Friday, December 28, 2012

God and Life of Pi

I love the book and the recent film, The Life of Pi.   It is a delightful story.  I especially enjoy that point in the book when Pi is discovered by his parents and the religious leaders as a Christian, a  Muslim, and a Hindu.   I used this scene in a sermon several years ago when my congregation was reading the Qur'an cover to cover.   Pi is found out and told that he cannot practice all three religions.

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.

It is the story a shipwrecked boy who survives in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.   The story is told in the first person. It isn't until the end of the novel and the film that the main character admits that the tiger part was a story.  He tells then another much more brief story about other people in the lifeboat who do not survive.   But what is the better story, the one with the tiger or the one that seems more likely?  Such is God.  The author, Yann Martel interpreted The Life of Pi  in this interview:

"Life is a story. You can choose your story. A story with God is the better story."

The Life of Pi is a parable in a sense about God and about faith in God.  It is also about interpretation of reality.   In another interview, Martel said:

"What I was trying to do in this book was try and discuss how we interpret reality - most secular readers will read the book and say 'Ah, okay, there's one story told and actually something else happened, and Pi 'invented' this other story to pass the time, or make his reality bearable. That's the secular. The other one, the more religious interpretation, would just be the story you're reading and that's what happened..."

That seems to me to be a helpful way to to understand God.   God is a matter of interpretation.   Faith is choosing your story.  Would that satisfy orthodox Christians?   Perhaps.  He goes on to say:

"Reality isn't just "out there", like some block of cement: reality is an interpretation. In a sense we co-create our reality. And we do that all the time, every day. One day we wake up and we're in a great mood, the city we live in is a beautiful city, the next day it's an ugly city. That's just the way we interpret things. We're not free necessarily to choose the facts of our life, but there is an element of freedom in how we interpret them."

I loved the book and film and I am intrigued by the philosophy.  It is only with appreciation that I write the following.   I am not sure that I agree at the end of the day that in regards to life that "a story with God is the better story" at least for me.    I come at this with a lifetime of personal experience with God including twenty years in the ministry.

The story of God in my experience has been a story that has silenced other stories.   God vs. science, for instance.   God and hell and sin and punishment, vs. personal growth for another instance.  God and superstition vs. personal responsibility for yet another.      In all of these cases I have had to take leave of God for that which has been for me more real, more beautiful, and more satisfying.

For those who will tell me that I just have the wrong God story, I hear you.   I am glad your God story is better.   But I don't think I am alone in this.  I know I am not.  The God story for many of us, in fact, I might say the dominant God story in our country is a story that is a far worse story than the secular story.
I will take the story of natural selection any day over Genesis 1-3 as a better story.   The God story there includes all kinds of sin and guilt that I am grateful to have left behind.   I will take the story of the Universe that began 13.7 billion years ago and will continue long after the last human being has breathed her last over against the God story of Revelation and of the Second Coming of Jesus.    I like the science story a lot more than I like the God story.    It is the science story that has made the universe beautiful, holy, and sacred to me. 

I like the secular story of Jesus and the Bible more than I like the pious story of Jesus and the Bible.   I far prefer the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith.   I far prefer the Bible as a human product than as the word of God.  I far prefer God as a human creation than humans as a creation of God.   I like some of the stories of God.  Some are interesting.   All are creative.   I see them all as human creations.

That is the whole point of Life of Pi, isn't it?   We get to choose our story.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Here is a picture of our tree from the loft.  It has a bent top like the Grinch's mountain.

Blue lights and tears this year...

Still, a holy and sacred time.   We are grateful for so much.   Merry Christmas everyone.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Another Dream

I just woke up, sobbing.  I haven't done that in a while.   I dreamt about him.  He was back and he was reading.  He was barefoot.   He acted and spoke the way I remember.   In my dream he was reading on the couch.  He looked up with a kind of dazed expression, with his mouth slightly opened, to pretend to be annoyed.   He was reading something for school.  I was so glad he was back in school, but he just seemed annoyed by it.

It seemed as though the first part of his book was blank and he was starting in the middle, like in the middle of the semester.  I tried to talk to him about it, but he didn't want to talk about it.   It was as though he didn't want to let me be too close as if it was too much work to make me understand.  He was reading about the Civil War.  I thought it was kind of strange to be starting so late, in the middle of the semester, but I didn't care since he was with us.   I realized I needed to hug him, so I wouldn't lose him again.  I ran over and hugged him from behind and sobbed to him,

"Zach I love you.  I didn't get to tell you that I loved you before."  

He said,

"Yes, you did."  

The way he said it was so real.  I can just hear his voice, the tone, the inflection.  It was the voice he used when he thought we were bugging him or wanting him to do something he didn't want to do.   He said,

"Yes, you told me.  You told me all the time."   

I insisted.  I held him harder.

"No, I didn't tell you enough.  I need to keep telling you."  

I thought if I could keep telling him and keep hugging him he wouldn't go.   Then I woke up.

I feel like I am back in July and he just left.    As I write this, I feel that pain in my chest that I felt for weeks (or was it months?) after he died.   I sobbed when I woke.   The dream was so real.  He was so close.  It is so wrenching, yet it was so good to recall his mannerisms and his voice through the dream.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Happy Xmas

Our church newsletter is going out this week for Christmas and the month of January. I write inspiring wisdom from "the pastor's computer." The deadline is here and the well is dry. This is what they will get...

Dear Friends,

I really don’t have much to say. I simply don’t have a Happy Christmas or New Year’s wish in me. I am supposed to write a letter for the White Spire and I simply have little more than tears. I grieve for a hurting and warring world, for children in Connecticut, for children in Pakistan, Gaza, and Syria, and for children around the world, and for their parents if they have them.

I grieve my boy. Sorry, but it is just real.

I turn to one I often turn to for the music, words, and passion that capture my heart. These are the lyrics from John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas: War Is Over.” 
So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong

And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight

War is over
If you want it

Blessed Be,

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sandy Hook

I have known of no one who has ever heard of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, outside of my family, of course.   I know about it because my sister lives there.  She and her husband raised their children there.  Their son and his wife raise their children there as well.   I have been to Sandy Hook many times.   Sandy Hook is a pretty little New England village in the town of Newtown.   No one should ever need to know of it.  Now everyone has heard of it.  

My dear little great niece wasn't in school on Friday.  She was home sick.   Otherwise she would have been at school.   Do I thank God for that?   I don't thank or blame God for anything.   God to me is nothing more than an expression that has lost meaning.   Yet I struggle to express on one hand, incredible relief and on the other, wrenching heartbreak for the parents of these children.    Yes, I with my family are so relieved she is not hurt. I am, as is my family, heartbroken for other parents.   That is reality.

I don't know personally anyone there outside of my family.  My family will know them.  They will know the parents and grandparents.  They will know spouses and family members of the adults who were killed.   They will know the children.   As the names are made public they will know them and know friends who know them and they will do what they can to provide comfort, to cry, to express rage, all of it.  The pain is and will be excruciating for a long, long, time.

Long after the news cycle has moved on to other tragedies, this community and my family will find the broken shards of their lives and put them together with courage, compassion, and sheer determination.  They will create new lives and survive this.  They won't get over this but they will live through it and with it.

I am so, so sorry Sandy Hook.     I am heartbroken.

I am also angry.

I am angry at the shooter.  Angry at the world, fella?  If you won't get help then have the decency just to kill yourself, OK?  I am angry that he slipped through whatever societal safeguards are supposed to be in place to help people like him.    I am angry that he didn't get whatever it was he needed so he wouldn't hurt others.  I am angry regarding the stigma and the ignorance surrounding mental illness.  I am angry that we don't have a more descriptive phrase than "mental illness" for whatever it was that motivated him to do this.  We might as well say "demons."

I am angry that people "possessed by demons" can get access to assault weapons!   I am angry at the crazy gun culture in which we live.  I am angry that we let weapons of mass destruction be so available and do nothing but wring our hands when 20 children are murdered in an elementary school.   I am angry that these killing tools are being manufactured in the first place.   I am angry that it is easier and cheaper to get an offensive military style weapon than it is to get mental health care.   I am angry at the people who profit from these killing machines and who spread lies, misinformation, and a warped sense of freedom that it is a "right" to own these children killers.   

I am heartbroken.  I am angry.  Mostly I am afraid.  I am afraid that our culture has taken a path of no return toward a societal death wish.  We have decided that it is more important to protect our right to own weapons of mass murder than it is to protect children from them.   For that, I weep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


The other day after a sermon, I was asked, "Do you believe in God?"  I set up a coffee with the questioner to talk about that and other things.  I am always game for that kind of discussion.    I think we are in a period of time in which questions like that need to be asked and answered honestly and forthrightly.   I think we need to take the time to define the terms and I think we need to examine the "back story" and ask ourselves what is at stake.
What does that question mean?   What really is being asked?   It seems to me if we want to ask someone if they believe in God, we ought to be able to be clear about what we mean by God.   We should provide a definition of God.    Only then does it make sense to talk about belief or unbelief.    We should also define what we mean by "believe" as well.     

When someone asks whether or not I believe in God (or makes statements about their perceptions of my belief), the question and statement are meaningless without definition.   These questions and statements are little more than vehicles for smear, to exercise power, or to manipulate.    When we are speaking about clergy who are supposed to, if anything, "believe in God", even though there is no consensus as to what that means, one can create many scandals without adding anything of value to the discussion.    I think the discussion regarding God is important and worthwhile.   It has to be deeper than either s/he "believes in God or doesn't."

What is at stake regarding "belief in God?"   We can talk about the problem of God from an intellectual or rational point of view.   What really drives us, I think, is the emotional and intuitive affect that belief in God has on us.    Those who believe in God may experience presence with their deceased loved ones, courage, hope for the future, reduced anxiety about their own deaths, a sense of not being alone, peace, a focal point for prayer, belonging, a sense of duty, and so on and so forth.    If belief in God gives you that and more why would you want to think critically about God?   Why sow seeds of doubt?   As they say on the farm: "Why look a gift horse in the mouth?"

Clergy who bring critical thinking regarding these matters into the pulpit are not received well.   At least for the most part.  Clergy learn this early.   No clergy person wants to be perceived as mean or cruel.   It is like the boy who lives next door who who tells your boy that there is no Santa Claus.    Your boy comes crying to you.  As a parent you get your dander up.   The neighbor kid is cruel, you think.   Or is he?   Eventually, your kid is going to learn that Santa Claus is a hoax.    Someone has to be the "bad guy" who tells the truth.   You have just passed on the dirty work of truth telling to the kid next door.   He's not to blame.  He is the messenger.      Clergy do not want to be the messenger regarding critical thinking about God.  They are paid to reinforce belief.

Here is the problem.  It is getting harder and harder to keep this belief going.     God critically examined logically leads to atheism.    Religious creeds about God are incredible.   David Galston in his recently released book, Embracing The Human Jesus:  A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, writes in a footnote:

"I think we live in an era of post-atheism.  We have to accept  the conclusions of atheism and move forward with new forms of human spirituality that are not inconsistent with our best knowledge about the origins of life and the nature of the universe."  p. 216, n. 1.

David is my guest on an upcoming Religion For Life.   He has started a community based on humanistic principles.   It is in a sense, Christianity without God, which is the title of a marvelous book by Presbyterian clergy person and scholar, Lloyd Geering.

In the interview David elaborates on the phrase, "post-atheist."  Post-atheism accepts the conclusions of atheism, but then takes the next step and imagines and enacts religious practice without recourse to supernatural intervention.    If God is a human construct and religion a natural phenomenon, what might a practicing faith look like?    I think that is an exciting challenge.   David Galston offers some interesting possibilities from his own community, The Quest Learning Centre for Religious Literacy, in Hamilton, Ontario.

We have begun to imagine a Christianity without God, a Christian atheism, or a Christian post-atheism.   This would be a functioning, practicing community birthed by Christianity that carries within it the "DNA" of Christianity, including for many the use of Jesus as a wisdom teacher.    Of course, many Unitarian Universalist congregations have taken a similar path.  Now more and more historically Christian congregations are likely to explore this path as well.    Many of these call themselves, "progressive."

What about the emotional pull of "belief in God?"   What about all the good stuff belief in God gives you?   Is that all lost?    Perhaps not all.    If one cannot intellectually believe in a supernatural being who answers prayer, connects us with our deceased loved ones, intervenes to meddle with natural processes, and provides a vehicle for our consciousness to survive death, then it would seem to be a challenge to sustain "belief in God" on the emotional level anyway.   

I am not making an argument in this post for atheism.  I don't need to do that.  That conclusion has been available for a long time.   The church has lived in denial of it, but it is the intellectual reality of our time.  I am arguing for the church to embrace rather than hide from what we know intellectually.   I am also making the case for a post-atheism that draws from science, art, and the humanities, as well as our religious traditions.

What if we made the choice to internalize, both within ourselves and within our communities, the values and the feelings we previously projected onto God?   In other words, what if we brought God home?   If God is a product of our storytelling, then the qualities that we have given to God may be available to us.   After all, we made them.   "Believing in God" would mean the following:  Make hope happen.  Make courage and compassion happen.   Make love happen.   Make peace happen.  Enact prayer.

When our children are thrust with tears and dashed hopes into the reality of "a-Santa Clausism," the cure and the care for them is "post-Santa Clausism."  That is we encourage them to become Santa.  Thus they learn to grow up.   Santa becomes a symbol for generosity and joy.  Developing generosity and joy within is a pretty good trade off for belief in a supernatural being who is supposed to do all that for us.  That is what it means to "believe in Santa."

Perhaps something similar might be at work with "belief in God?"

It is food for thought.  Don't execute the messenger!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas Without You

Zach and his cousin, Gavin, last Christmas. 

I just can't believe Zach won't be here.

The Answer Is No

No, I am not going to get that done by then.

No, I am not doing that again this year.

No, I am not going there this time.

No, I do not know what I am doing.

No, I am not going to fix your problem that no one else cares about but you.

No, I do not think people are especially kind this time of year.

No, I don't believe this, this, this and that.  I am sorry that my theology ruined your Christmas.  But, hey, we have something in common.  My Christmas is ruined, too.

No, I am not over it.

No, I am not my old self.

I doubt I ever will be.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Weeping Cherry

On October 28th, we planted a tree in Zach's memory at Holston Camp. The director, Craig Bell, set that up for us. Zach had a good summer there as a counselor in 2006. One of our church members, Samantha, who was a camper when Zach was a counselor wrote a nice tribute to Zach and read it. We sprinkled some of his ashes.  

A couple of Samantha's friends joined us as we honored Zach's memory. 

"Zach's" weeping cherry is the first one you see as you come to the memorial garden that is in front of the office.   More photos are on Zachary's Memory Page. This is what Samantha (in the dress) wrote.  It was very sweet:
Zachary Shuck was a son, a brother, a friend and so much more. He had an amazing heart that he always shared with the world. Never would you find Zach without a smile on his face and with a hug waiting for you. He shared his smile and spirit with many youth in 2006 when he was a counselor here at HPC. He was loved by fellow counselors and campers alike. He made a point to know every camper and to let each one know they were special and perfect just the way they were. He never had a bad thing to say about anyone but he was not shy about speaking out when someone was mistreating someone else. Just his presence could make my day better and his laugh was contagious. He could not see you for years and when you’d run into each other he would shine his smile, know your name, and start off a conversation like you’d been close friends for years. I am so honored to have known Zach. He touched many lives in a positive way and mine was one of them. We honor and remember him today with this tree. He may no longer be with us physically but he will always be remembered for his shining smile, his heart and his compassion for others.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Silliness of Prejudice

Don's request for transfer was refused by a vote of 27-64.   Don rocked, however,   To turn away a minister with obvious gifts, experience, and deep faith because of prejudice (sorry, but however you look at it, that is all it is) reminds us that we have yet a long way to go.     Don with his wisdom, compassion and cane, reminds me of Gandalf!   He inspires me.    If you would like to send an email to Don, you can find his email address on the left sidebar of our church's webpage.  I am sure he would love to hear from you!

By the way the picture below is from the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade in Kingsport in January of 2012.  Don had marched with King in Memphis during the garbage workers' strike.  

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Don Steele, will be examined Tuesday, December 4th, at the presbytery meeting.  Welcoming a minister with 42 years of experience should be automatic.  There should be no exam.  It should have been an easy decision by the Committee on Ministry. 

But prejudice is irrational and silly. 

Here is Don's statement of faith and personal journey.  

Here is the speech I plan to give at presbytery. 

The Rev. Dr. Don Steele has been a Presbyterian minister for 42 years.  

When he was ordained, I was eight.  

He has a Ph. D. in Ethics and Spirituality.   Somewhere along the line he learned the difference between right and wrong. 

He has served as a minister of congregations across the United States from West Virginia to New Mexico.    How many sermons do you suppose Don has preached in 42 years of ministry?  How many weddings?  How many Bible studies has he led?  How many cups of coffee with parishioners struggling with issues and with confidences that he will take with him to his grave?    How many prayers has he shared with parishioners in hospitals and in homes and in his study?  How many funerals in 42 years?  I know of one important one at least to me.   This summer he held on to me while I held on to the body of my dead son.  He was there with my family in my home.  He was there as we sent Zach to his final rest at the crematorium.   Don is still there for us.  What does it take to be a minister?   You tell me.

He was the dean of the Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education Programs at McCormick Theological Seminary.    In addition to administrative duties he taught master’s level and doctoral level courses.

He taught ministers how to be ministers.   There is no one in this room who is more qualified to be a PCUSA minister than The Rev. Dr. Don Steele.   

Already in this presbytery, he has been working.  He was responsible for distributing a $10,000 grant on behalf of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to flood victims in Washington County.   He serves on boards in Carter County for those suffering domestic violence and poverty.  He serves with me in my congregation.  I ask him for advice.  He knows what to do.  He has experience in the ministry.   It would be silly not to welcome him with trumpets into our presbytery.

Prejudice is really a silly thing.   When you prejudge people without knowing them you miss out.   It’s a waste.   We are not missing out in Elizabethton.     Whether you decide to miss out or not, that is your call.   It won’t affect us and it won’t affect Don.

But it will make the presbytery look kind of silly.

Even still, we will be here.   We will welcome and celebrate and be blessed by the gifts and skills of those who land on our doorstep even if they drive from Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Morristown, and Meadowview, VA to be with us.   The denomination is moving in the direction our congregation has been charting.   If you would like to join with us in this bold adventure of following Jesus we would love to work with you.  

Call us.  We would love to help congregations get over this stifling and silly prejudice.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Team Zach Attack

In honor of her brother, my amazing daughter ran a half-marathon in Nashville on November 10th.   Here she is at mile 12.

She has some pretty amazing friends who ran with her as well.  Trista, Amber, and Beth to Katy's left.  Tiny Tim (Tom of Tom, Michelle, and Coop) is to her right.   Katy's Aunt Lora to the right of Tiny didn't even train.  She just showed up by surprise from New Jersey and ran.   She is Wonder Woman.

Coop and Elvis cheered.

 Here is Lora at Mile 12.  Still smiling.

Here is the family.  Coop, Tom, Lora, Katy, Michelle, Lovely, and me.  No, I did not run.  I break a sweat when I drive 13.1 miles.   OK.  Maybe next time.  If the run is like 50 yards or so...

Team Zach Attack.    

God and the Future of Faith

Author Margaret Atwood once quipped:

I like that comparison by Margaret Atwood.  The God you find in church is imprisoned.     If you want God in the wild, get out of the church.    Does the wordplay assume, however, that there really is a God in the wild?    Is there a God that is more than a story or even stories about God?

Bishop Spong said that modern science has rendered God homeless and unemployed.   Cosmology took away his residence and evolution his paycheck.   He is not "up there" and he doesn't have a job.   That is a funny way to put it, of course.  What science has taught me is that there never was a home and a job for God in the first place.   God is an invention.    My quip, while not as clever as Margaret Atwood's is, I think, more real:

"Story is to storytellers as God is to churches."

Without the storyteller there is no story.  Outside of churches (and mosques, synagogues, ashrams and what have you), there is no God.     If Margaret Atwood thinks her god is more wild, natural, or real than the church's god then I would just say:

"Story is to storytellers as God is to Margaret Atwood."

It could be that for Margaret Atwood, God is another word for Nature.   I think that way at times.   God and the Universe are one.   God is Nature.  Nature is God.  But if God is something other than Nature, then it appears that God is a fictional character whether God is in the Bible, the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Unconscious, in Margaret Atwood's imagination, or in yours or mine.  
Once someone made a snide comment to me about my church.  She said,

"I think the people at your church worship trees more than God."  

I held my tongue even as I wanted to reply: 

"Well, at least the trees are real."  

Of course, once the story is told it takes on a life of its own.  It takes different forms.  It is shaped, renamed, added to, subtracted from and on it goes.   Such is the case with God.  But God whether capitalized or plural has always been a fictional character created in the imaginations of human beings.    God has no existence outside of the stories about God.    The stories of God and of the gods are our creations.  God is our creation.  We should own that.  

I utter that blasphemy with a straight face.   I understand that for many, this is hard to take.
It seems to me that God in the Bible (or in any other book modern or ancient) is a fictional character in a collection of stories.    If you are convinced that God is more than that, than I would challenge you to show me.  Show me one thing that God does.  Then I'll show you your imagination at work.

More and more people are realizing this.  I happen to like stories about God even as they are all fiction.   I should clarify.  I like some of the stories.  Some stories about God are simply toxic.  They are as toxic as the people who tell them.  As fiction, they tell me about the tellers of the fiction.  As our ancestors told fictional stories about God, they made meaning.   They told about themselves whether realizing it or not.

I am not convinced that we need the middleman, that is God, to make meaning.   This is part of the change that is happening within the church, not just my congregation, or just the Presbyterian church, but other denominations, too.   This is a change that is happening throughout human culture.   We are in a time of transition.  This transition could last for many decades, centuries even. 

As more and more people come to recognize that our stories of God are human creations, we will have decisions to make.   Do we abandon the church or whatever other sect houses our stories when we discover that the church's God is fiction?   Might there still be value in the church and in its fictional tales?   Some say no and are heading off into the wild.   

Others think there still is a purpose for the church.   God is extra baggage and we can do good in the church without God.  Maybe we need to base what we do on new poetry.   We can make up some new stories.   We can also tell the old God stories with new twists.   Perhaps a mix is in order.   Of course some of the more toxic God stories are not worth saving.   We may draw wisdom from a variety of places.   A crucial place is science.  

According to Phyllis Tickle, it is a great rummage sale and we are on a great adventure.   Phyllis Tickle calls it a great emergence.   She is my guest this week on Religion For Life.    It is all part of my "future of faith" series.   

Join us! 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reading, Blue Christmas, and Dolly

I have been reading about suicide.   I have a list of books on the sidebar.    It has been helpful as I have read from those who have lost loved ones from suicide and the unique grief that accompanies this devastation.  Mental illness is devastating.   Christ, why couldn't he talk to us?   Maybe he did and we didn't hear.   I am learning about psychic pain.   I'll never know it though.  I will never know it as he felt it.   It is devastation, both his pain and our grief.   Now his pain is ours.  It isn't the same kind of pain, though.  He couldn't talk about it.  I can.  Some days, however, I just sit.  Now and then I catch myself staring mindlessly.  

It isn't that I spend each day in a fetal position.  I get things done.   I smile and I laugh.  My life isn't over.   I still have things to do and things still have meaning, although the things that were at one point important to me are less so now.  Nothing is quite so important except for my beloveds.

I haven't been posting much.   I have been setting up this blog and my other website.   I have some catching up to do.  Also, we have been away on adventures over the past six weeks.  I am going to post some pictures from planting the tree at Holston Camp in his memory and from Daughter's half-marathon that she and her aunties and uncle and friends ran in Zach's honor in Nashville.   I have pictures of pictures that I gleaned from my mother's photo albums when I was in Montana. 

Now we are home for a while.

We put up the tree.  Blue Christmas.  Lovely placed blue lights around the house, blue lights on the tree, and blue stockings on the wall as if they are walking down the stairs from the loft to the main floor.

We are Elvis.

I have held a "Tidings of Comfort" service for the past several years around the week before Christmas.   I have called it informally the "Blue Christmas" service.   This will be the first time that I am a "client" as opposed to a "provider."  Gack.

We spent Thanksgiving in Pigeon Forge.   Locals know what that is about.  We had Thanksgiving Dinner at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede.    
"Y'all don't be fussin' and fightin' this Christmas," 
says Dolly from a big screen over the arena.  1200 people eat at once with their bare hands while the entertainers do tricks on horses and others clown around.   The baby Jesus and all your manger favorites visit from a platform that drops from the ceiling.  I swear Joseph looked like Ozzie Osborne.

Now get this.  This other guy and I were selected from 1200 people to come down into the arena and pitch "hillbilly horseshoes" (toilet seats).   I pitched for my team, the South Pole.   My opponent pitched for the North Pole.

I won.

I received a medal.

This is a true story.

My Lovelies howled.

Zach would have as well.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Clergy Project

Have you heard of the Clergy Project?  This is not to be confused with the Clergy Letter Project.  The latter was founded by Dr. Michael Zimmerman to encourage clergy to support the teaching of evolution.   I am a member of the Clergy Letter Project and my congregation participates in Evolution Sunday.

The Clergy Project is for clergy who no longer believe in the doctrines of the church.   Many of them are leaving the ministry.

I am a member of the Clergy Project as well.  I am not leaving the ministry.  Not yet anyway.   I do not have supernatural beliefs, however.    I posted these eight points on my old blog Shuck and Jive, under the heading "What Presbyterians Believe (Except Me)."

I believe...
  1. in evolutionary theory. This obviously includes human beings. Evolution and science in general have had major implications regarding theology that we mostly ignore or in our worse moments deny.
  2. in higher criticism of the Bible. The Bible like all other books are human products (what else could they be?) and should be read as such as opposed to special revelation from a divine being.
  3. that all religion is a human construct. Its primary purpose has been and should be an attempt to find and evoke meaning amidst life's contingencies as opposed to speculation regarding supernaturalism.
  4. that "God" functions as a symbol. The concept of "God" is a product of myth-making and "God" is no longer credible as a personal, supernatural being. For me, "God" functions as a shorthand for the Universe and sometimes for qualities and aspirations I wish to pursue or to emulate.
  5. that human consciousness is the result of natural selection. Human beings do not have immortal souls nor will consciousness survive death. Thus there is no afterlife. There is no heaven, no hell, and no need for salvation from one realm to another.
  6. that there is no "end" in human time. Earth is four billion years old. Earth was here long before human beings. Earth will spin on its axis and revolve around the sun long, long after the last human being has breathed her last. We will have to find meaning and our "eschaton" in this life.
  7. that Jesus may have been historical but most of the stories about him in the Bible and elsewhere are legends. But he's cool. He serves as a human ideal and a focal point for devotion (like an ishta deva).
  8. that industrial civilization is in for a long descent. Peak Oil and Overshoot should be everyday terms in our lexicon. We ought to be putting our religious energies toward spiritual, emotional, and practical preparation for this reality.
If many ministers wrote a similar statement they would no longer be in the ministry.  They know that.  That is why they don't tell their congregations what they really think.

I think it is distressing that these intelligent and creative ministers are shut silent in a box of dogma and are unable to share their insights with their congregations for fear of losing their careers. This is a great loss for them, for the church, and for society.

I think it is important for those clergy and laity who do have more freedom to come clean with what they believe (or don't believe).   That is why I am outspoken.   I am fortunate because I serve a congregation that promotes freedom of thought.  Not all are so fortunate.

The Clergy Project exists to support clergy whose insights have moved them beyond the confines of the church.   Their stories are fascinating and important.

I hope to interview some of these clergy on upcoming episodes of Religion For Life

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A New Place for Grieving

This is one of my new blogs. Since I lost my Shuck and Jive [dot] org domain and frankly have moved on in focus and tone, I realized I needed a place to write posts about Zach and about my grief.

This is that place.  I have re-posted from what I had already written about Zach on Shuck and Jive.

I am going to open another website for sermons and articles as well as information about the radio program, Religion For Life.

This blog is for Zach.

I just visited with my parents in Montana.  My mother and I went through her photo albums and I took pictures of pictures.    This is from Thanksgiving 1991 (I think) at my sister's home in Connecticut.

Thanks for stopping by!

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain--A Sermon (originally posted September 30, 2012)

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 30, 2012

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
--George Matheson

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
--Psalm 139-7-12

George Matheson was a Scottish theologian and preacher whose career spanned the latter half of the 19th century. He died in 1906. He was a liberal thinker who attempted to integrate faith with modern science. In 1885 he wrote a book entitled, Can the Old Faith Live with the New? or, The Problem of Evolution and Revelation. In it he argued that accepting evolution would not undermine the faith.

That was 1885.

He wrote a hymn, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go. A line from that hymn is the title of today’s sermon.

This is what Matheson said about the hymn:
"The hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of June 6, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a day spring from on high.

There has been much speculation regarding the “severe mental suffering” that he was feeling. One story suggests that his suffering was due to a lost love. He wrote this hymn on the occasion of his sister’s marriage. At one point in his life he was going to be married. During that period of engagement he learned that he was losing his eyesight. There was nothing the doctors could do. His fiancĂ© broke off the engagement saying she couldn’t live her life with a blind man.

He went blind while studying for the ministry. His sister took care of him during the years. Now on the eve of his sister’s wedding, who knows, perhaps feeling the sadness of his own loss during a celebratory time, he wrote this hymn.

Others speculate that it was the anguish of perhaps losing his faith in the light of modernism and science, particularly the theories of Darwin, that inspired the hymn. We don’t know. All we have is speculation and projection of our own mental suffering onto him. Matheson himself said something happened that “was known only to myself.”

It is a beautiful hymn. I never really paid much attention to it. Rarely have I selected it for worship until about a year or so ago. After Zach’s death, these past three months, it has been close to me. This is the third verse:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

This is the heart of the via negativa,
that spiritual path of letting go and letting be.
It is a path.
It is a path of trust that loss and the accompanying pain
is not the absence of the Sacred but a path to the Sacred.

Thus rather than bury the pain,
or hide it,
or deny it,
or be ashamed of it,

this path is an invitation to embrace it,
to name it,
to write a song about it,
or a poem,
to talk about it,
to walk with it.

The hope is that in so doing,
we can move through it and beyond it
and in the experience be touched by the Holy.

This is the path of Krishna:
“If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.”

This is the path of Jesus:
“After he called the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them, “If any of you wants to come after me, you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow after me. Remember, if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the good news, you’ll save it.”
 And from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Both Krishna and Jesus are offering invitations to trust. Neither is glorifying pain or suffering. They are not calling us to throw pity parties. They are inviting us to acknowledge what is real and offering the hope that staying with it and going through it will be the path of wholeness or wholeheartedness.

That trust requires heart. The word for courage comes from the Latin “cor” which means heart. This pain, this darkness, this rain, feels endless. It feels as though there is no possible good to come of it. It feels wrong, inappropriate, unjust, sacrilegious, even to hope or trust that there is a rainbow to trace.
I don’t want a freaking rainbow, I want my son back. I want my husband back. I want my mother back. I want my life back the way it was.

The open heart also known as courage is the willingness to live with that inner conflict, name it and not judge it. It is what Matthew Fox calls it, “cosmic anguish.” It isn’t tidy. It isn’t pretty. It is real.

But what if we weren’t able to feel the cosmic anguish? What if we quickly hid it away? Remember the song by the Beatles, “Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.”
We don’t want to see that. Put it away.

We are a culture that demands that everyone be upbeat.

My first radio job was in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was a little AM station that played country music. We played records on the turntable. I read the news, the agricultural reports, and the town gossip. After I was there a few months, the station was bought by a Mormon family. They were nice folks. In fact, they were very upbeat. They changed the call letters and we had to identify ourselves as “Country Sunshine.” We disc jockeys had to play two upbeat songs for every slow song. That isn’t easy to do with country music. You have to really search for those upbeat ones. Not only that, but we were required to turn up the speed on the turntables to make the songs sound even more upbeat.

No rain allowed at 1240 AM Country Sunshine.

I get it. No one wants downer people. No one wants to listen to bummer man.
Hey, you’ve got to hide your grief away.

We know that.
We know that we need to put on the game face,
clean up and do our duty.
Fake it until you make it.

We need to know that there is a price for that. If we don’t recognize the cosmic anguish and if we are not attentive to what is behind the game face, we may not resolve our grief. For the sake of surviving this culture, we may stay on this side of our pain and never pass through it. It can forever haunt us. The via negativa is the spiritual path that invites to make time and to take time for those feelings that we may have buried or hidden. We give them their due so that we can let them go.

I am grateful today to and for George Matheson, that on June 6, 1882, he took off the game face that he needed to put on for his sister’s wedding, and for five minutes allowed his hollowed heart to hear the music of Spirit and put these words to pen and paper.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust
       life’s glory dead,
And from the ground
       there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Four Months (originally posted October 27, 2012)

Tomorrow is the 28th of the month.  It has been four months since Zach took his life on June 28th.  Tomorrow is All Saints' Sunday.  Or maybe it is the next Sunday.   In either case, we will honor the saints tomorrow.   In church we will pass the microphone around the sanctuary so people can name those who have died this past year and we will ring the singing bowl when each name is mentioned.    

In the afternoon, Lovely, Daughter, and I will sprinkle some of his ashes around a tree planted in his memory at Holston Camp.  Then on Monday I leave for Montana to visit my parents and extended family.  I haven't seen my parents since Zach died.   And yes, I will take the bus.  It's what I do.

I have been reading, My Son, My Son:  A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss, or Suicide by Iris Bolton.  She lost her son to suicide.  She was a counselor at a counseling center, "The Link."   A couple of board members had said after her son's death:
"If she couldn't help her own son, how can she expect to help anyone else?"
She goes on to say:
The funny thing is that I agreed.  So paralyzing is the combination of depression, guilt, and shock, that its victim is mentally reduced to a jackstraw, a hollow man, a cipher.  p. 36
I know that feeling.  How could/can I be a minister, preaching, teaching, and counseling when I failed my most important assignment?   Who in their right minds would listen to anything I have to say when in my primary role as a father I delivered to the world a corpse rather than a living, productive man? 

Iris Bolton faces the goblins and continues as a counselor.  She writes:
Some persons had declared openly that The Link was finished if I were to return.  But we continued to be busy.  Parents began to refer teenagers to me for help in preventing their suicides, and I was overwhelmed with the wonder of it.  How could they think that I might help them when I had failed to save my own son?  I was in awe of what seemed to be a miracle.  More than anything else, it helped me to begin to find some meaning in the meaninglessness of Mitch's death.  p. 40
At some point she decided to disagree with the voices outside (and more importantly inside) of her that said she was a failure.   She stuck it out.   I hope I can be that strong.

It isn't even so much "the job" as it is the existential feeling of failing.  I failed to give my son whatever it was he needed to keep going.   I also know that I did what I could given my human fallibility.   I know that if I were responsible for this death it wouldn't have happened.   But I don't know if that feeling of failure will ever go away.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Autumn Leaves (originally posted October 22, 2012)

One of our church members, Samantha, was a camper when Zach was a counselor at Holston Camp in 2006.  She shared this pic of Zach helping out one of the campers.    He was really good with them.  I wondered if he might have gone into some kind of work with kids.

Lovely, Daughter, and I returned from vacation Saturday night.  We found the leaves had changed and already are falling. It may be a long winter.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Narrative (originally posted October 11, 2012)

On Friday we received the official death certificate from the funeral home.   It took over three months for the officials to finish their work.   On the lower left a little box was checked next to the word, "suicide."   We knew that of course.  The police had originally told us it was an accident but eventually we determined what had happened.   Now it is official.  A box has been checked on a government document.  Signed. Sealed. Delivered.

Saturday was a hard day.  There are many hard days to come.   I wonder how long it will take for me to create my own meaning from this.  Grief experts say I need a narrative.   I suppose I have been trained for that task.  I am after all, a "religious professional."     One of my working definitions of religion is to create meaning out of a meaningless existence.   We are storytellers and narrative-makers.  We come from a long line of them.

Lawrence Krauss tells us that universes pop in and out of existence without any supernatural shenanigans.   We live and move and have our being in one of those "pops."  What does that mean?    The author of Genesis took a crack at it, "When God began creating..." as did the author of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word...."  I suppose for some Genesis and John still work well.   At times even for me.   I am giving it a college try to create my own narrative of meaning in a Krauss Universe.   You can find it in the pages of this blog and in my Sunday sermons.  It isn't much, but it's mine. 

Religion tries to make sense of out of senseless tragedy and violence.  The Romans tortured and executed thousands of rebels and undesirables by public crucifixion as a warning and as demonstration of power.  One of these poor wretches is named, has stories attached to him, and is turned into a god.  His death saves the world from sin.  His resurrection brings believers to eternal life.  That is quite a narrative.  It was a narrative compelling enough to create Christendom.   It works for some.   At times, even for me.    I am giving it a college try to create my own narrative of the meaning of Jesus.   You can find it in the pages of this blog and in my Sunday sermons.  It isn't much, but it's mine. 

I admit that I am better at deconstructing than constructing.   I am better at poking holes in narratives than in creating them.   But my personal task now is to construct.  So what is the narrative for the life and death of my beautiful boy?    It won't be much but it will be mine.    Hopefully, it will be a narrative that will help me to carry on, to forget myself in laughter more often than not, to get lost in a sunset, to grow old a little wiser, to grow closer to my Lovely and my daughter, to own my sad feelings and to weep through them, to discover a deeper sense of compassion, to live life as fully as I can, and to live it for my son and for me.   I want my narrative of Zach to help me do that.   

It will have to include the story of the time he called us into the bathroom.   He was maybe two or three.  He was sitting on the toilet, bent over with the seat cover on his back.  He laughed and said he was a teenage mutant ninja turtle.  Any narrative of my Zach will include a story of him racing down the street in his Big Wheel wearing his cowboy boots.   It will include him standing proudly with me and greeting parishioners on their way out the door.  It will have to include both of us in our Taekwondo uniforms, and playing video games, and skiing at Snow Ridge.  Hugs.  How do you tell a narrative about Zach hugs?  How do you put hugs in words?    The way he called me, "Pops."   How do I write the way he called me "Pops"?

His heart.  His big heart.   His big compassionate heart that wouldn't let him hurt a bug.  His big heart wouldn't let him stand for meanness or let him see someone bullied without speaking up.   His big heart and his mind knew pain.   He felt pain, excruciating, senseless, meaningless pain that he couldn't share, that I couldn't take from him, that I couldn't reach.   I don't know how to tell that story, not now, not yet, but someday I may be able to tell of his courageous and lonely struggle.   I may never grasp this meaninglessness, but I will tell his story--my story of Zach.    He gave us so much joy.   Amidst it all, he gave us joy.  I will keep him in my heart, always.         

Monday, October 8, 2012

Meaning of Life, Part 78 (Originally Posted October 8, 2012)

We live in a world that doesn't like pain. We too might be tempted to turn from it, to keep the stiff upper lip. But grief asks us to touch pain, to sit with pain and to ask it to tea. Being with your sorrow is brave. It is counter culture courage. Not only is there nothing wrong with you for feeling your pain, know that it takes strength to venture into this frightening territory.

~Ashley Davis Bush

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Note for Family and Friends (originally posted September 28, 2012)

My Lovely knows how to get things done.  I thought I wanted/needed to write a personal note to everyone who had offered an expression of sympathy.   I read all the cards we received with tears but finally realized that responding to each with a personal note was never going to happen.  Lovely drafted this letter, purchased cards, stationary and envelopes, and we sent cards and letters to those for whom we had addresses.  I know we missed people.   So many people responded with calls, food, hugs, practical expressions of help, and I hope you know you are treasured.

We put it in this month's church newsletter.  This is for you with our heartfelt gratitude.

Dear Family and Friends,

As John and Katy and I stumble on with the grieving over the loss of our Zach, we want you to know that we are so grateful for you.

We were/are so numb that we might not remember all of the kindnesses you bestowed on us. Please forgive us for not acknowledging each and every one individually. We want you all to know that we are so thankful and would not be recovering at all but for:

The vigil you kept with us during those first shock-filled days.
Your thoughts, prayers, love, hugs, friendship, laughter.
Food, Food, and........more Food!!!!
Listening ears, helping hands.
Lovely flowers, cards, photos and shared memories of Zach.
The beautiful memorial services you helped us create in order to celebrate his Life -
both private and public.
The thoughtful memorial gifts you have given in his name.
As summer turns to fall and our lives without Zach continue on (inexplicably), we will hold the memory of your support precious in our hearts and minds. None of us can ever remember being so blessed by human kindness.

Beverly O'Connor Shuck for the Shuck Family
Rev. John, Bev, and Katy

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Via Negativa--Letting Go and Letting Be (originally posted September 27, 2012)

The Fall 2012 worship guide is on the web page.  These are the themes through Christmas.   The path we explore during autumn is the via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be.    With Zach's death, this is a path I am on whether I want to be or not.   The wisdom is that it is a path, a way, a vehicle to the Sacred.    That is the courage part for me.   It is a path not of wallowing, not of grief for grief's sake, but to slog through it (I can hardly say dance) in order to at some point let go of it.

I wrote the following in the guide:
Nothing is more painful than letting go.  Sometimes we have to let go what has been ripped from us. At other times we need to let go what is no longer meaningful but is still part of us. We may have to let go of our dreams. We may need to let go of habits or addictions or our values and beliefs.  And then there is loss. We experience a series of losses from the day of our birth.  Negotiating our way through these losses is the perilous journey of life.

The via negativa is a spiritual path. It is the path of letting go. It is the way of hollowing out, stripping away, and setting free. No one would be willing to let go if this were the only path. The way to survive this, to be courageous enough to let go, is to trust that letting go isn’t the last word. Creativity, the gift of life, and rebirth are also possible.

As the season of letting go, Autumn, approaches Winter Solstice, our various religious traditions anticipate the light that shines in the darkness. Another metaphor is the music that blows through the hollowed flute. This is the promise expressed by Krishna: 
“If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.” 
In the summer we explored happiness. This season we move deeper and embrace wholeheartedness. A helpful friend through this season will be Dr. Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life.  Dr. Brown writes about what we need to let go in order to embrace who we are.

If you have created a poem, a piece of music, a dance, a children’s sermon, a meditation, a sculpture, a painting or other artistic work that fits the theme, contact me and I will create a space in the worship service for your creative element. You may also have hymns or poems you have run across that you think will be appropriate. We welcome you to sing in the choir, play the bells, or participate in an ensemble.

If you are near our mountain, join us for worship and invite a friend.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grief Is Love that Has Lost Its Object--A Sermon (originally posted September 23, 2012)

Grief is Love that has Lost Its Object
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, TN

September 23, 2012

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Matthew 5:1-4

The four vias or paths of Creation Spirituality are just that—vias or paths. They are ways. They are not ends in themselves. Movement is the guiding metaphor. The movement is not just upward. They are not ladders to climb as much as spirals to dance.

Yesterday the calendar commanded that summer give way to fall. Even if the calendar refused and decided to deny the end of summer, it wouldn’t matter. The leaves on the trees surrounding Watauga Lake would begin to let go of their green anyway. Temperatures would begin to cool. Earth moves around the sun such that in our part of the planet it appears to go to sleep a little earlier each evening.  This happens whether or not we with our calendars, language, and reasoning manage to make sense of it or not. Life happens if we are ready for it or not. So does death.

It doesn’t matter if we like summer or don’t like summer. It passes. I suppose one could move around the globe so you never have to leave summer. It is always summer somewhere. You could follow it so that you never have to see the trees let go of their green or feel the temperatures cool or bid the sun goodnight until late at night every night.

That would be a path or via too. The via positiva all the time. Endless summer. As we disc jockeys used to breathlessly announce: “Nonstop music. One hit after another.”

Most of us are not quite so nomadic, following endless summer with our surfboards. We know the other seasons as well. We know Fall, Winter, and Spring. If we have been around long enough and been fortunate to have lived through a number of these seasons, we may have found in them some sense of significance. While summer might be free and easy, bright and cheerful, there is something to these other seasons too. While we may have a favorite, if we are intentional about it, we can find something to stir our soul in the others.

But we really don’t have a choice. The seasons change whether we are intentional about finding meaning and significance in them or not.

The spiritual path of the via positiva the way of awe and wonder may be the path of choice. It is the happy path. It is the celebration of life. It is noticing the blue heron as she flies just a few inches above the water. It is allowing her flight to inspire wonder and reverence for these magnificent creatures and for all of life.

She is going to do her blue heron thing whether or not I take notice of her and admire her or not. The via positiva only becomes a spiritual path for me when I allow it to be. The via positiva is not about what is. It is about the awe and wonder for what is.

We know that we can go through our day and not notice the miracle of our existence. That is why all spiritual figures, deep thinkers, interesting people, and wise sages have told us since stories began to stop and take notice. Our man, Jesus, said: “Consider the lilies.”

“Consider…” I think that wonderfully understated translation of that verb is the essence of the via positiva-- “Consider…” Don’t just ignore or take for granted or use, “Consider…”

Consider creation, say the sages. If you have a spiritual bone in your body, marvel at it. Question it. Puzzle over it. Try to calculate it with numbers and equations. Write poems about it. Sing to it. Paint it. Allow yourself to be taken by it, to fall for it, to love it, to fall in love with it.

That is what education used to be, you know. It wasn’t something you purchased so that you could learn the technical skills and receive the required paperwork to be a drone in some cubicle doing something of no interest to you so you could get a paycheck to buy stuff made by other drones.

Education used to be about the via positiva. Consider and marvel at creation so that you might get a glimpse of what it means to be a human being before your life is over. Human beings have a job. That job is to tell our story. We are here to tell the truth of what we see, hear, feel, consider….

The via positiva is the path of noticing this world. Mary Oliver is one of our teachers. This is her poem, Invitation:

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude--
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

That is the via positiva. We notice. We fall in love.
Maybe in so doing we change our life.

Then we get the call in the middle of the night.
The one we love, the one we give our heart to,
The one we live our life for,
Is gone.

She is the mother who held us,
who sang to us,
who was our strength,
and now she sits in her wheelchair and cannot remember our name.

He is the husband who loved us with passion,
who laughed freely without reservation,
whose illness took him long before we were ready.

He is the son, tender, sensitive, smiling,
But whose pain was too great for him to bear.

She is the forest destroyed, the stream polluted, the wildlife vanished.

It is nearly impossible to go through this life without being cheated.
That which we love leaves.
That will happen whether we want it or not.
That love doesn’t end.
The love remains.
The object of our love--
the forest, the husband, the mother, the son--
But it isn’t as though we can just turn off the love.
We can try, I suppose.
We can try to numb it, bury it, deny it.
It is still there.
Love when it loses its object does not cease.
It changes to grief.
It demands attention.
It invites the heart to be present.
It invites us on another spiritual path.
Not the one that considers the lilies or the blue heron,
No this path requires courage as well as consideration.
When love turns to grief it hurts.
It hurts badly.
It hurts for a long time.
The spiritual path, the via negativa, is to be attentive to the grief.
And not to turn away.

I turn to Mary Oliver again. From her poem, Love Sorrow:

Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,

what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so

utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment

by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,

as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.