Semi-Sermon: Panic and Serenity


 I confess. Nasty political news gets to me. It puts my mind in Hell. Yesterday’s NY Times headline reads ‘Trump Gets Terrible — Things can get worse, and with him, they always do.’  Staretz Silouan says Keep your mind in Hell – and despair not!

Yesterday’s paper had a short video of a dog racing toward a mound of leaves and diving in – disappearing into a Mt Edna of leaves!  For the moment, Trump is in exile!  I try to remember the little things – and big things – that fall outside the ugly frenzy. Hellish news keeps my mind in hell. Other things keep me from despair.  After a winning world series night-game, right fielder Mookie Betts skips the celebrations to feed the homeless on the steps of the Boston Public Library.

There’s nastiness, good news, and long-term damage out there. We’re losing the three-legged balance between Congress, the Courts, and The President. Congress abdicates its role as a check on Presidential power, and Presidential power, unfettered, packs the Courts. It’s creeping dictatorship, the love of power, unchecked revenge against enemies, and demonization of non-whites and Dems. He celebrates violence against journalists in Montana. He waits over a week to notice the murder and dismemberment of a US resident in a Saudi Embassy. He calls a woman “Horseface.”

I got this less than cheering message from a friend in Brazil: “A despicable human being is about to become Brazil´s next president. Things are going to get nasty down here… what’s happening to the world? Could you please enlighten me?”

 I have no enlightening words.

The Washington Post reports that for three consecutive years the average American life span has gone down from drug overdoses. George Will, in the Washington Post, calls this a “disease of despair.”  There are more drug-related deaths now in one year than deaths in the entire 10 yrs. of the Vietnam War.

Loneliness is another killer. We need neighbors, cousins, joy-mates, Grandkids, Otto, and cats. These are survival connections.  To maintain them defuses despair. Openness to Creation also defuses despair.


Our Hebrew Bible reminds us that Job found his mind and body rotting in Hell. He suffers affliction after affliction, pain after pain. Then he hears the whirlwind celebrate Creation. He’s overwhelmed. His complaints ‘melt away.’  He had been in Hell, yet at last, despairs not.

The King James has Job say, “I abhor myself. But why would he loath himself? He’s done nothing wrong, And God knows it. He refuses to “curse God and die.” He yields in amazement to the glories of Creation. He “melts away.”   

Steven Mitchell finds the theme this masterpiece of world literature to be “. . . nothing less than human suffering and the transcendence of it; it pulses with moral energy, moral outrage, and deep spiritual insight.” The insight is that despair is not the last word.  “I melt away” is a permissible rendering of the Hebrew, and it captures Job’s amazement at the glory of Creation.

When we think of creation stories, we think of Genesis, but the Lord’s words in the whirlwind or storm give a Creation that to my ear is more vivid than Genesis.  Job’s Lord lays the cornerstone of Creation — “while the morning stars burst out singing / and the angels shout for joy!” Job hears singing, shouting and covers his mouth. He melts away.


I can remember worse times – the sixties. That doesn’t make the present OK, but it shows we’ve survived, up to now, even worse. I ducked down in a VW van to hide a Black friend as we drove to Mississippi. Viola Liuzzo, a church activist from Detroit, had been murdered by the Ku Klux Clan.

There were daily Vietnam body counts on the TV news, and many assassinations — Martin Luther King, two Kennedy’s, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, the Oakland, California, school superintendent. Patty Hearst was kidnapped. The civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered. There were deaths at Kent State. Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities were on fire.  

So far we’ve been spared assassinations, though twelve pipe bombs have been found aimed at Obama, Clinton, CNN, Brennan, Biden, and others. We’ve been spared lethal, exploding pipe bombs, murders, and burning cities – so far. The president jokes over his disruptions.

Yet even in the violent 60’s the mosaic of experience presented more than Hell. We celebrated the Beatles, and the inspirations of Martin Luther King. There was the rolling surf of the Sonoma Coast and Casco Bay, strangely indifferent to politics. Music, poetry and quiet kindness are indifferent to politics, as is a dog diving head first to disappear into a Mt. Edna of soft leaves.

I’m not advocating quietism, or burying heads in the sand. Our good pastor leapt to a table in defense of the Berrigan Brothers in the ‘60s. I applaud.  I look for quiet moments that remind us of who we are beyond outrage, exhaustion, and despair. I seek hope and quiet as substitutes for fury and desperation. A bit like tai chi, action can be rooted in meditative quiet.

We are mosaics, bits of hell, bits of despair, bits of hope. We walk, see, inwardly wail, and day-dream. We sense ways of taking up with the world and being happy to be of the world. Serenity and hope can elude us but we seek it. We keep our minds in Hell and despair not. Job’s despair is defeated with morning light. He melts away.


We are mosaics of moods and responses, mosaics of outrage and relief, shoutings, fears, and tremblings. And we embrace things that are precious — laughing kids and leaping dogs. Serenity – melting away – doesn’t shrink moral space. We melt away in music or star gazing without losing a moral compass, or a sense of the invincibly precious. Whatever the hell, despair not.

Mary Oliver writes: “When it’s over, I want to say:  All my life I was a bride, Married to amazement.  I was the bridegroom, Taking the world into my arms.”

Isaiah is more exuberant. “I will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst forth into song, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”

Be married to amazement. Protest. But also let yourself melt. Embrace the invincibly precious. Take up the world in your arms.                              







The Reality of Love

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It’s not like me to be still thinking about a Netflix series three days after the finale.

It’s not like me to be writing at all about a Netflix series.

There’s something mesmerizing, horrifying, yet almost lovable about River – Stellan Skarsgard, who plays the detective. River’s his last name. We never hear his first.  He’s not close enough to anyone to get addressed by his first. And there’s something mesmerizing and, well, lovable, about his sidekick, Stevie (Nicola Walker). Her presence-absence haunts the show and it’s she who unexpectedly teaches River, at long last, to laugh and sing (even if only with her mirage). Does the reality of love depend on a mirage?

This is a crime thriller, and as important, a family drama, and a study in hearing voices and hallucination. It’s a study in the abuse of illegal immigrants who will do anything, including murder, to get residency. It’s a story of marital infidelity and the bare-faced corruption of apparently good men in high  places.

Because there are six episodes, we see Stevie’s murder, in agonizing slow motion, numerous times. Working a case with River, she has ventured into the street just outside a suspect take-away shop. A gunshot from an approaching car throws her violently to the pavement.

We watch the scene as River studies the video in slow-motion looking for clues. Stevie had no apparent enemies. River has no apparent friends. He was abandoned early in life and his friendless solitude no doubt has roots there. Perhaps his ‘visitations,’ where a cast of three or four characters periodically appear to taunt him, are rooted in that trauma.  The maternal, adorable, hugable Stevie appears regularly in postmortem visitations. She’s there not to taunt but to smile, and cast an unforgettably vibrant radiance his way.

It would be fruitless – and tedious — to try to replicate the twists and turns of the plot. Let’s just say it’s gripping, through six episodes. After her death Stevie appears repeatedly to coach River, to edge him out of his icy reticence. Bit by bit she succeeds. He goes for a generous midnight swim with her son (she’s there for us on screen though invisible to all but the hallucinating River). She coaxes him toward holding and smiling a bundled infant still in diapers. As he drives, she turns on the radio to sing along. With her smile and magnetism she tries to entice him to join. She’s a good angel, and ever-so humanly alive. The catch is that all her appearances are River’s postmortem hallucinations.

River is perceived by most others as ‘nuts-o’ – yet tolerated for his brilliant detective work. They’re utterly baffled when he undergoes an hallucinatory seizure. Yet somehow we’re taken in by Stevie’s admiration and warmth and so we avoid the temptation to view him in a clinical light — though we don’t for a moment doubt he actually gets accosted by the mirages we see on screen. And we utterly believe in the magnetically joyful Stevie. In fact, she is clearly as real as he is — perhaps more real. As is her love.


The Chickadee

The Chickadee

Pecking between bricks

Unthreatened by my approach

Slow to move,

As locals are

Some sip coffee

Others loll to greet the blue

Across the bay and all above

Slow, as locals are

Even drifters,

Gulls or hulls pulling

At their ties against

The tides

Take their time

There’s no rush

Don’t push

Just hold my hand

Slow, as locals are

The Triumph of Kindness

There’s a kindness that slips between the cracks: there’s a crack in everything to let the good light in. It’s the capacity to relax into affirmation. It escapes headlines. It’s so often under the radar, the triumph less of action than a heartfelt state of kindness played out in simple unheroic gestures.

Kindness can envelope two persons, or a small group, known in the sparkle of eyes, the tenderness of touch, the light laugh of togetherness. In the movie The Wife, it envelopes grandparents answering a phone to welcome a new grandchild into the world. There’s a burst of joy that’s also a burst of kindness, affirmation, and affection.  Heartfelt kindness takes over and displaces all irritability.

We’re heartened by news of kindness, the boon of acts that transcend indifference or dismissal.  And we’re heartened by less public moments when kindness passes privately between friends or partners, between grandparents and new grandchildren, between pets and their guardians. These more private moments are also triumphs – triumphs over the banal, over indifference, over streams of irritation, masked hostility, competitiveness, that so easily get the upper hand.

The triumph of simple kindness rebukes dark clouds of despair.  We are not strangers to disaster, killing, cruelty. Unhappily, incessant bad news becomes its own disaster, casting the unwary toward despair. The kindness that slips between the cracks triumphs over despair. We come to relish simple smiles, hugs, the kiss of eyes.  The warmth of human kindness defeats lurking despair, lack of hope. Despair is a failure of empathy and kindness.

Celebrating moments of kindness is not just didactic, as in stories, perhaps Biblical ones, meant to encourage kind actions. Celebrating their triumphs is not self-indulgent or a detached, impersonal observation of goodness in others. Celebrating is bracing joy in the triumph of kindness. There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

The Look of God

Found art (prose):

Maya Rudolph looks like God — that is, she looks at you the same way, you must imagine, that God takes in his creation: happy to see it, while somehow existentially disappointed in it, but forgiving of it and still maintaining affection for it, even though it has absolutely let him down in some indefinable way only he can understand. Her wide eyes, which lend themselves so easily to bald astonishment or mania in her comedy, turn down one fraction of one degree at the outer corners when at rest, lending a suggestion of ruefulness to her neutral gaze. The effect is offset by Rudolph’s cautious, closemouthed smile, which rests on her face as easily as powder on a puff. It’s invigorating to find yourself the subject of a look so wistful, even if the expression is inadvertent. It makes you want to be the better version of yourself. Maya Rudolph apparently knows you can be that.

                                                   ~~ Caity Weaver, NYTimes,

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Why is philosophy so hard?

Amia Srinivasan is an epistemologist at All Souls and University College London. She’s not the usual analytic philosopher. She works with the typical rigor and in the same mode, but with an eye towards questions often thought to be in the corral of the ‘Continental’ philosophical tradition. She has clarified the debate over whether any mental states are ‘luminous’ and has also written about ideology and the ineffable. She is currently working on a book examining what she calls ‘genealogical anxiety’, a kind of doubt provoked by the historical and cultural contingency of many of our philosophical beliefs.

Her interviewer asks, Why is philosophy so hard?

Luckily, Srinivasan takes the question seriously:

‘This is not a standard view by any means’, she tells me, ‘but I think philosophy presupposes the ability to do something that’s actually not possible for us to do’.

This, she says, is to stand outside the relationship between ourselves and the world. We want to be able to understand the world from something like an objective point of view, to think about it with maximal detachment.

‘But unfortunately’, she continues, ‘we are a mind in the world, and not just in the world generally, but a very specific world, a particular world for each person. And so we have this regulative aspiration, but that’s at best a regulative ideal, not one that we can actually achieve, and I think that’s part of the pain: it’s the pain of wanting to transcend and being thrown back on our localness and finitude.’

More on Cavell

I learned in the news 3 weeks ago that a great Harvard philosopher had died. He was in his ‘90s and had lived a full life. A very full life! He was a man of many talents — a Hollywood studio musician and a music composition student at Julliard. He was a film and literary critic as well as a philosophy professor. He was the first in academic philosophy in my lifetime to write about Thoreau and Shakespeare and Emerson: a man after my heart, a beacon for the decades of my philosophy career.

I always lamented that as the son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant he felt he had to change his name to the non-Jewish Stanley Cavell. Was that a death of part of him? If so, he was also grandly reborn.

His death was a loss yet much more, it was, for me, an occasion for gratitude – for giving thanks that he had lived, had illuminated my life and the lives of so many others.

I shared news of his death with a friend in the neighborhood who also knew Cavell’s work.  On a Saturday we reminisced over his impact and passing. I was headed for the door when my neighbor mentioned, off-handedly, that his wife was in Vermont with her nephew, Tyler Roberts. I startled. This was Tyler the religion teacher and writer I knew from Grinnell. My neighbor had no idea I knew him. I had no idea Tyler had an aunt now my neighbor. We hadn’t been in contact for a decade. I was overjoyed he had come into view.

This rediscovery of a forgotten friend, his rebirth, came with our memorializing Stanley Cavell. It was renewal amidst loss. Tyler and I had been close, then lost to each other. The death of a common ancestor brought us alive to each other.

Of course, renewal amidst loss is the central motif of the Christian drama — as central as death and resurrection.

Two of my heroes, Thoreau and Emerson, tell us  that hope (or faith) is the infinite expectation of dawn – that morning light is a resurrection of the world from the dark; it’s also the resurrection of our friends and neighbors from the neglect of disattention.

Emerson puts it this way:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature [or God], but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Gratitude can take the form of memorial words and memorial deeds. Six months after his sudden death, I lit a candle for another friend at a church here in Portland.

Thoreau reburies his brother, dispensing with any coffin, making death the occasion of a gift to earth. Freed from any coffin or tomb or sarcophagus, released into a graveyard swamp, his brother sanctifies and replenishes creation. The reburial adds hope for the infinite expectation of dawn.