Posts filed under 'Fig Tree Notes Archives'

Catching Memories Before They Slip Away

April 28th, 2017  |   

“She went on speaking about how this land had become cursed with a mist of forgetfulness.” The Buried Giant,  Kazuo Ishiguro


I like to sit at the bar. It’s where I go on Sunday mornings for my weekly indulgence—two blueberry pancakes, three pieces of bacon, and coffee, served up at a restaurant a few blocks from my home. Conversation often breaks out among folks at the bar. A few weeks ago, one of those conversations got around to the subject of Alzheimer’s.

The man seated next to me spoke of a friend who had lost her memory to this dreadful disease. It was as if pages out of the diary in her head had been blown away, page-by-page, day-by-day. The memories that defined who she was, the narrative out of which her life took shape, were gone. Afterwards, on the way home, I thought of my father.

Just prior to his death, the two of us went to the Toddle House, his favorite Baltimore breakfast place. The waitress knew exactly what he would order. Everyone there knew my father. A man sitting at the end of the bar held a conversation with him. After he paid his check and left, my father leaned over and asked me, “Who was that man?” It was reminiscent of the words from Paul Simon’s song: “You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.” The fear that many us have, as we move closer to death, is that a synaptic upheaval will disconnect us from one another.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “The Buried Giant,” an elderly couple, Beatrice and Axl, recognizes that their memories have washed away like sand on a beach. Their minds have been nibbled away. Memory is no longer reliable. Not only that, they discover that everyone in their community has the same difficulty. There is a mist that takes memories away from everyone, young and old alike. “With this mist upon us,” says Beatrice, “any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.”

Since the election of Donald Trump, I feel like our nation has a mist upon it. Our memory is no longer reliable. Facts seem to be out of reach, and reason has become unreliable. As for myself, everything I have worked at over the course of my ordained years, all the social justice efforts, are under attack, and the hard won gains are in a state of distress, in a land where the cheerleader in the White House leads the cry to make America great again. It would be easy to forget the accomplishments.

In the midst of this mist, Beatrice reminds us to hold tight to any memory we are able to grasp. Here’s the simple truth I hold tight to: The very best organizing, creative planning and action take place when a crisis occurs. When a heavy mist challenges our vision, we become more alert, and move forward, out of the mist, with more intensity and focus.

It may sound bizarre but Donald Trump may be just what we need to energize a resistance that has been asleep. I see people, young and old, organizing and mobilizing in an active resistance to this con man who has fleeced his way into the White House.

Today I heard from an 89-year-old friend. He wrote: “I don’t keep track of Donald Trump’s daily absurdities. I’m not surprised by the goofiness coming out of Washington. I am focused on the realities of climate change, and that we are very possibly in a life-or-death struggle, unprecedented in the history of humanity. And I know what I have to do.” And what’s that? He is preparing, with others, to do civil disobedience, resisting the construction of a natural gas pipeline in Virginia.

Now that’s an encouraging word, along with an Appalachian musical reminder: “Don’t let the shadows turn into mountains. It’ll be all right when the mist clears away.”


Add comment April 28th, 2017

Behold The Butterflies

April 16th, 2017  |   

As Easter day comes to a close, I think about butterflies. They have been on my mind today. My love for these creatures runs deep within me.

It was a drab day, years ago. As I stood on the side of a cemetery hill, family and friends quietly awaited the lowering of the casket into a freshly dug grave. The elderly man, lifelessly locked inside the casket, had been a special friend. He never went to church, but I had visited him at home on more than one occasion. He had shown me his workspace where he did beautiful woodwork. I had a deep affection for him.

As the casket arrived at its final resting place beneath the surface of the hill, there to await shovels full of dirt, a brightly colored butterfly that had taken rest in the grave suddenly took flight skyward. It flew from the grave, within easy view. Butterflies, entombed in a cocoon, find a way out of confinement on their journey toward freedom. They are on a long journey.

Butterflies are my favorite symbol of resurrection.  They are all about metamorphosis, renewal, and rebirth. Behold the butterfly.

The Monarch butterfly, once free from its binding, having gone through a five stage metamorphose, takes a remarkable journey from as far away as Canada, all the way to South America. In the spring, they return north. One of the incredible things about the Monarch is that it makes the journey to an unknown, distant place utilizing some inherent, yet unexplainable behavior pattern. One might say they travel, guided by a genetic faith.

I am grateful to Professor Leah D. Shade at Lexington Theological Seminary for putting me back in touch, through her writings, with Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior.

The book’s central character is a mother of two children, living in a poor community in the rural foothills of Appalachia. She has a serendipitous encounter with a swarm of migrating Monarch butterflies that have descended on her land, on their way back from Mexico. Called the “butterfly lady,” she has an awakening. She becomes aware of the fact that not only is her poverty-stricken family threatened by the possible loss of their home and their land, so too are the butterflies, who are losing their home to the very same antagonist, the international logging industry, here and in Mexico.

Nathanial Hawthorne made this observation: “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” That is spiritually meditative guidance for active social justice living.

There is no Easter basket full of sweet solutions to the death, destruction and political oppression we are experiencing in the world right now. Endless war and rumors of more wars are testing our faith and our commitment to peace and justice. Do we have the energy and perseverance for the work that must be done?

The Easter season, which lasts well into the spring, invites all of us, no matter our faith or beliefs, to behold the butterflies. Behold and see the lessons they teach us about taking long journeys to new places, and the persevering energy required in order to engage the struggle it takes to reach a destination. That’s what it will take from those of us who care about life. It will take persistent hope.

Take a couple of minutes to watch the video about the butterflies. Behold the butterflies. They have life saving lesson to teach us.

Add comment April 16th, 2017

The Mother Of All Bombs

April 14th, 2017  |   

“The mother of all bombs.”

Those are the words I heard this morning as I checked the news.

That’s the description of the bomb, a 21,600 lbs GBU-Massive Ordinance Air Blast, dropped on a target in Afghanistan, the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat.

The mother of all bombs? What an outrageous description of this instrument of death.

Mothers do not birth bombs.

Mothers birth babies.

Babies, who too often become canon fodder where, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “ignorant armies clash by night.”

As Good Friday comes to a close, a particular mother comes to mind. I think of her often, have written about her in the past, and bring her to mind once again.  

Perhaps some of my readers remember this woman. I met her at a church service in a rural parish in North Carolina, where I had been invited to preach. It was the summer of 1990, six months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that became the Gulf War.

I shared my concern, in the sermon and in prayers, anticipating a possible impending war. A woman in a pew, just to my right, began to cry, very quietly,

After worship, this woman approached me and apologized for having cried. She then proceeded to tell me that her son, a Marine, was on his way to the Middle East. She was worried about a possible war. As if to justify tears, she said, “I hope you understand. I’m just a mother.”

Those words troubled me as I drove home. 

Back in Raleigh, I told Judy what had happened. As a woman, a mother, she understood this woman she had never met, and understood my troubled spirit over her tears and her words. “Just a mother.”

On Monday morning, I called Doug Hostetter, the Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The call resulted in the formation of the delegation that took me, along with 16 others, to Iraq, and then back home to work against our nation’s thirst for war.

Before this Good Friday comes to an end, another woman comes to mind, Phyllis’s Boyens, who introduced me to the Appalachian music written and sung by her legendary father, Nimrod Workman, a United Mine Workers of America coal miner, who later dedicated himself to the task of getting our country to face up to the health concerns surrounding black lung.  On Good Friday, Phyllis sang her father’s songs, intermingled with the reading of the crucifixion passages from the Bible, and my meditations and prayers.    

I still recall Phyllis’ rendition of “O Death,” sung just before the reading of Jesus’ final words before dying: “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He yielded up His Spirit.” It was a poignant way, back then and particularly now, to stare down death, divorce mother from bombs, and turn toward nonviolence.

While we have time.

Add comment April 14th, 2017

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4