Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Silencing while Assaulting

Dennis, our guide to Soweto.

Not saying I know it to be true, but the image of a potential Supreme Court justice as a youth muzzling a woman while sexually assaulting her serves as a powerful metaphor for how men have too often treated women. That men do the same when legislating and adjudicating women’s reproductive choices cannot be denied.

I would not want to be judged by my own careless acts as a youth, but by what I have become since. So the question for me is if this nominee has sufficiently matured to keep his hands off a woman’s uterus when it comes to her choice to bear or not bear a child. I am not pro-abortion, I am pro-choice.

Last week I attended a book launch for Connie Tuttle’s fa-bu-lous memoir, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet. In a blurb for the book, I described it as a book full of “extraordinary stories extraordinarily well told.” One of those stories, and one she read for the launch, is about her attending a presbytery meeting that was to vote on the ordination of lesbians and gay men and thus, the possibility of her own ordination. To be silenced, to be disallowed from speaking in her own defense because she was neither an ordained elder or minister, was and is what countless LGBT Christians endured and still endure in too many religious communities.

Three weeks ago Wade and I visited Soweto, where I learned that one of the breaking points of apartheid was when the South African government in the mid-1970s insisted all citizens of color had to learn and speak Afrikaans, a language only spoken in South Africa. It was to silence protest and prevent their mobility to other countries. Non-violent student protests to this led to massacres of innocent children and youth. The world took notice and imposed sanctions.

I was describing Soweto to a young person when I realized she had never heard of “townships.” I grew up reading about them in my high school current events publications, and I was horrified to think that blacks and other nonwhites lived in what the government called “townships,” and could only leave them when going to and from work, expected by authorities to show their passes on demand.

Soweto is short for “southwest township.” Our guide, Dennis, grew up in Soweto, and he referred to townships as “concentration camps.” He picked us up at our Hilton (!!—Wade had points to cover the hotel) in Sandton, the very upscale financial district of Johannesburg, for a personal tour and history lesson. On the drive to Soweto, he taught us more about South African history then I ever learned in any history class.

As we got close to Soweto, he pointed out huge earth ridges that had been constructed long ago to prevent its residents from seeing the skyline of Johannesburg in the distance. He said he was 22 years old before he ever saw a skyscraper!

Shacks in Soweto.

What surprised Wade and me was the contrast between shanty town homes (that the government is gradually replacing with better housing) and plainly middle- and upper-class homes, usually reflecting the architecture of the countries from which their residents came. Dennis explained that as apartheid came to an end and Nelson Mandela was released from prison and eventually came to power, many nonwhite South Africans returned and built homes that reflected the education, businesses and professions they had been able to pursue elsewhere.
Middle class Soweto homes.

Dennis told us that, upon hearing the plight of those in the townships, who were not allowed education, Scandinavian churches had built churches and schools, smuggling promising students out of the country for higher education. It was in front of one of those schools that a massacre of students occurred. There is a museum nearby named for the first child who fell, caught in a photograph that incensed the world:

Soweto boasts the only street in the world whose residents included two Nobel Peace Prize laureates: Nelson Mandela, whose modest brick house is now a museum, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, an occasional and modest residence for the Anglican churchman who chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The street where Mandela and Tutu resided.

From prison in 1977, Nelson Mandela wrote to his wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, these words, which are now on a plaque at the museum:

In judging our progress as individuals, we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education…but internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being: humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men—qualities within the reach of every human soul.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Why Did We Evolve?

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

Please consider last week’s post as prologue to today’s blog entry. As I rode through a South African wild game reserve a few weeks ago, “visiting” lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, and other species without barriers between them and me, learning how they interact with each other and their environment, the question came to me, “Why did we (humans) evolve?”

Other creations—geographical, geological, climate, plant, and fellow animals have their role to play in the ecology of Earth, but why were we “needed”? All of these creatures do quite well without us and, it could be argued, would do better without us.

Wade takes a photo of our shadows on the shore.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember how often I have tried to answer this question, stated in diverse ways from different perspectives for a variety of reasons. Over the ages, religion, culture, and science have become our tools to at least address or explore if not answer why we are here.

I know this question is “above my pay grade” and well beyond my education, as is probably true for everyone, yet I imagine almost every one of us has wondered about it from time to time, especially in youth and old age when life’s necessities do not take up so much of our time and energy. Maybe that’s our point: to be matter reflecting on itself.

But on the savannahs of Nambiti I came up with a reason that was only original when it was first told in the Genesis creation stories: that we have evolved to serve as stewards of this Garden, mindful (and I don’t use the term lightly) caretakers of terrestrial concerns. Neither original is the thought that our mindlessness when it comes to such concerns is our original and besetting sin.

The properties of a particle can be understood only in terms of its activity—of its interaction with the surrounding environment—and…the particle, therefore, cannot be seen as an isolated entity, but has to be understood as an integrated part of the whole.

As long as we are under the spell of maya and think that we are separated from our environment and can act independently, we are bound by karma. … To be free from the spell of maya, to break the bonds of karma, means to realize that all the phenomena we perceive with our senses are part of the same reality.  … This experience is called moksha, or ‘liberation’ in Hindu philosophy and it is the very essence of Hinduism.

These quotes appear a few pages from each other in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics (pages 69 and 79), which I have finally gotten around to reading. The first is a conclusion of science, the second is a conclusion of faith. Both could be said to endorse John Donne’s famous line that “no man is an island.”

Last week, a regular reader of this blog informed me that one of my favorite “thinking” movies, Mindwalk, is based on The Tao of Physics. I did not know that. A physicist, a poet, and a former presidential candidate stroll around Mont-Saint-Michel discussing the nature of reality. Mont-Saint-Michel is an island when the tide comes in and a part of the French mainland when the tide goes out.

Wade on the rocks!

It is the physicist who, for me, gives the most spiritual observation on the nature of reality, explaining that though we perceive ourselves as separate beings, we are constantly exchanging photons.

The science of The Tao of Physics and Mindwalk might very well be outdated by now, but work with me here! The author of The Tao of Physics is suggesting that an intuitive insight of Eastern thought has scientific merit.

After all this philosophical and possibly pseudo-scientific heavy lifting among the animals of Nambiti game reserve, I must say it was a relief to escape to the beach. Wade and I walked, waded, and ran along the sandy shores and clambered up rocky outcrops overlooking the Indian Ocean along Plettenberg Bay.

Having grown up in Southern California, the shore has always been the sanctuary where I find my natural self, the rhythm of my walking and running reflecting the rhythm of the waves and tides. Something breaks through my “karma” and dissolves my “maya” and I am part of the whole for at least an instant.

My natural self along the Indian Ocean. 

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Lion God

Nothing says a vacation is over like a spider bite immediately upon arriving home, a new nest of stinging bees to address, a tire blowout, a lingering case of jet lag after a 15-hour nonstop, and fresh reports of a White House in disarray.

One after-effect of our three-week trip though South Africa is that Wade forgot his work password and had to go into the office to reset it. He noted that’s the sign of a good vacation! Then he had to deal with 600 emails, despite his “away” response message.

Our South African friends, Elize and Andre, helped Wade arrange the many details of our trip and traveled with us the first two weeks. They are Afrikaners and twins. Elize lives in Pretoria and Andre lives in Atlanta, a bi-national whose encounter with a nativist rant at one of our local grocery stores was recorded in an earlier post.

Wade, Andre, Elize, and me. 
Photo taken by our guide, Biggie.

I brought along the recently released Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela and an unlikely companion book, The Tao of Physics. But I found myself wanting to take a vacation from words, so I only occasionally read them, and I wrote nothing.

Even my prayers sometimes needed to be abbreviated because of our early morning jaunts, and I found praying for “all those we hold dear in our hearts” sufficient and the Lord’s Prayer well-summarized in “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Now I’m finding it a challenge to get back up on the writing horse, partly because I am still absorbing what I saw and experienced, both in South Africa’s natural surroundings and its cultural/historical story. I hope to unravel my complex impressions in the next few posts.

Wade's photos on Instagram are far better than mine!

We spent three days in a game reserve at the Nambiti Hills Lodge that featured a schedule not unlike a monastery’s. We were awakened at 5 a.m. for “morning prayers”: coffee and snack before boarding an open-air Land Cruiser at 5:30 for a wild ride pilgrimage up and down hills and across plains as the sun rose, going to various points in the reserve where we were most likely to encounter animals, returning for breakfast at 9 a.m. “Vespers” began with tea and snacks at 3 p.m. followed by another safari that lasted till dinner at 8 p.m., featuring spectacular sunsets and a break for gin and tonics or wine.

Our “priest” for these services was “Biggie,” an experienced and informative and gregarious guide whose fearless approach to the animals matched his fearless driving over bumpy, winding, steeply descending and ascending dirt roads as we held on for dear life. We became kids again, enjoying the ride, while keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. To Biggie’s credit, we never felt unsafe or in danger.

But there were moments when I felt nervous excitement—for instance, when an elephant came toward us, turning a one-lane road one-way, requiring us to back up as he lumbered toward us, not in attack mode but going about his daily business.

I have never been so close to giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos, impalas, wildebeests, springbok, wart hogs, ostriches, huge and little birds and more in their natural habitats. One morning we woke a sleeping herd of Cape (or African) buffalo on the road, prompting them to reluctantly rise and saunter out of our way as we inched forward.

Photo by Wade Jones

One outing, a tingle of dangerous pleasure came up my spine as a male lion and three female lions padded toward us and then right beside our stopped vehicle, as did three cheetahs a day or so later. There were no doors or windows or any barrier between us, and you will roll your eyes, but I thought at the time it was like a defenseless encounter with God, powerful enough to devour you yet docilely and peaceably passing by.

You can see why this became a vacation from words, and why they fail even now to capture the wonder we experienced.

A Cape Town art museum featuring African artists displayed this quote from Middlemarch by George Eliot:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

Grazing rhino.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Vacation & Vocation

A neighbor's peaceful pathway.

Very early one morning I saw a woman doing a walking meditation, such as Buddhists do, pausing after each step taken, perhaps pondering a koan. As I drew closer, I realized the “koan” she concentrated on so intently was, in truth, an iPad. 

Running through the park, I approached a young man sitting in the lotus position, his face downturned in meditation. As I passed by, however, I saw his thumbs busily texting.

On each occasion, the only hope of my original fantasy was that they were tweeting or texting their spiritual directors or gurus!

We all know of such impulses to check tweets, messages, e-mails, and news media! C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters comes to mind, in which Screwtape advises Wormwood, his tempter in training, to put into his ward’s head the impulse to take a break just as he’s about to discover something important to his spiritual progress, thus distracting him.

One dictionary defines vocation as “an impulse to perform a certain function.” Vacation is defined as freedom from such an impulse, a letting go of our compulsions to do things we have always done, a release from doing things the way we have always done them. Thus vacation invites play.

I’ve known too many people, including clergy, who brag about never or rarely taking a vacation. In my view, vacation is a vital balance to vocation, as necessary to one’s work as sleep and nutrition and compensation.

Some of us get away from our work by going away, but others of us get away from our work by going within: inside ourselves, listening to that inner voice that is the root of the word “vocation.”

I’ve been reading a lot about the spiritualities of the desert: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. The desert is an excellent place to listen for God’s voice, our own voice, the voice of a lover or friend or calling. Distractions are diminished, silence surrounds, we may breathe easier, we may breathe.

In deserts, Moses heard God’s voice, Miriam danced, Elijah listened for “a voice of a gentle stillness,” Naomi accepted Ruth’s vow, Jesus pondered his vocation and found lonely places to pray, Amma Theodora identified acedia (spiritual lethargy), Muhammad received his divine mission. 

Progressive Christians have our wilderness too. We are letting go of religious compulsions to rediscover the God of the desert (metaphorically).

Writing of desert spirituality in Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton concluded that “without the disquieting capacity to see and to repudiate the idolatry of devout ideas and imaginings…the Christian cannot be delivered from the smug self-assurance of the devout ones who know all the answers in advance, who possess all the clich├ęs of the inner life and can defend themselves with infallible ritual forms against every risk and every demand of dialogue with human need and human desperation [108-9].”

Perhaps vacation from religious compulsion is also our vocation.

This post appeared on this blog on July 11, 2012.

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Copyright © 2012 and 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.