til the sun breaks down . . .


I’ll be traveling to Texas this weekend to participate in a memorial service celebrating the life of my old friend, Cecil Adkins. Here he is with a tromba marina or trumpet marine, a strange instrument about which he llkely knew more than anybody. The photo is courtesy of his daughter, Madeline. The grin was his own. When I get back to St. Louis, I’ll write some more about him. but for now, I’m revising my thoughts about All Hallows to include this small personal farewell. Safe journey, Cecil. May all your angels learn the tromba marina.

Come, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil;
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crown’d with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing Harvest Home.

Leaving a late afternoon meeting the other day, someone remarked that it doesn’t seem like November. It isn’t cold enough. My neighbor’s oak tree has hardly begun to carpet my yard. The weather seems stuck somewhere just the other side of Poe’s lonesome October. Still, Halloween brought us a nice gaggle of children and a few jokes at the door in keeping with the local tradition.

I timed my arrival at church next day so as to avoid singing all the verses of “For All the Saints”; not that I don’t love the hymn, as I love St. Patrick’s Breastplate and the Hallelujah chorus. But I’ve sung them all too many times for too many years. That aside, there’s still something about this time of year that I especially love, something about the various enactments around the time of All Hallows that arrests and gives me pause to think again for the hundredth time (the hundredth time being that time whose coming is always both old and new) of the round of mortality we celebrate amongst ghosts and shadows in the lengthening nights.

All Hallows perhaps emerged in the eighth century as a sanctification for Europe’s new Christians of various pagan celebrations. And it has never lost its pagan character, even in today’s commercially appropriated forms. I’m amused at some of the arguments we now have about appropriate costumes for Halloween, though I probably shouldn’t be because these arguments get pretty serious for those most directly affected. “Dress up, if you will, but don’t appropriate somebody else’s culture,’ doesn’t solve any problems, nor do appeals to freedom of speech in spite of the fact that Halloween has always been a time of inappropriate hijinks. Too, it doesn’t take much of a history lesson to point out that Halloween has always been an appropriation of someone else’s culture; but the reason white college students shouldn’t wear blackface, or stage all-white parties, or throw frat parties with gang themes, etc., isn’t that doing these things involves appropriation, and no number of scripted “conversations” will make it so. The reason these practices are odious is that they perpetuate invidious ethnic stereotypes with which we are presently struggling.

For in the final analysis the hijinks are folded into a great solemnity. These days in my church we tend to collapse All Hallows and All Souls into an All Saints Sunday (that closest to November first); though All Saints Day, itself, remains a day of solemn obligation requiring a Mass, like Christmas, the Feast of the Assumption, and a handful of others that don’t necessarily fall on Sundays—all Sundays being days of solemn obligation. We festoon spaces in our churches with photographs of loved ones that families wish to remember, and we sing hymns and read lessons that recall saints known and unknown. One of my favorite such lesson is from Ecclesiasticus 44. “Let us now praise famous men,” it begins; but its chief aim is to remember those “there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.” This is the logic of Agee and Evans’s famous book of depression photos.

But All Hallows is also part harvest festival. I’ve quoted above from Robert Herrick’s wonderful poem, “The Hock Cart, or Harvest Home”; albeit a celebration of feudalism when it was already gone (and perhaps a rueful nod towards the hard lives of those who must feed their lord). Still, the symbolism of the hock cart, or the last laden harvest wagon, decorated with a figure made of sheaves and ribbons, is for Herrick not an end but a beginning:

And, you must know, your lord’s word’s true,
Feed him ye must, whose food fills you.
And that this pleasure is like rain,
Not sent ye for to drown your pain,
But for to make it spring again.

I remember driving along rural North Carolina roads during the tobacco harvest and marking how elderly wooden harvest wagons left a litter of broad, green leaves behind them as they bumped along. The great cotton wagons of West Texas did the same in my day, littering the roadways with a white chaff that might or might not find its way to the gin. And I think of the parable of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas. A woman walks down a road carrying a jar of meal. She doesn’t realize that the jar is leaking until she arrives home and finds it empty, poured out indiscriminately like the abundance of God, or Herrick’s rain, or Stingy Jack grinning through a ghoulish face carved from a hollow turnip or a pumpkin as we do in this country.

Why the pairing of harvest home with images of waste and death? Because growth and dying are wrapped together like the yin and the yang. “Unless a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone,” says John’s Gospel. Harvest is that death that gives us present abundance, but also provides us the seeds of all future abundance. It is the sign and prophecy of the cosmic stubbornness we live in, of which we are a part. Call it Nature or call it God’s own field—we plow and scatter the good seed upon the same earth in which we bury our dead

—to make it spring again.

town again

I awoke this morning to reports of the terrorist atacks in Mali, which I’m sure will rachet up xenophobic paranoia in this country. For some days now I’ve been thinking of an essay I posted back in 2012. Part of it was another essay I had initially posted five years before that. It’s a memory that haunts me. Unlike some who seek solace in being alone during times of stress, perhaps in favorite secluded outdoor places, I tend to look for company when the world turns mean.

I’ve been going to church a bit more than usual here lately; and while there are some purely local reasons why, I also have to acknowledge a need in me to locate myself (or relocate myself) among folk with whom I share much of my final vocabulary. Notice I did not say my faith community or my religious family. I have stopped using such terms because I think they have been debased beyond present repair by identity politics and are now ciichés of various discourses in which I have no wish to participate.

In response to my 2012 speculation that perhaps we need a bigger tent, religiously speaking, a friend commmented that parhaps we’d build a bigger tent if we had bigger hearts. I think I seek a large heartedness that can leave to the cosmos its undoubted unfathomability, at the same time claiming solidarity with a sense of human community that embraces enmity, even enmity unto death, without irritably reaching after fact and reason, as the poet says, and still proclaim what Reynolds Price has called “the unaccountable worth of the world.” This is very hard.

* * *

August 26, 2012

I attended church today, and while I enjoyed seeing my friends and loved the eucharist as always, I found the lessons a bit edgy. We’re at the end of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel in the lectionary, and in today’s lesson Jesus protests that his way is the only way a bit heavy handedly with the result that many of his followers leave him and only the few most faithful remain. The epistle lesson was Paul’s injunction to the Ephesians that they put on the whole armor of God, language that I as a boy in the fourth grade was required to memorize in my public school class.

Perhaps it was that memory, or perhaps it was that we sang “I am the Bread of Life,” with its strong assertion of the exclusivity of the Christian way, as a communion hymn—whatever the specific trigger, I found myself thinking (as I often do these days) that we need a bigger tent. In a recent post I used Churches as a generic term for religious houses of all sorts. When I realized the error of my usage I decided not to edit myself and to talk about it. Having attained the age of 75 I often find myself thinking and sometimes speaking the language of my youth before I learned from my old friend Martha Webb that there are some women who really don’t like being lumped in with men as the linguistic default and further came to realize by reading Abraham Heschel, James Carroll, and others, that Judaism gets a bad rap in the gospels. Some Christian apologists draw a distinction between anti-Semitism and the anti-Judaism of the New Testament, but that seems to me to be interested pleading claiming a distinction that doesn’t count for much.

For these reasons, and for some others, I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote just after I began this blog. I’ve edited a bit, and I’m going to leave it up for a while because I constantly find myself reaching out for some spiritual balance as my country slides deeper into a slough of hateful sectarian partisanship. I can’t be any smarter than I was in this piece from five years ago.

* * *

Here’s a story. It begins in the parking lot of the Denton (TX) Islamic Society, a tiny congregation named so as to claim standing in the world outside the traditional Islamic realm. It was Sunday, the Christian Sabbath. Three hundred or so local citizens, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others gathered in the back parking lot of the society’s tiny mosque in order to express our solidarity after someone had fire bombed the place. I didn’t visit the interior of the building because I didn’t know whether I should take off my shoes, and I don’t know today whether the Sabbath has any standing in Islam.

Tuesday the week before—I won’t put the date down—a thing occurred that I never dreamed I would live to see when terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the main towers of the World Trade Center in New York and destroyed them, together with other buildings nearby and the lives of several thousand souls. I should set it down that other terrorists also hijacked airplanes that were crashed into the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside. These terrorists were almost immediately identified with Islamic fundamentalism by government and press–hence the bombing of our little mosque in Denton.

I’d been stunned since the destruction of the World Trade Center. Our very young President (he seemed so at the time) had told us we were at war. I had resisted that conclusion in my own heart since I watched the first news reports and believed them to be true. I couldn’t find any anger in myself, though perhaps it was there and I didn’t recognize it. What I remember now is that as the Imam began to chant the prayer with which we began the little service that afternoon, I wept.

Bishop James Stanton was with us, having come to town for a confirmation service at my church. His preaching had urged the proposition that we all needed to touch one another in the aftermath of our communal loss. Those of us who remained alive needed to touch, I think he meant. I thanked him for his sermon and his presence at the mosque, felt close to him for a moment and was surprised because I disagree with him more often than not. I was struck too by a dear old friend’s comment as we walked around the parking lot together, exchanging greetings after the service, when he said to me that he didn’t want to go to war without God (without something he could pose to himself in his own mind as God—those were his words). I can go along with Bishop Stanton that we seek to touch what grounds us in times of great crisis. I’m not sure I understand my friend’s anxiety about going to war without God.

The Imam chanted and then translated. His prayer expressed gratitude to God for his beautiful creation. ‘This is my Father’s world,’ as we sang in the Methodist Sunday School of my childhood, I thought—I will take the memory of that prayer, which I didn’t initially understand, as a symbol of our struggle to find community with inadequate language and inadequate minds as we stood there in the hot sun on that concrete parking lot, greeting one another with words expressing our knowledge that we are not one people. I believe we stood in grace there, however much God may have turned his attention from his beautiful creation as the World Trade Center exploded. The next evening I opened my class at the university with the statement that I’d be glad to hear thoughts and expressions in regard to our country—we’d been asked to do this by the president—and I let my students talk for an hour and a half. There was a variety of expression, including that of one student who left the room because the discussion disturbed him. Later I put my arm around him, and the other students welcomed him back for the remainder of the evening.

I can now report that my eldest child, who is 45 years old, is as likely to have another birthday as I am. He worked in the World Trade Center–when there was a World Trade Center. Fortunately for him and his coworkers and their families and friends including yours truly, his office didn’t open until 10:00. St. Paul says ‘here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.’ I’ve always loved that sentiment; somehow, it suggests to me the kindness of strangers. Maybe that’s why I felt at church the next week that our processions and triumphal evocations of God were not just pretentious but wrong headed. I thought of a Quaker meeting house I know and wondered if real piety waits upon grace without asking any questions.

I tend to think the moral universe is a human creation, more like a town than like the vast reaches of interstellar space. What I believe in outside that is grace and the human struggle for community, a version perhaps of what we used to call in my church ‘the summary of the law.’ I remembered my son’s words as he looked from his apartment in midtown Manhattan and described the smoke and the smell of the great explosions at the World Trade Center. That awful thing caused many New Yorkers to remember their town and to become citizens behaving like citizens in countless ways that filled the news reports in the aftermath. Perhaps something similar happened to us in Denton; perhaps we remembered our town, and remembering, perhaps we transcended our differences for a while.

And I’m remembering now a notion of Karl Jaspers’s, in a little book entitled Die Schuldfrage, that in the aftermath of the Nazi terror perhaps all who remained alive felt a sense of what he termed metaphysical guilt, a sense of estrangement from the body of humanity. I have felt and talked with others who have also felt, in the aftermath of the terror of what we now call nine-eleven, a sense of alienation from the body of humanity and the world, not guilt but something that makes us reach out for one another. Was God in those terrible explosions that destroyed so many innocent? Was God absent? I don’t know. I can’t believe God caused them in the sense that some religious zealots have claimed. To my mind the question is something like asking if God was in the Tsunami of 2004. All fear and trembling is not hierophany. Some of it, even the unthinkable, is the ordinary terror of the world. This makes us feel uneasy in our skins sometimes, to experience ourselves as painfully other. Some say that Jesus undid our alienation just as he healed the eyes of the man born blind; and perhaps it is significant that the mud Jesus placed on the blind man’s eyes is mixed with spittle, earth and human stuff.

The blind man’s answer when he is asked what occurred is enigmatic: ‘I only know that before I was blind and now I can see.’ The wind of God blows where it will. But in the interstices of the world, where we are who mostly lead ordinary lives, it often seems good that we touch each other, that we love as much as we can and do what we can to make the world better than it often manifestly is. We’d like to think that the world as God made it is as fresh as we’d like to find it on Easter morning. We’d like to think that the prophets and poets who have taught us to love our father’s world were right and that it is indeed a good and joyful thing to give thanks for it, even on a hot Texas parking lot in the aftermath of a fire bombing.