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June 2022

While Hiking, Reflecting on Preaching, and the Aztecs

"This was no stable world of immutable beliefs but instead a shifting, constantly altering world."  So writes Camilla Townsend in her marvelous Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.  Why, you might ask, am I reading a history of the Aztecs as part of my sabbatical reading? Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs: 9780190673062: Townsend,  Camilla: Books

Well, last time I was on sabbatical I used part of that time to better acquaint myself with some theological traditions I had not focused on before.  The key one that sabbatical was Orthodoxy.  I read John Zizioulas and Sergius Bulgakov and really enjoyed and learned from them.  Since then I've been reading more in the Orthodox tradition and have had a better understanding of it.

A few years ago I read an online article about Aztec philosophy and how a central tenet of it is the idea in the quote above--that the world is ever shifting and we have to be nimble in how we respond to it.  So, I've been wanting to explore Aztec philosophy more, and intend to do that this summer when I read James Maffie's Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion.  But before I did that I wanted to be better acquainted with Aztec history than I am ,and this recent book by Townsend won awards and was well-reviewed and has also been on my to-read list.  I'm almost finished with the book and will have more to say about it.

She writes in her intro, "Most of all, they were flexible.  As situations altered, they repeatedly proved themselves capable of adapting.  They were adept at surviving."  So another reason for reading and learning from the Aztecs relates to my larger reading and study project for this sabbatical--our response to climate change and our changing world.  It seems to me that we can learn something from their example.  An idea strengthened as I read this marvelously well-written history.


Today I was hiking at Chalco Hills and thinking about all of these things.  I've mentioned before that the simplest goal of this sabbatical is to take a break.  And one thing I'm appreciating the break from is preaching. 

Now, I love preaching.  It is my artform.  I work hard at every aspect of it, from study to writing to spirituality to delivery to pastoral care.  It engages my intellectual creativity.  It allows me a space to work through my ideas on topics big and small, personal and public.  It is one of the ways I care for people.

Preaching, though, has become more challenging in the last seven years.  Politics, social unrest, racial injustice, gun violence, #MeToo, climate change, the pandemic, the war have all piled on top of one another, making preaching more important, more fraught, more stressful.  As Edie Godfrey said to me years ago, "You are the one who has to have something to say."  And there are so many things to have something to say about.  And there's an expectation to say something about them, but because of heightened tensions and social conflict that gets trickier.  For example, at the Festival of Homiletics in 2017 I remember discussing with colleagues how once sermons that weren't viewed as specifically partisan, such as welcoming refugees, suddenly were being viewed as such, as what the two parties stand for had undergone such shifts and polarization.

On the one hand you have to address the issues of the day, but the sermon can't become a weekly response to the news.  There is a balance that has to be found, and that balance isn't obvious or easy.  

I really enjoy that challenge.  But it is a challenge.  And only in the last few weeks of not doing it have I realized exactly how challenging and tiring it has become.  

So, maybe I'll learn a little from the Aztecs.  Townsend writes, "Like so many people in other times and places, they had to learn to make peace with their new reality so they would not go mad."


One of the key takeaways from my reading of David Clough's On Animals relates to the concept of glory.  

This comes in a chapter in which he's discussing the end (goal/purpose/point) of creation, and specifically in a section devoted to Wolfhart Pannenberg's argument that the goal of creation is the creatures.  Clough then quotes the scholar Christoph Schwobel on the topic of glory--"Glory is not a self-directed attitude, but the mutuality of glorifying the other and receiving glory from the other."  For Schwobel this mutuality "constitutes the communion of the divine life."  

But one can clearly take that concept and develop it.  For example, couple it with Irenaeus--"The glory of God is a humanity fully alive"--or with the Reformed catechism--"The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy God forever."  

One can even then take the concept and apply it more broadly in our relationships with all humanity and all creation.  What if we developed an ethic of mutual glorifying?

Keweenaw Peninsula

I last visited the UP, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in 2012.  At the time I was surprised to discover how wonderful it was and looked forward to returning and spending more time there.  In that trip, we visited Mackinac Island, saw Sault Ste. Marie and Tahquamenon Falls, and kayaked at Pictured Rocks.  

May be an image of nature and bridge

This visit we were on the western end of the peninsula, on the peninsula on the peninsula, Keweenaw, staying in the Houghton-Hancock area.  Our friends have a rental house on the canal, with a beautiful view.  That was our headquarters for the four days as we had fun and explored the area.  Once again I was struck by its beauty.

May be an image of bird, body of water, twilight, nature and sky

The area was once a center of copper mining, and there is a national historical site honoring the industrial and labor history of the area.  There are two universities and so the towns are vibrant with shops and restaurants.  We barely scratched the surface exploring them.  They also have fabulous parks, trails, and beaches.  We rode ATVs through the woods, canoed the water, went rock hunting along the shores of Lake Superior. 

May be an image of twilight, nature, lake, sky, tree and ocean

One day we drove to the northern point of the peninsula where a scenic mountaintop route opened to grand vistas.  We explored to local rock and jam shops and visited a couple of waterfalls and the old copper mine.  

May be an image of lake and nature

May be an image of lake, tree, twilight, nature and sky

Our last full day we boated down the canal to Lake Superior.  The big lake's waters were too rough for us to anchor and enjoy the beach there, but we enjoyed the day on the water and the stunning views.

May be an image of tree, nature and sky

Climate Changes & the Sabbatical

The night before we left on our first big trip of the summer, Omaha experienced a freak hailstorm.  In our part of town marble sized hail fell with heavy rain creating zero visibility and covering the ground like snowfall.  

One of the themes of this sabbatical is theology dealing with climate change.  I've already read a couple of books that help to address this crisis and have a few more to go.  A hailstorm on the Plains is not itself evidence alone of climate change, but is a reminder of the extreme and weird weather we are now experiencing and is become a regular feature of our lives and futures.

May be an image of waterfall and nature

Then, days later, the massive flooding occurred in Yellowstone.  Our big summer trip in July is planned to Yellowstone.  We had planned to visit my friend Barbara Ulrich in Gardner.  She was posting pictures of the rising waters that day before having to evacuate.  So for days we've waited to learn whether that trip will need to be changed.  The latest communication from the National Park appears that most of our plans will be okay, but some will be canceled and modified, though we wait for further communication.

But with climate change one of the themes, Yellowstone this summer becomes one of the places the changes have been apparent.  The Washington Post had a good article this week about all of the natural disasters that have already occurred and it isn't even officially summer yet.  

May be an image of lake, tree and nature

Meanwhile, we enjoyed our first trip.  We traveled to Minneapolis for Sebastian to spend some time with his family and then to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to visit one of his best friends and the family that used to be our nextdoor neighbors.  Two years ago our former neighbors, the Rossittos, moved to the UP.  One of their reasons was climate change.  They wanted to go someplace where the effects of warming would be minimal, where there's abundant freshwater, and where they could buy land to live off of in case that becomes necessary.

Water was a theme of the trip as we saw lakes, rivers, waterfalls, canals.  We visited beaches and went boating and canoeing.  I had thought I might find some time at the Michigan lake house to write, but the muse never struck.

One day, while in Minnesota, as Sebastian played with his cousin, I read the theology book On Animals by the side of the Mississippi River.  This book examines the key doctrines of systematic theology through the lens of prioritizing animals.  Looking forward to seeing wildlife on that July trip.

May be an image of 3 people, lake and nature

The Lying Life of Adults

The Lying Life of AdultsThe Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy Ferrante's style of writing. Particularly the way in which some subtle reference or mention of an object can later take on enormous weight. This novel also ends very effectively, not with every plot developed to a satisfying conclusion, but at an effective turning point for the protagonist. I like this confidence in ending at a point like that.

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Political Theology of the Earth

Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New PublicPolitical Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public by Catherine Keller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keller writes "in a time of heightened political disarray and lowered planetary hope" wondering if we have time to solve our problems, including the climate crisis? She refuses to give up, ceding to the ideologues on the right with a nihilism or hopelessness on the left. She does believe we yet have time to create a new public who can face our issues. That in fact our moment of overlapping crises can be a kairos moment, when a new public emerges. And she thinks that theology has a key role to play, largely because theology was complicit in getting us into our problems. Traditional theological categories have continued to influence contemporary secular politics and economics, and so alternative theologies (long existing in the tradition) must speak up in order to undermine the continuing secular power of the damaging categories.

After reading Ignatieff's On Consolation, I thought it was important to gain some perspective on how we deal with the issues we are facing. And Keller writes so beautifully. One of the best prose stylists in theology (not a discipline known for writing style).

I'm not sure I come away with any radically new ideas or energy. For one the theological position she advocates (Process based) has been mine for almost thirty years. Also, the book was published in 2018 and it's even more difficult after the crises of the ensuing years to muster hope that this is a kairos moment (though people taking to the streets in the summer of 2020 sure felt that way and I believe planted seeds that will have lingering affects in our body politic). Instead one wonders if we aren't headed for the Dark Years predicted by Richard Rorty? And if so if we've then lost the struggle to avoid the worst effects of climate change?

But, even if we have and even if we are headed to an ever darker period, the sort of vision and conviction that Keller evidences will be the sorts of lights we'll need to guide us through.

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Reconciling Ourselves: On Consolation, Part 7

"The Good Death" is the title of Ignatieff's final chapter, focusing on the hospice pioneer Cicely Saunders.  Ignatieff argues that in her creation of hospice care, Saunders "helped create a new secular practice of consolation, crafted from nursing, psychology, pain management, and therapy."  One might also had chaplaincy.

Her key insight was "What the dying needed was to talk about their lives, to make sense of them, to forgive themselves and others, to reconcile themselves to the ending of it all."

In the Epilogue he writes about dealing with his own parent's deaths.  This was when he first learned consolation.  And what he learned is that it is "both a conscious process by which we seek meaning for our losses and at the same time a deeply unconscious undertaking, in the recesses of our souls, in which we recover hope.  It is the most arduous but also the most rewarding work we do, and we cannot escape it."

He wrote the book because he drew consolation from people who had themselves wrestled with suffering.  The examples of others reveal ways for us to keep going.

He closes with a meditation on Czeslaw Milosz from whom he experienced that "to feel consoled, to be reconciled to one's losses, to have come to terms with one's shame and regrets, and to feel, despite everything, alive to the beauty of life."  And this is not work we do once and are done.  It is "the work of a lifetime."

I hope after these dark years we've all experienced, you've found some consolation in my detailed exploration of this book, which I intentionally read here at the beginning of my sabbatical.  There is much to heal, learn, and grow from in what we've all experienced, and in what I've experienced in my personal life.  I hope to use this sacred time away as a chance to really focus on the future and the possibilities ahead, to be alive to what comes next.

Bearing Witness: On Consolation Part 6

"To write poetry was to assert their belonging to a fellowship of witness, across the centuries, that made sense of the human project as a whole, and if it did this, it was a fellowship they hoped would extend into the future."  

Michael Ignatieff turns to three writers who bore witnesses to the great evils of the twentieth century--Anna Akhmatova, Primo Levi, and Miklos Radnoti.  Their bearing witness in the face of such evil was a form of "political hope" that is also a form of consolation.  That we exist and can read their works is their consolation, he contends.

And because we read them, we bear responsibilities.  He writes, "History has no consolations to offer because it never ends and its meaning is never settled, not even by witnesses as heroic and courageous as these.  History may have no consolation to offer, but it does leave us with duties.  Since they had faith in us, we should keep faith with them and defend the truths they bequeathed to us."

The writer Camus then gets a chapter of his own.  Camus is shaped by the context of the Nazi occupation and how such a thing functioned like a plague, robbing of the consolations of daily routine.  Which is why, Ignatieff says, the novel because such a solace to many in 2020.  The final paragraph of the Camus chapter is haunting:

We are not angels, we are not blessed, Camus is saying.  There is nothing to prevent the plague from erupting and scything through our certainties.  This, he wanted us to understand, is what it means to "live outside Grace."  It means living beyond an ultimate certainty or final consolation, beyond any belief that history has any meaning that a human begin can understand.  But he did not leave it there.  To live outside Grace is not to live without hope or examples of how one should live.  There are always good examples, and the ones he wanted us to see were very real and very specific: an old woman silently watching by the bedside of a stranger, keeping him company in the night, so he would not die alone.

But next is Vaclav Havel.  One of that generation of moral heroes who struggled against oppression and won liberation for their people, offering a glimpse that history might turn out differently than it has.  But Havel was not resigned to oppression or fate, he believed that we make history, and so we each in our own small way have to affect its path.  

He also writes of how Havel struggled to accept his own personal failures.  Ignatieff writes, "To own failure was to stop pretending that the person responsible was a discarded self and to accept that this person was always and eternally you.  To accept this failed self was to stop pushing your shame away.  This was what it truly took to 'live in truth.'"

Sabbatical First Week

This first week has largely been focused on getting Sebastian into his summer rhythm and catching up on things, including dental appointments and a few minor household projects.  I haven't yet settled fully into what my routine will be.  One lesson I remember from six years ago is that the time goes fast and you don't do all the things you thought you would.  So far I haven't done a lot of extra reading and the only extra writing so far has been the blog posts about my reading.  

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However, the first week has been a success.  I feel a lightness of spirit.  I've engaged in good self care in a variety of ways, from my long hike in the woods to going to see Top Gun: Maverick with my best friend to grilling delicious ribs to sitting on my front porch enjoying the lovely weather we've finally had in the last week.  Last night I had a feeling of contentment and how good a life I do have.  

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A week before the Sabbatical was set to begin I was in a very bad mood, culminating from almost a month of being down again (after having not been for much of the previous months).  I was worried that bad mood would carry into the sabbatical and spoil at least part of it.  I made a determined effort to think and feel better.  And it worked.

This morning I spent a couple of hours walking the Field Club Trail.  The sky was cloudy and there was a pleasant dampness to the air.  I took my time and even stopped a few times to smell flowers.  At the end of the trail, the grain elevators at 35th Street and Vinton have some marvelous street art.

May be an image of outdoors