Monday, February 25, 2008

The world will be saved by beauty.

Out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings.
Laura Hendrie, Remember Me

The Academy Awards were last night – the presentation of the Oscars. In many ways this is an event of self-congratulation and nearly obscene excess. It brings out some of our worst characteristics – our obsession with wealth and physical beauty and style. Yet with some ambivalence in my heart, I really enjoy the Oscars. I enjoy the Oscars because I enjoy movies. While I like movies that make me laugh, or that pull me into their plot, the movies I love best are movies in which I come to care for the characters in some way, movies in which some part of the human condition is illumined through the acting of the persons on screen. There is a beauty in such movies, and it is often enhanced by other forms of beauty in the film.

I am drawn to beauty. I remember sitting with a group of clergy in which one cited the Dostoyevsky quote above and said, “What is that supposed to mean?” I was not sure, but I was drawn to the words and felt some sort of truth in them. A few years earlier, I had read Remember Me, a novel by Laura Hendrie and copied the above words into my book of quotes. Beauty seems to magnify us into human beings. Not long after being in the clergy group where Dostoyevsky was mentioned and then passed by, I was reading a book on the Enneagram. I had taken that inventory once, and came out as type four – the creative person, the romantic. So I am reading this book and lo and behold, there is Dostoyevsky – “the world will be saved by beauty,” followed by “FOURS believe this principle.” (Rohr and Ebert, The Enneagram) A little frightening if you ask me.

So something in me draws me to beauty like a moth to a flame. Music, literature and movies are my preferred conveyances of beauty (though beauty in paintings and photography and in the natural world itself are also powerful) – and I think beauty can contribute to changing the world. I know in my life the power of film to shape me.

I vividly recall the beautiful black and white of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and the scene toward the end where the character played by Allen is speaking into a tape recorder, getting down a story idea, shifting to asking himself what makes life worth living. The list included Louis Armstrong’s Potato Head Blues and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Cezanne’s pears and the face of a woman. I have often thought about what I might put on my list. As a person of faith, I think of beauty and creativity as qualities in which God often shines.

My view of racial justice was formed in many ways. I remember the beauty in the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. His words were powerful, yes, and also beautiful, and to hear them was to encounter a certain beauty. But one distinct influence on my view of race relations was watching the movie Brian’s Song in junior high school. The film was a made-for-television movie portraying the story of the relationship between Gayle Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan). Sayers and Piccolo were Chicago Bears running backs, and Piccolo died young from cancer. Sayers was African-American and Piccolo caucasian. It was a moving film for me. From certain aesthetic standards, it may not be beautiful, but it had a touching beauty for me.

In a world beset by such pressing problems, art, film, music, beauty can seem like luxuries. I certainly would not bless all that happens in the movie industry. There is excess and so many movies are inane and anything but beautiful. But film can be powerful in the service of good. Deep down I believe there is a connection between the true, the good and the beautiful. Moved by beauty, inspired by it, I live differently. I seek a better world.

With Faith and Feathers,


P.S. I did not see all the Oscars last night, but from what I saw, my favorite moment was the award for best original song. The movie Once is a delight. It is about creativity and it was made for under $200,000. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make wonderful music together, and that is the basic point of the film – that and creatively beginning life anew. Hansard and Irglova were delightful in accepting their Oscar. Hansard encouraged people to “keep making art” and Irglova spoke of hope “which connects us all.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Earlier this month, “Dear Abby” ran a series of letters in which readers shared their thoughts about “society’s greatest problem.” On February 6, the following remarks were printed in one letter: In my opinion organized religion has a lot to do with why the world is so badly messed up. Although most religions espouse values of kindness, generosity and good works, in practical application, it seems that religion is used most often to divide “them” from “us” and to give people yet another way to discriminate against one another…. If people were more concerned with doing the right things in this world, rather than preoccupying themselves with what is going to happen in the next one, our world would be a better place. Signed: Kim in Columbus, Ohio.

As a clergy person – and you probably don’t get much more entrenched in “organized religion” than that – you might expect me to quickly jump to the defense of the religious establishment. I would like to offer some hopeful words on religion, but I need to begin by acknowledging the heartbreaking truth in this woman’s words.

Awhile back, I was visiting with a family before a funeral. The person who had passed away was elderly. I say that only to let you know that there was some room for moments of lighter conversation amidst the grief that is present no matter the age of the person who dies. At one point in the conversation, in reply to something that was said, I uttered the words, “I don’t do guilt and shame very well.” Someone in the room replied quickly, “Then you are in the wrong profession.”

More recently, I was meeting with a family about a funeral for their son/brother, who died unexpectedly at age 37. He left behind an 11-year old son. The family did not have an active relationship with my church, or with any church. But during the conversation, they did mention that they were hoping my words would be positive ones. They were concerned that I might tell them all they were going to hell.

Guilt, shame, judgmentalism, punishment, accepting things without asking questions – for too many people, this has been their experience of religion. I have to admit that most of the people I know for whom hell is an important part of their belief system know that they are not going there. That makes hell something they believe in for other people. At their worst, religions have treated those they believed destined for hell in ways that make hell seem more real.

I do not want to avoid thinking about the theological symbolism involved in judgment. We need to be discerning persons. We need to make important judgments in life. Nor do I deny the reality of wrongdoing, sin, evil – and there may be such a thing as healthy guilt when one has done something that is genuinely wrong and hurtful. But these are minor chords in the Christian faith I know, and that is the religion I can speak most intelligibly about. It is the only faith I can speak from the inside. When I encounter people who are not actively involved in a faith community, more often than not, they are not people who never were part of such a community, they are people who were a part of one, but experienced the dark side of religion – the side more concerned with guilt and shame and judgmentalism than with faith, hope, love, beauty, truth, goodness, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.

At its best, religious faith brings out the best and most profound in the human person and the human community. The day I met with the family of the 37 year old who had died was Ash Wednesday. That night, I placed small crosses in ash on the hands or foreheads of people who came to worship. My hands blackening with the ash, I smudged them and said, “Remember you were created out of dust.” Not very cheery words, to be sure, but I felt them deep in my bones that night. Somehow when we think about that, the precious gift of life and its brief span, it often calls forth kindness and gentleness. The small petty disturbances of life recede into the background. The small hurts are easily forgiven, and we are more determined to work on the big ones, knowing that we don’t have forever. Recalling our finitude, our creation out of dust, can have a beneficial effect. That is not automatic, but Christian faith, at its best, helps us recall our finite existence in such a way that we are also encouraged to live more lovingly, kindly, gently, patiently. We are invited to live that way in this life and trust that the next life, whatever that may be like will take care of itself.

So Kim in Columbus, and to many others like you, on behalf of one religion, Christianity, I am sorry that you have seen us at our worst. When we are, we can mess up the world badly. Religion can have a deleterious effect on persons and communities. But when we are at our best, we can do a great deal of good. We can help the world be more loving and just and kind. Words like yours can help us to be and do better.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, February 10, 2008

It may have been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, but here in Duluth, Minnesota it has been busy. The coming week has its challenges as well, so allow me to share some bits of writing which have and continue to move and inspire me, to open my heart and expand my mind. I hope they do the same for you. These three pieces have recently been, or soon will be, woven into my sermons.

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate

Mary Oliver, from “Prayer” in Thirst

Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous. About five years ago I say a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.
The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded the corner when his insouciant [carefree] step caught my eye: there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.

Annie Dillard, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

A soul without prayer is a soul without a home.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, from “On Prayer”

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, February 4, 2008

Whenever anyone in “in extremis” (whether it is a marital crisis, an economic crisis, a political crisis, or a health crisis), their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see. Or, to reverse it, to the extent the horizons of individuals “in extremis” are limited to what they can actually see, their chances of survival are far less than if their horizons include projected images from their own imagination. Actually, even the thinking processes that lead one to assume that one’s life situation is “in extremis” are partially determined by the breadth of one’s horizons at the time – which, of course, correlates with one’s imaginative capacity and sense of adventure.
Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: leadership in the age of the quick fix (153)

Sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare airport on Friday waiting to return home following a denominational committee meeting, I finished reading Friedman’s book, which I referred to a couple of weeks ago. I would not be surprised, even with all the mass of humanity gathered at O’Hare that day, if I was the only one reading Friedman’s book.

Last night, however, my activity was far from unique. With millions of Americans, I watched the Super Bowl. Tom Petty at halftime was great – I have been listening to his music for years and still have some on vinyl. The game was one of the best Super Bowl games ever. Often such games are over within the first quarter. This game remained competitive until the very end. With the New England Patriots high-powered offense, you could never count them out until the final second of the game. By now you know, if you care to know at all, that the Patriots were upset by the New York Giants 17-14. Few people gave the Giants a realistic chance, but they won. As the cliché goes, that’s why they play the game.

On paper the Giants were no match for the Patriots. The Patriots were undefeated going into the game. Their offense set all kinds of records this year. They have many Pro Bowl players, and the team was well-stocked with Super Bowl veterans. The Giants squeaked into the playoffs as a wild card team, have on one Pro Bowl player, and most had never been in a Super Bowl before. If they had really taken stock of the situation, if they had been hard-headed realists, they would have known that they could not win. The best they might hope for was to make this a good game. Instead, they included in their horizons the improbable notion that if they played their hearts out, if they played with skill and intelligence and passion, they just might win. They didn’t even need Rabbi Friedman in the locker room to convince them that imagination is vitally important, and a sense of adventure contributes to how one manages difficult situations. They were running down a dream (Tom Petty) and caught it.

One of the wonderful things about a game like this is that it now becomes a part of our own imaginative field. The story of the great upset can feed our own sense of adventure, provide inspiration for our own imaginations, so that we can face difficult situations with a broader horizon, with an enriched imaginative capacity.

Imagination and hope are powerful for our lives, for churches (and denominations), for our politics and for our world. We cannot ignore the difficulties around us (health issues in our lives, economic downturns, declining and aging membership in mainline denominations), but our chances of making a positive difference in the midst of them and of working for positive change are increased when our imaginative horizons are widened. The Super Bowl is only a game, but last night’s game offers something to our imaginations.

With Faith and With Feathers,