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Garden Time

Garden TimeGarden Time by W.S. Merwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"the taste is a hush from far away"

What a great line.

This is my first time reading Merwin, and I rather like him. This particular volume resonated very well with this particular moment in time, as he's writing about aging and limitations, so there is a sadness that fits our stay-at-home pandemonium. The poem "Living with the News" is particularly apt and searing.

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A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearA Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A plague is a formidable enemy, and is armed with terrors that every man is not sufficiently fortified to resist or prepared to stand the shock against."

I had actually been contemplating reading this book of Defoe's sometime this year anyway. I had picked up my copy at the church's used book sale last year. A few weeks ago I decided it was timely.

The historical perspective helps to break us out of the fierce urgency of the now, reminding us of what remains the same and also that this too shall pass.

What Defoe describes is far more frightening than what we are currently encountering, at least here in Nebraska. And in this book about the 1665 London plague you encounter all the same issues we are in 2020.

I particularly liked reading his discussions of churches and clergy and how they ministered through the devastation. He is very severe on those ministers who ran away to avoid it all.

There's wisdom here as well, such as "Nobody can account for the possession of fear when it takes hold of the mind."

Also sobering. In the last few days I've read some article predicting we will be better after this crisis. Defoe writes about how the people of London were actually worse because they had been "hardened by the danger they had been in."

And I intend to begin using the phrase he does on the final page of the book, "This calamitous year."

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At Home: Labyrinths

Defoe

Daniel Defoe, in A Journal of the Plague Year, which I'm currently reading having intended to read this year even before the pandemic, writes this key paragraph:

Now let any man judge from a case like this if it is possible for the regulations of magistrates, either by shutting up the sick or removing them, to stop an infection which spreads itself from man to man, even while they are perfectly well and insensible of its approach, and may be so for many days.

To that end, I recommend Thomas Pueyo's "The Hammer and the Dance," which does the best job of anything I've recently read about the best current steps and what comes next.  

Even so, there are other voices.  As with any scientific question, there are unknowns.  There's this piece I read on Towleroad entitled "What's the Best Path Forward?"

Part of the value of reading Defoe, or any of the other classic works of plague literature, is that we so often live in the fierce urgency of the now, and historical perspective gives us some sense of what has always been case and the ways our time is not unique.  Also that this too shall pass.

One of my main worries last week was that I saw so much focusing only on one dimension of the problem--the medical questions of the virus (or secondarily the economy) but less about all the other well-being and moral issues implicated.  This week there does seem to be more of that, including more articles about mental health impacts of social isolation, the rise in domestic violence that has already occurred after only one week, and this article in The Atlantic "The Kids Aren’t All Right" about the lasting effects this trauma will have upon a generation of children.  I also had an engaging conversation with a professor of gerontology on Saturday who thought that nursing homes should be providing residents a choice instead of placing them unilaterally in lockdown.  Her reasons were that lack of visits from family and friends are proven to shorten life expectancy, so residents should be offered the choice of whether they want to run the risk of the virus and still be with family and friends.  This is vividly brought to light in my own congregation by a member who was already in hospice and yet now doesn't have those visits, at a time when she would normally be surrounded by people loving her into death.

Defoe has this (among other things) to say about churches in the midst of the 1665 epidemic in London, "Indeed nothing was more strange than to see with what courage the people went to the publick service of God even at that time, when they were afraid to stir out of their own houses upon any other occasion."  He writes about the courage of ministers staying in town and ministering to the citizens.  We are, of course, doing it differently in 2020.  Most of our connections these days are virtual.  This week's staff meeting was inspiring as we now are getting a little more used to everything and are beginning to come up with more innovative and interesting ideas for what to do.  Also this week we will be rolling out more of our programming.  The staff meeting was one of the things that yesterday helped to lift my mood.

Neptune painting

At Dadda's Preschool today was about the planet Neptune, which included painting our papier mache planet.  We also spent a good hour outside with Sebastian riding his bike and walking the church's labyrinth (which I recommend if you can get over there some day on your own).  While walking and biking the labyrinth, Sebastian kept asking, "Is this the right path?"  

I kept answering, "It is.  But it tricks you."

Sebastian biking the labyrinth

I also seemed to have a lot more work to do today.  I didn't come near to completing my to do for church or here at home.

Yesterday's paper in Omaha reported that our citizens are doing a good job of following the guidelines.  Fingers crossed.

 


At Home: Difficult Night

I confess last night and this morning were rough for me.  I believe I can safely say I'm depressed.  This situation is so contrary to all my normal ways of operating and many of my normal coping mechanisms for difficult situations don't seem well-suited to this one.  I do think it would be easier if I could be at a cabin by the lake with my husband and son and we had nothing to do.  I vacation where you are completely disengaged is something many of us long for, but this situation is not that, obviously.  I'm envious of those who can be home with family reading and getting bored.  

Last night I started reading W. S. Merwin's Garden Time, one of his last volumes of poetry, with reflections on aging and growing limitations.  There is a darkness to it that seemed fitting.  This poem stood out the most to me:

Living with the News

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box
that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere far back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight.

I haven't seen much yet written by America's leading philosophers (where you Martha Nussbaum?) but there's quite a lot happening in Europe.  In Sweden philosophers have helped design the ethical protocols for triaging care.  While a great debate has been stirred in Italy about the response to the virus taken there.  The European Journal of Pscyhoanalysis invited some leading thinker to respond to what Michel Foucault had previously written about the rise of the disciplinary state in the midst of plague.  You can read there contributions here.  Giorgio Agamben has, in particular, generated much controversy and response with what he has written about it.  Here is his latest.  And an Arendtian response to these European thinkers that I wish were longer can be found here.  A different perspective from a quarantined Italian philosopher is shared here.  Slavoj Zizek seems to have taken very different positions, here in an early writing and here in a more recent oneHis most controversial claim is that he thinks the crisis will result in a return to communism.

Altar

I think our worship live stream yesterday went reasonably well.  As of this morning we've had 370 views.  Yesterday we also had Zoom Sunday School and will be rolling out some other digital services this week.

Sebastian and I continue our study of the planets.  Yesterday we papier mached two balloons for the model solar system we are building.  Sebastian didn't want to touch the paste and was ready for a break after two.  I think when these (Neptune and Saturn) dry, we'll paint them so he can see finished product.  

Papier mache planets

He really enjoys his new book The Girl Who Named Pluto and has requested that we read it every night.  So this morning for our school time we watched a video about the New Horizons mission to the dwarf planet.  That occurred in 2015 when he was a newborn.  At the time the mission thrilled me--the idea that we as a species had the ability to design a spaceship that would travel that far and send back pictures, the reality that Pluto was so beautiful and sat there unobserved until that moment, the ideas that we as a species are capable of great things and that the universe is filled with beauty.  At the time I talked often to newborn Sebastian about the mission and showed him the photos NASA released.  His high chair became the "rocket chair" and as we traveled from the kitchen to the dining room we'd pass the various (newly named by humans) features of the planet such as the Sputnik Planum and the Norgay Montes.  Watching the video together this morning brought back all those lovely memories and helped my mood.

I recommend this article that I read yesterday entitled "Against Productivity in a Pandemic."


Among the Gorgons

Among the Gorgons: PoemsAmong the Gorgons: Poems by Michelle Boisseau
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The slow inspiration of an ancient tree adjusts the mind."

"The sun has climbed two fingers high and skimbles in the dew."

Just a couple of the lines I really liked in this book of poems, many of which are about dark and difficult topics--the illnesses and deaths of loved ones.

Crisp, evocative word choices characterize her writing.

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The Girl Who Named Pluto

The Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia BurneyThe Girl Who Named Pluto: The Story of Venetia Burney by Alice B. McGinty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our son has an abiding interest in space. This last week, with preschool closed, I asked what topics he wanted to explore while at home, and he chose "Space and Planets." So I ordered a few more books to assist with that and saw this one, which looked promising. He wanted to read it as soon as he saw it and really enjoyed it.

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Howard Thurman

The third in my series of the second volume of Gary Dorrien's history of Black Social Gospel Theology.  The last post was this one about Benjamin Mays.

Howard Thurman

Dorrien introduces Thurman with this paragraph:

Howard Thurman was a product of the southern black church and a classmate of Martin Luther King Sr.  In his early career he became a pastor, professor, social gospel leader, and Quaker-influenced mystic and pacifist.  Later he became an ecumenical leader of racial integration, a chapel dean, an advisor to movement leaders, a prolific author, and a spiritual influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. He may also have become a saint.  He played his most direct role as a civil rights leader in the 1930s and early 1940s, as a star on the lecture circuit.  Then he became a sage and author, exerting a different kind of influence.  Then his influence grew after he was gone.

Last year I posted this review of Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited.

A traumatizing early childhood experience at a funeral led Thurman to reject "authority religion, fear-based religion, and evangelism."  Also in childhood, his family were friends with educational reformer and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.

Of growing up in segregation, he wrote, "There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.  The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you."

Thurman wrote his master's thesis on sexual morality, sadly never returning the subject later in his writing career.  He argued that "sexual desire was an expression of the loving and unifying Spirit of God," according to Dorrien.  The thesis concluded that "the history of sex with its great power and its beauty of holiness is still in its infancy."

His motto for his mission work was "I go because he has something for me that I must have if I am to be what I ought to be."

According to Dorrien, through his education from Rufus Jones, Thurman became a mystic and pacifist and understood the value of these for African Americans as "Black pacifism was about relaxing sufficiently to enable creativity."  

While on an international mission trip, he was challenged to explain why African Americans would still believe in Jesus since Christianity had done so much to harm people of color.  He later turned this conversation and his answer into Jesus and the Disinherited.  He had a brief but important meeting with Gandhi where the latter emphasized that nonviolence never passive but is the only form of direct action.  Gandhi emphasized that one's life "must be a living sermon."  Gandhi asked the delegation to sing "Were You There" feeling that the song "gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering."

Thurman's was a socially engaged mysticism, but he himself did not want to be the movement leader, believing he had other contributions to make.  We would respond "Don't ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

Thurman pastored one of the first intentionally interracial congregations.  It was very progressive, rejecting traditional doctrines about Jesus as irrelevant for the oppressed in the modern age and emphasizing a universal love ethic.  "When I have lost harmony with another, my whole life is thrown out of tune.  For the sake of my unity with God, I keep working on my relations with my fellows.  This is ever the insistence of all ethical religion."  The point of religion is to be transformed by divine love.

Dorrien summarizes Thurman on this point about spiritual transformation: "The hope of the disinherited is to be included in the flourishing of democracy and the saving work of God's Spirit.  If moral truth is not universal, it is neither moral nor true.  The disinherited, while coping with their oppression, needed to claim their rights without reproducing the world's mendacity and hatred."


A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge

Principles, Dialogues and Philosophical CorrespondencePrinciples, Dialogues and Philosophical Correspondence by George Berkeley
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In 2016, while on a family trip to Ireland, we spent a couple of days in Kilkenny and our hotel was Berkeley House. The good bishop had gone to school in Kilkenny, so knowing he had some connection to the city, I asked the clerk if this was the house that Bishop George Berkeley the philosopher had lived in? She stared at me blankly and said she didn't know. Sigh.

In 2014, while at the Yale Writer's Conference, conference attendees all stayed in in Berkeley College, definitely named after the bishop. Annoying, Yalies mispronounce the name as if it is "Burk-ley" instead of "Bark-ley."

For some time now I've been reading back through the philosophical canon, including texts I last read in grad school a quarter of a century ago, such as this one, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.

I liked the Introduction, which I didn't remember being so strong. It is a criticism of abstract ideas with good discussions of how language works. Here he anticipates William James's pragmatism, Alfred North Whitehead's fallacy of misplaced concreteness, and some aspects of Analytic Philosophy. An example, "Whereas, in truth, there is no such thing as one precise and definite signification annexed to any general name, they all signifying indifferently a great number of particular ideas." A good rebuke to, among others, Socrates and his attempts to get THE definition of various concepts.

But after the Introduction, as Berkeley argues for Idealism--the philosophy that only ideas exist--I just found him much harder to take than I did when I first read it. And since I don't have to read it for a class or comps, I was able to quickly skim through, re-reading some texts I had liked before (such as a paragraph on the difficulty of understanding time that I quoted in my dissertation) but otherwise finding his arguments and claims rather bad.

So, interestingly, my recent re-reading of Leibniz elevated him in my appreciation and Berkeley drops in my estimation.

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the DeadDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Flights, this book is odd, but unlike it, this book is not transcendent. It is, however, an entertaining and provocative mystery story. It took me a while to get fully into it, but when I did, I enjoyed it. I understand that the book is intended to comment on aspects of contemporary Polish culture that might somewhat be lost on us, but we have our parallels.

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Benjamin Mays

The first post in this series as I read Gary Dorrien's Breaking White Supremacy, on the history of Black Social Gospel Theology, was about Mordecai Johnson.

Mays

In chapter 3 of the book, entitled "Moral Politics and the Soul of the World" Dorrien features Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman while discussing their interactions and Gandhi and influences upon King.  First Benjamin Mays.

The longtime President of Morehouse College grew up in South Carolina.  He said of this childhood, "The experiences I had in my most impressionable years, hearing and seeing the mob, observing the way my people were treated, noting the way in which they responded to this treatment, never having developed any white friends in the county, and living all my early years in a rented house--all this left me with a feeling of alienation from the country of my birth."  He described growing up in this segregated world that "the wings of ambition were crushed at birth."

Attending Old Mount Zion church where James F. Marshall was pastor, Mays later described Marshall's gospel--"primarily an opiate to enable them to endure and survive the oppressive conditions under which they lived at the hands of the white people in the community."  

Mays determined to pursue an education to have something more out of life.  In college he described feeling at home in the universe.  Inspired by the socialist Eugene Debs, Mays wanted a heroic Jesus, not meek and mild.  In seminary he learned and adopted the latest liberal thinking.  In his dissertation entitled "Pagan Survivals in Christianity," he argued that acknowledging these meant that "Christianity was inevitably bound up with the environmental forces of the Roman world; that it is an evolutionary movement; and must be modified, as all movements are, by its environment."

Dorrien records that Mays was fond of saying that "no person is free who backs away from the truth."

In a landmark early study, Mays criticized the black church for its conservative theology and failure to grapple with social issues.  But this wasn't really their fault as this resulted from oppression.  He did admire it as a "genuinely democratic fellowship."

Mays embraced the black social gospel--"It does not encourage one to wait for justice in the other world.  It does not dissipate itself in mere feeling."  Rather, "It tends to give one poise and balance to struggle for social righteousness here on the earth."

Mays was one of the first scholars to contend that there was a unique theological contribution in the black church where their ideas of God were "chiseled out of the very fabric of the social struggle."

Mays became a leader in the international ecumenical movement, which brought him to India and an important meeting with Gandhi in 1937.  He brought Gandhi's message of nonviolent resistance back to the US and began to write and speak about it.  

He was a part of international efforts of Christians to challenge the rise of Fascism in Europe, but her feared that the movement was too late.  He was discouraged when ecumenical statements of denominations were not embraced by congregations; he wrote "social custom makes cowards of most Christians and I fear the majority of ministers."  He proclaimed that "When the church truly repents, let us not deceive ourselves, it will be a suffering church."

Racism and a problem created by modern Christianity arising from the colonial project of European powers.  He wrote, "It is the modern church that again crucifies the body of Christ on a racial cross."  He authored the Federal Council of the Churches 1946 condemnation of segregation.  

He held out hope for a transformative movement--"If Germany through brutal means can build a kingdom evil in one decade and if Russia, through brutal processes, construct a new order in two decades, we can democratize and Christianize America in one generation."

Dorrien contends that Mays's most important legacy was his mentorship of his student Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dorrien writes that King chose Mays as a model when leadership in the movement was thrust upon him as a young age.

May declared, "I just want to be human and be allowed to walk the earth with dignity."