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

Magnificat in Dark Times

This past Sunday evening I joined some ninety voices from the Haywood Community Chorus to sing the Magnificat by John Rutter. In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, Mary sang this song of praise after meeting with her cousin Elizabeth, who was miraculously pregnant with the boy who would become John the Baptizer. Mary, who had already been visited by the angel Gabriel with the announcement that God had selected her to bear a son who will inherit the throne of David, then burst into this hymn of praise.

Luke has clearly drawn on the similar hymn of praise from Hannah, the mother of Samuel, whose son led Israel to the point that it asked Samuel to select a king for them, thus beginning the monarchical line that leads to Jesus. Mary’s hymn of praise stands at the center of the whole Christian understanding of how the savior of the world emerges from Israel’s faithful longing for a Messiah who will lead the world into justice, healing, and shalom.

Singing these words this year, in the midst of the trauma at the heart of my own country’s governance and the cascade of revelations of male sexual exploitation of the women around them, Mary and Hannah’s powerful words take on a new depth and meaning. We have often dwelled on the way these women were exploited by a decidedly masculine God to produce the males who were to rescue us from sin, injustice, and even death. However, another face of this story can be seen here as well. Mary and Hannah emerge from the veil of anonymity and powerlessness to be the bearers of a new order of justice. In the suffering they endure they bring out into the light a transcendent order of righteousness. In their suffering they gain a new voice. They become the way into a new order that sets things right within a history of brutality, lies, and horrific subjugation.

And so, as I sang once again the ancient Latin words Magnificat anima mea Dominum et exaltavit spiritus meus in Deo salutary meo, I was thinking of the opening to the light that the brave women of #MeToo and many others are bringing into our world. Perhaps the deeply private, dark world of subjugation in which we have dwelled all these centuries has now experienced a moment of illumination that can lead us to the light of a new level of justice, of mutual respect and care for which we are longing but which also overturns the world as it is.

Here are the words of Hannah and Mary for you to ponder in your hearts this season.

Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in Yahweh;

my strength is exalted in my God.

My mouth derides my enemies,

because I rejoice in my victory.

There is no Holy One like Yahweh,

no one besides you;

there is no Rock like our God.

Talk no more so very proudly,

let not arrogance come from your mouth,

for Yahweh is a God of knowledge,

and by him actions are weighed.

The bows of the mighty are broken,

but the feeble gird on strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,

but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

The barren has borne seven,

but she who has many children is forlorn.

Yahweh kills and brings to life;

he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

Yahweh makes poor and makes rich;

he brings low, he also exalts.

Yahweh raises up the poor from the dust;

he lifts the needy from the ash heap,

to make them sit with princes

and inherit a seat of honor.

For the pillars of the earth are Yahweh’s

and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of the faithful,

but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;

for not by might does one prevail.

Yahweh! His adversaries shall be shattered;

the Most High will thunder in heaven.

Yahweh will judge the ends of the earth;

he will give strength to his king.,

and exalt the power of his anointed.”

(I Samuel 2:1-10)

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm and

  scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

he has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty;

he has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

(Luke 1:46-55)

Posted in Ethics, Personal Events, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Privacy and Publicity

A few months ago, I posted thoughts (“Publicity, Celebrity, and Salvation”) about my continuing effort to understand how our longing for a more perfect form of action, encapsulated in the term “publicity,” might offer us a compelling language for what we call “salvation.” Our inability to understand this longing for a fuller public life in a theological framework has left us unable to capture the importance of this longing as well as to critique its degeneration into the “celebrity” forms that imperil the publics of our constitutional order.

The ongoing disclosures of sexual assault, threats, and manipulation by powerful men over subordinate and dependent women in all areas of our life lead me to reflect on another facet of publicity, namely its necessary corollary, privacy. From the standpoint of viewing salvation as an ultimate form of publicity, our drive to bring everything into the light of public confirmation, praise, and judgment participates in the process of the perfection of life we call salvation. Coming out of the darkness, secrets, and lies of closets, bedrooms, boardrooms, and prisons is, ultimately, a saving process. This is the dynamic now exposing the abuse of power in private settings today.

However, under the conditions of finitude, fear, anxiety, and inequality (“sin and death,” as traditional theology says), we cannot live in such glaring publicity. We cannot trust others to respect our personhood in a common world of values and commitments. We have to have private lives that cannot be easily penetrated by the public eye. We need them to rehearse our lives, seek the trust of intimate partners, family, and friends, and recover from our mistakes. The elimination of privacy for the sake of the ordinary publicity of our own world can open the door to totalitarian extinction of genuine publics and the publicity they require. Elimination of privacy would make impossible the intimate, loving trust in which friendship, communion, and truly sacred intimacy resides.

What kind of privacy, then, is to be protected at all costs for the sake of a genuinely public life? The short answer is that privacy requires the basic equality of power that is the core of justice in order to sustain the process of mutual confirmation that builds persons who have the strength, courage, and independent judgment to enter fuller publics. These purposes constitute the very basis for safeguarding privacy. Where this equality is lacking we need the corrective power of publicity to expose and assess the justice of specific acts and relationships as well as constrain the abuses of power exercised in private. The task we face, then, is not only that of protecting and nurturing our public life, but also cultivating genuine privacy while exposing the private inequality which prevents people from developing a fuller life as persons, citizens, believers, and, yes, lovers.


Posted in Ethics, Public Life | 1 Comment


“Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” … Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” … So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.”

Genesis 25:29-34


In the wake of hopes confounded

I have thought a lot

about the mess of pottage Esau ate

by selling off his birthright

to the cunning brother in the tent,

about the hunger

of the manly hairy Esau

so unfit within the tents of highbrow luxury,

about resentment at his mother

for disdaining him,

how perhaps his arrows were forever flying

vainly wide of running game,

how he loved that bow

and kept it with his arrows

safely by his bed,

how strangers came and squatted

in his free-range haunts,

about the desperation driving him

to grovel at his greedy brother’s feet,

how red the stew was in that steaming pot,

how blue the sky above his head,

how satisfied he must have felt

to eat that mess of beans and bread

that drove him to the deal

where he sold his birthright for a meal.

Posted in Ethics, Poetry and Songs, Public Life | Tagged | Comments Off on Birthright