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

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)

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