the original sin outside the garden —the murder of Abel by his brother Cain — was as least as important as the sexual messages with which we have burdened our understanding of the banishment from the Garden. In that murder we have the struggle between nomadic forest dwellers, dependent on meat and fruits, and town dwellers gathered in permanent settlements by their fields of wheat and other crops. And we have not resolved this conflict in all the intervening years. How can we farm in such a way as to preserve the precious soil, water, and air on which we depend? How can we eat meat without the industrialization of slaughter on which we mindlessly depend for high-protein, high fat diets? How can we live more in a harmony with the land, its creatures, and its fruits, without slaughtering each other in war and ecological degradation?

Rabia Terri Harris, who returned to the Conference after giving her insightful observations on ecological theology in the previous year, invoked the image of the whirling dervishes of Sufi tradition, whose prayerful movements remind us that we are all ones who “wait at the door of God” and remember that “wherever you turn, there is the face of God” (Qu’ran 2:115). What we have done, however, is try to create a world in which wherever we turn we see the face and mark of human action. We are at heart idolators who seek security in our own efforts. As we confront the destructive impact of a climate change that we have precipitated with our industrial civilization, she encouraged us to have faith in the “Not I,” the One whose invisible governance of the whole creation revealed the compassion, mercy, and love at the heart of existence. It is with this One that we are to enter into the conversation of a new covenant restoration and reclaim our proper “deputyship” in the work of Creation. We must remember that the forgiveness of God is always present for a new beginning.

With these theological affirmations ringing in our ears and resounding in our hearts we heard Jacqueline Patterson present, in word and image, the work of people in many regions of the country who are linking the work of ecological repair to the work of justice among those most injured by climate change — those whose poverty and race puts them next to the dumps, refineries, and other polluting industries on which our industrial order depends. If you didn’t know it before, the ravages of flood, fire, and famine caused by global warming are one of the great injustices of our time. An effective response to it is a great work of peace-building and restoration.

We clearly face a concerted effort to roll back the progress we have made for racial, gender, and ecological justice. Our own efforts to work with the Creator who seeks flourishing for all creatures need to rest on the confidence that we are part of that “Great Work” and that we are undergirded by the Love that sustains us all. Each of us needs to find where we can engage in that work and stay connected with others who are joined in that work as well, whatever their political expression, beliefs, or appearance. As we care for the earth, so we care for each other. Peace. Pass it on.



Posted in Ecology, Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

That November Day

That November day

a robin heading south

struck the window

full force

flying at the tree in the glass



upon the leafy deck.

When I went out to bear its body

to the woods

I found it on its feet


a statue heedless of my presence.

The robin stood there still for hours

waiting for the healing powers,

waiting for its life to find return.

When the sun was high

I found it gone

homeward bound

through the trees

toward the greater light.


November 9, 2016

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Corn, Wind, and Sun

We just drove out to western Minnesota from our home here in the Smoky Mountains, taking in our old stomping grounds in Milwaukee on the way. We needed face time with our children and our granddaughter. After rolling off the western flank of the Appalachians we stopped at Berea, Kentucky, where I taught at the college for a semester in the 70s. Its art, crafts, and mission to the education of Appalachia’s young people continue to inspire us. Then, crossing the Ohio River at Louisville we came upon the corn. A thousand miles of corn. It was dry, brown, and brittle in the October sun. The combines were beginning to march down its rows like giraffes, their long necks spewing kernels of grain into the waiting carriers beside them.

It’s not the corn you put on your table to munch off the cob like an old-fashioned typewriter. It’s mostly for feed corn and ethanol. That’s 70%. Corn for cereal, bread, sweetener and liquor constitute the rest. The rich loam and level land stretch to the horizon. It is a vast factory transforming sun and rain into bundles of energy for human use. American civilization arose from corn. Its concentrated energy gave us surplus labor to build our cities and the artifacts of modern life. But as I contemplated the convoys of trucks transporting food and manufactured materials, and navigated among the cars propelled by gasoline and ethanol, I also felt the rats of suspicion gnawing at me. The ethanol barely offsets the energy to produce it. The feed that goes to meat fuels a crisis of pollution, obesity, and possible disease. The ocean of corn has a dark and ominous side.

My negative reverie was soon interrupted by much larger blades above the plain in northern Indiana. Row after row of gleaming wind turbines turned slowly and silently in the steady breeze. Gesturing like semaphores of a new order, they stretched to the horizon on either side as we moved like ants among their towering presence. They march across the plains in thousands now, turning sun to energy above the factories of corn beneath them. Each turbine, they tell me, yields a rent to the farmer plowing around them of up to $7000 a year.

So the revolution proceeds, silently, gradually, a grass-roots movement of a new  generation. The rows of turbines thin out in the undulating moraines of Wisconsin, their tidy, sturdy farm buildings clustered at the edge of fields and woods, built by immigrants from northern Europe a century or more ago. When we hit the plains west of Minneapolis, they began popping up again. When we Wind-Solar Farm 72reached Moorhead, across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota, my daughter and her husband took us out to see their community solar and wind farm. They had bought some shares that would eventually defray their energy bill. Their names were even on a plaque beside the nest of switches and cables beside the panels gazing at the sun. It is an entrepreneurial revolution in energy as well as local control over its generation. They were the independent farmers, so to speak, of a new energy factory.

We humans, like practically all other life, exist in an immense energy cycle based on the sun. The mechanisms of this metabolism of the sun’s energy have changed greatly over the eons from wood fire to coal to oil and now to solar panel and wind, but we are still enmeshed in them, for they constitute the body of our life, whether of our physical bodies or of our artifacts, including the automobile that enabled us to cruise through these factories of the sun. So, my friends, this is more than “fly-over” country. It is a heartbeat we need to listen to.

Posted in Ecology, Personal Events, Travel Journal | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments