300 Miles to Ranching Country for a Funeral

The weather report indicated that there was a chance I was going to drive into a snowstorm.  I didn't relish the thought.  Obviously.  But I still left my house at 5:30 a.m. Friday planning to drive almost 300 miles into north central Nebraska ranching country to attend a funeral of a woman I'd met twice.

Agatha Forsyth was the wife of one of my United Church of Christ clergy colleagues, the licensed lay pastor Diana Jahn.  Diana I have interacted with numerous times over the years at denominational meetings, always enjoying my conversations with her.  My fascination has always been that she was serving as an openly gay clergy person in a tiny country church.  There was a time when she and I were the only openly gay UCC clergy in the state.  I deeply admired in 2015 when she signed our Ready-To-Marry statement and the Lincoln Journal-Star focused on how even this small rural church was gay welcoming.

So, to honor my colleague, in more ways than one, I wanted to travel those hundreds of miles into a snowstorm for her wife's funeral.

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Purdum, Nebraska lies deep in the Sandhills, far from any major towns or highways.  The Sandhills are one of North America's most interesting and unique landscapes, though often overlooked for more dramatic mountain vistas.  The grass covered hills and small lakes and ponds make this ideal ranching country.

A few years ago Diana and Agatha were already living and ranching in Purdum, having moved there 13 years ago from Maine, when the church needed a new pastor.  The congregation itself asked Diana to become their pastor.  She received the training and was licensed to the church.

The forecast had predicted rain changing to wintry mix for most of my drive, but that held off.  Because of flooding and washed out roads and bridges, the quickest route wasn't the most direct.  I traveled west along I-80 to Grand Island, Nebraska and then turned northwest for more than two hours along the Sandhills Scenic Byway of Highway 2.

In Broken Bow, Nebraska, almost four hours into my journey, sleet changing to snow began to fall.  It quickly became very thick, covering the road, and making travel slippery.  I began to contemplate turning around.  I feared driving into more remote country (and spotty cell coverage) with bad weather.  Plus, the snow was slowing me down such I feared I wouldn't make it on time, but I only had a little more than an hour left to travel, so I continued forward wondering what to do, when suddenly the heavy snow let up and the road became easily traversable again.

An hour later there was a lovely moment as I rounded a bend in the road which lies in the river valley of the Middle Loup--the Burlington train was moving west along rails lying beside the highway, a lone cow was grazing in the foreground, the Sandhills were rising in the background, and Classical music was playing on the radio.

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I arrived in Halsey with time to spare, so drove on past my turn to see the Nebraska National Forest.  If you are puzzled by the idea of a national forest on the Great Plains know that the forest was hand planted.  While driving through the forest, a massive hawk flew majestically overhead.

Purdum, an unicorporated village, lies 18 miles north of highway 2 at Halsey, and those 18 miles are directly through the abrupt rolling hills of the Sandhills.  What a fascinating landscape with almost no trees or shrubs and only the occasional turnoff for a ranch.  I wondered what the drive will be like in a few weeks with green grass and wildflowers.

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And suddenly there's Purdum, with the church as the primary public building.  The place was full, as it seems the surrounding community all turned out.  Nine of Diana's clergy colleagues were in attendance, almost all from the eastern side of the state, so we shared our adventures in driving that early morning.

The music for the service included "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings," and closed with k. d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."  One of Agatha's friends celebrated "this marvelous, crazy woman."  The eulogy was delivered by a local woman who talked of how central Agatha and Diana have been not only to the church but the community.  Near the close of her remarks she thanked Agatha and Diana for teaching the community "not to judge."

And I found myself crying after those words as Bette Midler sang on the recording.  Here in the remote ranching country of the Sandhills was this wide, inclusive, gay-affirming embrace of the Christian church.  In a place that stereotypically it would be least expected.  And it was being honored and celebrated.

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After a delicious country funeral lunch with multiple pasta and jello salads (maybe 7 of the latter?) and a smorgasboard of desserts (I limited myself to three), I got on the road for the return trip.

The radio kept warning about the snow in western and north central Nebraska, but I hadn't needed a coat in Purdum and there was very little precipitation until once again I neared Broken Bow where it started in almost the exact same place it had stopped for me en route almost four hours before.  Now Broken Bow was covered in what looked like 3 inches of snow.  It snowed until the other side of the town.  In my entire 600 miles of driving it snowed only in Broken Bow, both coming and going.  So odd.

In Grand Island I stopped for coffee with the Rev. Stephen Mitchell and his husband.  Stephen has been pastoring our UCC church there since last year, but we hadn't yet had time to really sit down and get to know one another.  I needed the stop, as I was beginning to tire, but the rest fortified me for the final leg home. Stephen and Paul have 30 grandchildren.

I told Stephen I had joked with Michael that morning, "I'm on my great gay clergy tour of Nebraska, seeing all three of us."

I arrived home around 6:30, 13 hours after leaving.  Michael had fixed a delicious dinner of roast pork.  After dinner it was my night for bedtime routine with our son.

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The Self

Today as I was driving back from Fremont, Nebraska, where I delivered cleaning supplies donated by our church members for flood relief, I was listening to the TED Radio Hour and its discussion of time.  This segment on the self with Dan Gilbert was very interesting, especially as it resonates with a view of the self promulgated by philosopher David Hume which I teach in intro.  I think I'll use this excerpt from now on when explaining that idea.

The NPR website's description of the segment should spark your interest:

Psychologist Dan Gilbert shares research on what he calls the "end of history illusion," where we think the person we are right now is the person we'll be for the rest of time. Hint: that's not the case.


The Golan Heights

Yesterday one of my friends sent me a link when Donald Trump announced that the United States was recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  When I messaged back, "I probably agree with him on this point. Does that surprise you?" He responded "Yes. More than a bit...explain."

In December of 1993, I visited the Golan Heights as part of a university tour/class.  We were staying in a kibbutz on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee for a few days in order to tour sites around the lake and in the northern part of the country.  One day I drive took us along the eastern shore of the lake and up into the heights.  We stopped at what had once been Syrian artillery emplacements.  From this location you could see the Syrian border to the east and also Israeli military installations along the border, which we were cautioned not to photograph.

But it was standing in those artillery emplacements, which overlooked the entire region of the Galilee, that I realized Israel never would, nor could it, surrender the Golan Heights to an antagonistic Syria.

Of course I had hoped such a determination would be made as part of some regional peace treaty.  Both Jim Baker and Warren Christopher (gifted diplomats) spent incredible effort trying to negotiate with Hafez Assad, to no avail. And no peace treaty is within sight.

Finally, we do not recognize the current Syrian government as legitimate; they have abdicated their role, so it is the perfect time to, in essence, punish the Assad regime by providing support for the loss of their territory.


Grounds of Natural Philosophy

Grounds Of Natural PhilosophyGrounds Of Natural Philosophy by Margaret Cavendish
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book almost twenty years ago when I was teaching at course at the University of Oklahoma An Exploration of the History of Women in Philosophy. Each year senior grad students could apply to teach a course of their own design, and my final year of grad teaching I was accepted to teach this course I created. One of my goals in teaching such a course was compelling my own research into female philosophers so that I might enrich my own understanding in order to develop better courses for the future that would include the voices of women, something I believe I've been better about in my subsequent teaching.

I encountered Margaret Cavendish first in an excerpt in Margaret Atherton's Women in Early Modern Philosophy (a textbook for my course) and was able to discover that this major work of hers had been republished. I read it at the time with much interest, in particular noting the ways that her materialism anticipated the physicalisms I was drawn to, as it was reductive. I felt she had some affinities with process thought.

In re-reading this time around, I didn't encounter anything really new that jumped out to me, but it was good to refresh my acquaintance with this work, as Cavendish is someone I reference in my intro course.

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Our Love

Our Love

Luke 6:27-38

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

24 February 2019

 

 

            This Epiphany Season we have explored what it means for us to be Children of God.  When we are baptized, we are marked by God in a special way, as we commit ourselves to follow Jesus.  What are the implications for our identity and our ethics? 

            One implication we have explored is that we must live an ethic of “covenantal neighborliness,” to use Walter Brueggemann’s term.  Here in today’s passage, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, we get the most radical edge of Jesus’ message.  We are called to view even our enemies as neighbors.

            Hear now this sermon of Jesus, from the Gospel of Luke:

 

            Luke 6:27-38

 

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Heavenly Parent is merciful.

 

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

            “As if the Beatitudes were not radical enough, the sermon now pushes vulnerability to fresh extremes,” writes Brendan Byrne in his commentary on this passage.  Jesus wants us to love our enemies.  What can that possibly mean, and how can we possibly do it?

            Byrne writes that Jesus wants us to respond to “injury or unreasonable demand with nothing but generosity and the abandonment of all claim to retribution or restitution.”

            This is clearly a very different way of living than our contemporary American culture teaches us.  No revenge.  No getting even.  No carrying hatred or bitterness.  But generosity, vulnerability, and love.

            Now Brendan Byrne wants to let us off the hook a little bit.  He admits that Jesus is speaking in exaggeration: “[Jesus] is not laying down maxims to be followed literally,” Byrne writes.  Rather, Jesus wants us to aim at being “as extravagantly generous as possible.”  Even to the degree that others think we are foolish.

 

            I’ve talked before about our attitudes to the vulnerability of the human condition.  One way we often respond is to try to control every situation in order to minimize our vulnerability.  The theologian Elizabeth Gandolfo writes very critically against this attitude in her book The Power and Vulnerability of Love.  There she identifies privilege as one of the ways we try to minimize our vulnerability.

            Two weeks ago we heard Lawrence Richardson preach about joy from the margins.  We heard from someone who did not grow up with privilege.  He grew up African-American in a predominately white neighborhood.  His parents were impoverished teenagers with mental illness.  As a child he experienced neglect, homelessness, physical and sexual abuse. 

            And yet he stood before us a successful minister filled with joy.  He couldn’t escape the vulnerabilities of his human condition.  Instead he has embraced them and grown stronger, more joyful.

            Those of us with more privilege have socially acceptable ways to minimize our vulnerability and try to ignore it or control it.  Elizabeth Gandolfo writes, “Privilege is the produce of human anxiety over vulnerability; it is a collective attempt to alleviate anxiety through control of vulnerability.” 

Our privileges help to buffer us from the risks of human life, but the problem is that the way privilege generally works in this society is that some have it and others do not.  The underprivileged are then harmed by denial of resources or access to power and influence, and thereby they suffer even more. Gandolfo writes that privilege, then, ends up causing more suffering and enacting greater harm.

So, instead, Jesus wants to cultivate an ethic of neighborliness, of generosity, of vulnerability.  But how do we do it?  How do we follow Jesus in ways that are healthy?

 

            Recently I read a fascinating book Light in the Dark by Gloria Anzaldua.  I wrote my column in the newsletter about it a few weeks ago.

            Anzaldua was an American scholar of Chicana cultural theory, feminist theory, and queer theory.  Light in the Dark is a discussion of how we put ourselves together again after we’ve been broken apart by trauma. 

            She wrote, “We are all wounded, but we can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others.”  I believe this wisdom helps us to understand how we follow Jesus into an ethics of vulnerability and generosity that loves even our enemies.

            Anzaldua drew upon an Aztec myth of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui.  In that myth Coyolxauhui is dismembered and then restored.  The myth resonates with the story of Jesus—wounded by the crucifixion and carrying those wounds into his resurrected and glorified body. 

 

From the Aztec myth, Anzaldua developed what she called “The Coyolxauhqui Imperative” which is “the act of calling back those pieces of the self/soul that have been dispersed or lost, the act of mourning the losses that haunt us.”  In other words, how we put ourselves back together again after we have suffered.

            She continued,

 

The Coyolxauhqui imperative is to heal and achieve integration.  When fragmentations occur, you fall apart and feel as though you’ve been expelled from paradise. . . .    Coyolxauhqui is also my symbol for reconstruction and reframing, one that allows for putting the pieces together in a new way.  The Coyolxauhqui imperative is an ongoing process of making and unmaking.  There is never any resolution, just the process of healing.

 

            For Anzaldua, after wounding we enter an in-between space.  We’ve been unmade and haven’t yet remade ourselves.  She called this in-between space nepantla from a Nahuatl word.  It is the site of imagination and the possibility of transformation, for, she wrote, “We can transform our world by imagining it differently.”

            When we are in this in-between space, we are able to get in touch with our shadow sides.  She wrote, “Our collective shadow—made up of the destructive aspects, psychic wounds, and splits in our own culture—is aroused, and we are forced to confront it.  In trying to make sense of what’s happening, some of us come into deep awareness of political and spiritual situations and the unconscious mechanisms that abet hate, intolerance, and discord.”

            In other words, after we are wounded, we are able to see the shadow sides of human nature—ours and everyone else’s.  This vision enables a new imagination, to see the world in a different way.

            I also believe this vision enables us to understand our enemies differently.  We see their vulnerability, their woundedness.  We understand better what we share in common.  Anzaldua encourages us to learn from our experiences of trauma and to turn those experiences into the creative powers necessary to lead ourselves and others into a new and better world.

 

            When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he isn’t calling for us to ignore their violation of our dignity.  No, he is calling for us to recognize even theirs.  He is calling for us to find solidarity in our vulnerability, and to then turn that realization toward imagining, that ultimately works to create a better world.  A world where violations of our dignity are less likely to happen.

            Jesus calls us to a radical love, that is inclusive, expansive, generous, neighborly, and vulnerable.  A love that treats everyone with dignity.

            Let this become our love, for we are children of God.


The Member of the Wedding

The Member of the WeddingThe Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I admired most about this novel was the way McCullers evoked a setting. You are drawn into the small world she creates for her characters in this story of adolescent angst at small town living. The characters, the scene, the atmosphere, the inner moods, all are richly developed. And while not much happens plot-wise, what does unfolds carefully and with more attention to emotion than detailed events.

I was left puzzling over how this compares and contrast to To Till a Mockingbird as story of a white girl growing up in a small town in the segregated South. This is probably the more realistic sort of story.

Another interesting sub-theme is the exploration of gender non-conformity, which I wasn't expecting in the novel.

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