On Making Sandwiches

Posted: June 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

This morning the paper towels were torn off the roller and floated onto the kitchen counter. Each little section took its place in the temporary runner to hold the slices of bread. The hands pulled the bread out of the plastic bag and laid each piece gently upon the bed of white. The assembly line moved each portion of the sandwich to its appointed destination, some peanut butter here, some jelly there.

Sometime between when the towels were lying all naked on the counter and they had received their first adornment it arose, the memory of another kitchen in a house from my youth. The hands that placed bread upon paper towels were those of my father. He was preparing sack lunches for his sons before they went to school. His posture was slightly bent over, like a watch maker inspecting the springs. These were his hands and not those of his wife, our mother, because her hands were now finally, eternally at rest. And he made the sandwiches.

Time and experience are sage teachers; a moment from youth is never seen the same from the vantage point of maturity. At the time I couldn’t have been less interested in such a sandwich making enterprise. Isn’t that what parents do, make sandwiches? Only now can I see that his frame was bent by loneliness and sadness over that counter. Only now do I wonder what he was thinking as he spread mayo on the bread and topped it with baloney. What does a widower feel as he makes sandwiches for hungry sons who are so focused on themselves they hardly notice him?

Much of what we do we do because we must, because if we don’t do it no one will. We try to do the right thing whether our heart is in it or not. And if we feel too sorry for ourselves we try to give up that pity party for Lent. But other times our busy hands let our minds and hearts drift up and out to places unknown to sons or daughters or friends or bosses or neighbors. They just think we’re making sandwiches.

In times like that, with paper towels on the counter, his mind may have actually been traveling back to the first time he handed her a sandwich on a napkin at a picnic on a summer day. And maybe she dabbed the napkin at the corner of her mouth and they laughed together in that dreamy young kind of way.

“Here, don’t forget your lunch,” he called out to the boys on the way to the bus.

“Thanks, Dad, see you tonight.”

“Yes, have a good day.”

 

 

We are now witnessing draconian cuts to state funded programs across the board, the most notable recent example being to the Missouri university system. Public education on all levels is taking the hit. It is not good for our citizens or society. It is not accidental. Why is this?

The immediate and simple answer is “necessary budget cuts.” Missouri legislators and administration reply, “These are the cards we’ve been dealt, now we have to be responsible money managers.”

No, these are the cards you dealt yourselves. How? Through a multi-year effort to reduce state taxes. Why this rush to the bottom when Missouri is already moving toward the basement when compared to other states?

The immediate obvious answer is the legislature. They made these decisions. So two questions: Why are they there and why are vast tax cuts part of their political orthodoxy?

The answer to both of those questions have to do with corruption and money in the state of Missouri. It undermines our democracy. This is a moral issue that affects all citizens regardless of party affiliation.

Our Legislature voted to release itself from ethics constraints pertaining to campaign contributions and lobbying gifts. And boy has the money flowed. The money has flowed from several Missouri mega-wealthy families and corporations. The money has flowed from lobbyist gifts. Big monied concerns have bought and paid for our politicians. They get them elected and keep them elected. They replace them when they don’t toe their line. We have legislative chambers filled with political prostitutes who have no accountability to their people.

These same monied power brokers pushed the agenda on cutting our already low state taxes. They pushed this agenda and expected their puppet representatives and senators to do the same – and they did. And that’s why we are facing a state-wide financial crisis. Don’t delude yourself, this is the reason.

But wait, there’s more. If you thought that was enough corruption, thank you very much, think again.

State district maps are drawn by a commission appointed by the political party in power. They draw the maps after the census. And when they draw those lines they do it in a way that sitting politicians cannot be defeated in future elections. They do not have to be responsive to their constituents. This is called gerrymandering. And it is endemic in Missouri.

How do we undo this corruption? Several essential steps must be taken. It will require a ballot measure for all citizens because you can’t put it in the hands of the fox who is guarding the hen house, the legislature and their monied Johns.

Eliminate almost all lobbyist gifts in the General Assembly.

Require politicians to wait two years before becoming lobbyists.

Lower campaign contribution limits for state legislative candidates to limit the      influence of big money and lobbyists in state government.

Require that legislative records be open to the public.

Ensure that neither political party is given an unfair advantage when new maps are drawn after the next census.

There is no mystery as to why we are experiencing what we are in the state of Missouri. There is vast corruption in our system. This is a deeply moral issue that should alarm all our citizens. And restoring justice will require citizens defying the monied powers that continue to control us and persuade us that this is really all for our own good.

 

In an era in which war has been glorified, glamorized, popularized, sensationalized and romanticized, anything that even resembles its reality has often been lost – so say those who actually know the untethered beast, the monster that rampages through the dust of civilizations. As of late a slender sheaf of authors have written with true personal knowledge of its reality. And of those some write with large and informed views. One of those is Karl Marlantes.

Marlantes is a graduate of Yale and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He served as a Marine Lieutenant in Vietnam, airdropped into the highlands of Vietnam in 1968 at the age of twenty-three, in charge of a platoon of forty Marines. He killed the enemy. He watched his men die. And he and some came home to live with the invisible wounds of it for decades.

What it is like to go to War is personal, honest, philosophical and moral to its core. Anyone who dares to reflect deeply on Mars the god of war does well to read it. It is not easy, but it is true. And I leave you with one quote to ponder on this Memorial Day:

“The more aware we are of war’s costs, not just in death and dollars, but also in shattered minds, souls, and families, the less likely we will be to waste our most precious asset and our best weapon: our young…The substitute for war is not peace; peace is a seldom-achieved political state of being. The substitutes are spirituality, love, art, and creativity…As long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, or who are simply insane, we will need people called warriors who are willing to kill to stop them…Warriors must always know the people they are protecting and why. They must undertake the personal responsibility for deciding when to kill and for what higher cause. This implies a commitment to a cause beyond self-interests, or even national interest alone.” (256)

imageSomewhere in the Midlands of England

in a darkened wood

emerges a stone-boundaried path

in the shape of a spiral

winding to a center

in which stands

an unmarked stone altar

on top of which

unknown hands

arranged another spiral

of little pebbles and twigs

at the center of which

lay a cross of two sticks

lashed by the stem of a flower

The Ubiquitus Labyrinth

Posted: May 23, 2017 in Uncategorized
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Out beyond the walled garden, the football field sized area boundaried with tall red brick wall, the place where the Abbey grows its many vegetables and flowers, the Launde labyrinth spans the last grassy plateau this side of the fence, the other side of which begins crop fields for as far as the eye can see. On the one hand this labyrinth is like so many others modeled after the mother in Chartres cathedral, an eleven track labyrinth, the form of which shows up in places like Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and in New Harmony, Indiana. That’s not hard to explain; people were moved by the one and replicated it in other places. Though the material and size/number of tracks varies, the form remains remarkably the same. These many labyrinths are constructed with pavers, gravel, hedges or paint on portable canvas. In this regard the Launde labyrinth stands out.

The Launde labyrinth is created in the natural grasses of the Abbey. That is, the track is laid out among the natural plants that grow there, the flora and creatures that are attracted to it. As you walk the path your feet tread on the turf itself, all banked with wind flora. In fact, the farther I walked the more I felt like one of the creatures who visited the circuitous pathway. With English courtesy I excused my bother to the bee before me. The two legged walkers are the most clumsy.

By the time I completed the labyrinth my shoes were sopping wet from the heavy dew. After all, I wasn’t walking on human-made materials, just a human created path through nature.

By strange contrast just a month earlier I was in the desertscapes of Arizona when I happened upon a familiar pattern. In the Kitt Peak area lived an ancient cluster of indigenous tribes that went loosely by the Tohono O’odham. They were hunters and gathers but also skilled farmers in the Sonoran desert. As I looked upon their ancient art and symbols I ran across something curious and familiar.

The “Man in the Labyrinth” is grounded in their foundational myth of origins in which the original first man makes a sacred journey across the desert to a holy mountain and a sacred cave within it. The same universal symbol is used to describe the long life journey each one must make and the wisdom that may be discovered among the joys and hardships. The universal symbol of origin and journey for the Tohono O’odham is the man in the labyrinth.

To find labyrinths where the source is fairly obvious – borrowed and transplanted elsewhere – is not a mystery. But this remote and isolated confederation of tribes did not have that type of exposure. Though they did assimilate the Spanish use of horses, they did not import their symbology. Why then is their primary symbol a labyrinth and a form almost identical to other labyrinths of the world? From whence did the design and its meaning come? Is there a universal underpinning that spans many cultures and geographies, one that even provides sacred shape to the human story?

Was I walking the same story through the grasses of Launde, England as those living in the Sonoran desert of Arizona told and walked? And if so, what basic, universal, primary fields of energy shape that all?

image

imageFor the last week of my sabbatical pilgrimage I have travelled to Launde Abbey in the English Midlands. This is the site of the original Augustinian monastery planted in the 1100s. For over 400 years they served as a community of prayer and work. But no amount of piety or good works can shield anyone from the rampaging boar of power. In the 1500s King Henry VIII – already at loggerheads with the Holy See over his latest marriage – got himself declared Head of the Church. Shortly after that he began to eye the prosperous monasteries scattered through the land. Using the justification that he had to erradicate that Catholic plague from the land, he swiftly acted to dissolve them. This was violent with force. And most importantly he captured the riches and wealth they held in order to fund his various coffer-draining wars. Consider: that was over 900 monastic houses and around 12,000 monks, friars and nuns.

Included in the list was Launde Abbey, another fatality of the dissolutions. The property was seized and then given to noblemen to live in. Thomas Cromwell – a primary architect of the dissolutions – had his eye on Launde but he never made it; the Tower of London was in his destiny and he received a very close haircut on account of charges of treason, which of course could be anything that happened to irritate the King.

The monastery was deconstructed, though – except for some of the chapel that still stands today. They converted it into a fine manor house and with renovations over the centuries it remains pretty much as it was reconstructed in the 16th-18th centuries.

Irony: In the 20th century a wealthy Squire bought it all back and, since his wife didn’t really want to live there, he donated it to the Diocese of Leicester. They in turn reconsecrated it and turned it into the retreat center of the Diocese. What goes around comes around.

Second Irony: I worshipped tonight in the chapel that is the only remnant of the original monastery church. And we used the liturgy straight out of the prayer book, the successor to Cramner’s Book of Common Prayer – authorized by none other than those who acted to destroy the monastery in the first place. Oh well. But it was a beautiful evening prayer.

Though I attend chapel several times a day and take my meals at the manor house, I am staying at the Hermitage on the property, a short walk from the mother house. Tradition has it that two students – one from Oxford and one from Cambridge – were preparing for the priesthood and staying there. So the name – Cambridge and Oxford House.

It’s not Merton’s Hermitage at Gethsemane in Kentucky, but hey, close enough.

 

Worship … Anglican Style

Posted: May 21, 2017 in Uncategorized

Take all those images of Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s London out of your head. Worship in an English Parish Church is just like American rural churches that also have 25 people in attendance, except there is so much incense you can hardly breath and you are following pretty much the Roman rite of liturgy with a few modifications.

In my service this morning we followed the regular order of the mass, a Phillipino priest presided, and we had people worshipping who were Anglos, Asians, Africans, Lithuanian, Iranian and students from other parts of the UK. When we shared the peace we really were. And the coffee fellowship hour following was full of conversation about who was from where. Such is the life a city church in an English University town.

The young college student from Yorkshire told me that of all her peers at school she only knew of one other student who self-identified as Christian. The others were with from other religions or secular. I reassured her that the trend was exactly the same in the US and that we have to adjust to being a minority in the culture at large, leaven in the lump so to speak. That’s what Jesus had and for that matter the early church before being a Christian became politically advantageous after Constantine.

They struggle, these churches do. Anyone living in a post-Christendom era with too many church buildings, too few priests and empty pews does. Don’t gloat, American churches. We’re following the same trajectory. And we’d better get used to the idea that being a spiritual person in the midst of a spiritual community is not a majority culture condition – except of course for cultural Christians who just parrot the values of the culture around then for the sake of expediency. But that doesn’t count. Anyone can do that and they do. Popular Christianity is not the same as being a professing Christian who follows the likes of Jesus.

And so I continue to meditate on the relationship between faith and culture. Every faith tradition gets embedded in the culture to which it goes and nests. That is many times fraught with troubles because any particular culture does not reflect the Christian way. And we confuse cultural values with Christian ones. But in every case – whether Leicester, England or Columbia, Missouri – one has to ask how the Christian story, truths and way of life can manifest itself among these particular people. That’s a life-long project.

I’m leaving Leicester city tomorrow and heading to Launde Abbey for a week-long spiritual retreat among its beauty, solitude and long Christian tradition.