Baratunde Thurston in Oregon

In the past year Sylvia and I have become fans of Baratunde Thurston’s ”America Outdoors,” which airs on your local PBS stations. Others may know him for his wit and humor on Trevor Noah’s “The Daily Show.” We know him only as the wise, curious, adventurous guide to the human and natural ecology of our American life. Fully aware of his African ancestry, he plunges into the immense variety of human experience in our vast land. We have watched him talk with people who are aware of their wider environment whether in the boundary waters of Minnesota, the inner banks of North Carolina, or the upper reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. In each visit he introduces us to people who love the land around them, people in all their diversity and humanity.

Last night we watched another episode as he took us to Sylvia’s home state of Oregon. We tuned in with special interest to catch a glimpse of Crater Lake, to visit an indigenous garden in Portland, to talk with a father and daughter on an ecologically sensitive ranch that could have been near her home town of Lakeview, and to walk with truffle hunters in the forests on the Cascades. And then he introduced us to an arborist named Dustin Marcello, who invited him to inch up some ropes into the canopy of one of Oregon’s famous pines. Baratunde is always open to adventure, whether mountain biking, snorkeling on Oregon’s Pacific coast, or rafting down a white river. And so he suited up in tree climbing gear and began to ascend, with Dustin’s attentive supervision, into the limbs of the tree.

And then he froze. He said he had reached as high as he felt safe going. He was not there to prove a point but to experience the life of the tree and the arborists who tend to them. His companion sensed his need to descend, coupled their lines, and glided with him back to the floor of the forest. It was there that Baratunde opened up to what had seized him in those moments in the tree. It was the tree. The ropes. The ancestral memories of Black bodies hanging in the trees, trees that were innocent and powerless to stop the murder in their branches. And he was overcome with waves of tears for all that had been lost, for all who had suffered, for the innocent strength and suffering of the trees. Dustin put both arms around him as they waited for the storm of emotion to pass. It was a moment of profound intimations of traumatic memory and reconciliation. We witnessed in silence a kind of sacramental moment of revelation and healing.

Baratunde must have wondered whether to include this in the episode we saw. We are profoundly grateful that he did. He enabled us to see through the costumes and facades of our hard-won civil unity to sense the immense suffering out of which we have come and which still reaches out to catch us when we are least expecting it. Amidst the callous voices that would try to erase our tragic past we must do as Baratunde and Dustin did—live into those experiences, weep for them, cry out for release and forgiveness, and then embrace one another.

After they had shed their climbing gear, Dustin led Baratunde and a group of people in a ritual of “forest bathing” to renew their selves in the healing presence of the trees that had also been the bearers of profound grief. It was a time of cleansing we will never forget.

It is rare that a “show” can offer us such a holy moment. I urge you to go to the link I have provided and experience this journey. CLICK HERE. Thank you, Baratunde, for your sensitivity and courage.

Posted in Ecology, Personal Events, Restorative Justice | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Ketoctin Grace

As long-time readers of this blog know, a small brick church in Virginia’s Loudoun County has been a singular presence in my entire life. Ketoctin Baptist Church was founded in 1751. Its archives still contain correspondence between these Baptists and Thomas Jefferson, defender of the religious freedom they espoused in Colonial and Revolutionary times. A succession of wood and stone buildings was replaced in 1854 by the present brick structure. Worship services and an annual Homecoming still take place at the historic church. I have been invited to preach at several of those homecomings over the years.

But Ketoctin is more than a venerable marker in my memory. It is also a prism through which to see America’s history in all its many colors and conditions. Over the past few weeks it has arisen again as a testimony to the grace that has laced through the horrors and injustices to which it has been a witness. Here’s the poem it evoked.

Ketoctin

On an ancient wooded hill above the gentle creek ten thousand years ago

They built fires to cook their food, constructed huts to overwinter, ate the berries, roots, and acorn mash beneath the sheltering oaks.

They fought to guard that land from others, wept for loss and laughed in plenty.

On that land they knew

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

 

Others came on boats with muskets, took possession of the land by force and guile,

Built houses, cut the trees to clear the land for crops and cattle,

Placed a cross and table in a meeting house,

Sang hymns, cried prayers, suffered from disease and violent struggles, shouted hallelujahs,

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

 

Split down the middle of their hearts by greed and aspiration,

They brought people bound in iron, took their labor, harvested the blood-wrung wealth, enlarged their houses and their barns,

Fought their brothers for their liberty on shackling ground, forgetting

            We live only by the grace of God and our returning gratitude.

 

Blessed, born, baptized, and buried, they prayed and sang within a building built of brick and stone, their bodies soon returning to the land, the oaks, the waters, and the air.

But family drew the blood from family, sacrificing children on the altar of their hatred and their fear,

Until the people black and white were levelled in the judgment of the sword,

Struggling to remember

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

 

The oaks are now surrounded by habitats of brick and wood sustained by burning fossils of a vanished world.

People born of many skins and words and memories gather in the building underneath the oaks,

Give voice to loss and hope and tangled loves to join the song unceasing,

            We live only by God’s grace and our returning gratitude.

 

 

 

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Mediating the I Am—Some Summery Reflections

On August first the world here in the Smokies seems to pause, take a breath and then sigh with a slight cool shudder of fall. Global warming might advance that date, but it recurs as regularly as the cicadas, fireflies, and the first yellow cherry leaves. After a period of busy-ness, I too pause, take a deep breath and try to understand what I’ve been doing. And it seems that I have been entering that thin period of life we call old age, where we are more aware than ever of how our lives are always seeking ways to be some slight intimation of an ethereal whole that lies beyond our feeble thoughts, words, and feelings. This summer I’ve been hunkering down with several books as I explore the question of how this ethereal Other is mediated into our lives.

After a long delay, I finally tackled Walter Brueggemann’s massive (750 pages) Theology of the Old Testament, in which he focuses his extensive Biblical knowledge on the question of how the sages, prophets, poets, and chroniclers of ancient Israel tried to mediate their encounter with the mysterious YHWH, the I Am, the One at the heart of their promissory existence. Like so many of our time, Brueggemann no longer expects or looks for the lineaments of some systematic doctrine nestled in some rational framework, whether of Aristotle or even of Whitehead. Instead, we only have the ongoing, often baffling conversation between a people and the Power that leads them on in promise as well as punishment and disappointment. While the image of God that emerges here often bears evidence of a grumpy and abusive father, it also can be a glimpse of a Source of life that is both free and covenanted, fiercely jealous and expansively loving. We find only an argument, a conversation at the heart of faith.

And then I turned to Barry Lopez’s last work, Horizon, which came out shortly before his death in 2020.  (A posthumous collection of his writings came out subsequently entitled Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World.) I once exchanged some notes with Barry upon finding that we occupied the same apartment building in Mamaroneck, NY, when I was four and he was a freshly-minted baby. His story in Horizon begins with his wading into the Long Island Sound, just as I did, igniting a life-long quest to press beyond the horizons of his known world. So the book is a series of travel stories that take us to the places and people on the boundaries of human existence. In all these places, whether Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Arctic, Antarctica, or the Galapagos Islands, Lopez is seeking a kind of mediation of a greater reality, a greater mystery in which we find our being. For him, the sacrament that mediates this mystery is the teeming particularity of life itself. He pays attention to the things of this world, to the way human beings have tried to make a home in it, and, with fearsome lament, how we are destroying our own abode with fire and greed, poisons and pestilence. But always, what is mediated in his inquiry is the pulsing Life that will Be what it will Be—a World to which our only response should be gratitude rather than possession.

At the same time I have been wrestling with the transformation of the ancient Christian concept (notion? image? inkling?) of God as Trinity. Starting with Catherine LaCugna’s God For Us I then moved to Jürgen Moltmann’s Der Geist des Lebens, and Geiko Müeller-Fahrenholz’s God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis. All of these open up the way to a genuinely social image of the Trinity as a profound conversation at the heart of being.  No longer “Two Men and a Bird” (Sandra Schneider’s terrific moniker), the trinitarian God is the ordered field of energy at the heart of love, of communication, of nuclear fusion and fission, and indeed, of the conversation of thought itself. This is what God as “Word,” as “Logos,” means. It is not a word of command between Father/Despot and Son, but of constant inter-communication.

This conception of Trinity provides an anchor for reflecting once again on the foundations of covenant and of public conversation that have shaped my thought for many years. It is the grounding for the practice of conversation at the heart of the roundtable worship I am once again seeking to explicate in a longer piece I am writing. I’ll give you a glimpse of that when it jells some more. Meanwhile, these are some of the ways I’ve been thinking about how that wider mystery is mediated to us in our ordinary lives as well as in the events that people are trying to weave into a tapestry of history and cosmic evolution.

 

Posted in Ecology, Ethics, Roundtable Ministries Project, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Spalting

Over the past two months I have been back into theology, worship, and the practical work of sustaining life-giving conversations in our church. And so nothing suitable for journaling has been showing up in my mind.  I hope that the writing, at least, will eventuate in something to share, but right now you don’t want to hear about the deleterious impact of the filioque in the Western Church’s Nicene Creed. (If you do, send me a note separately…)

However, for the sake of sanity and life I continue turning. We recently cut a dead limb out of an old sugar maple in our yard and discovered that it was laced with early stages of rot, what woodworkers call “spalting.” Enough of it was still solid enough to yield a set of bowls that people find unusually satisfying, so I thought I would share some pictures with you.

And, of course, spalting reminds us of how we old folks are spalting as well. The lines of care, loss, and fatigue begin to etch our face and hands. Our society seeks to hide them, but in nature you can find in them a special kind of beauty. Each set of lines tells a unique story. Each gnarled cavity contains a secret that must be hidden from the world if it is to continue its silent work of reminding us how dependent we are on nutrients that come from far beyond our reach. And even as those nutrients fade we still can yield up a beauty that escapes the casual control of the world. The lines trace their own itinerary, each turn a new negotiation with invisible blockages and pathways. The bowls appear like palms whose lines reveal a memorial to a life lived in usefulness and beauty. We only have to pay attention and be patient. Let the spalting tell your story.

 

Posted in Personal Events, Woodworking | Tagged | 3 Comments