Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Our Indifferent Universe

The earthquake near Mexico City this week has been devastating especially since they just had one a couple of weeks ago, in the southern part of the country. The death count continues to rise as more of the rubble is being cleared away.

When I was a young minister in my first congregation years ago, people in my conservative rural church would have seen this, and frankly, all of the hurricanes and other natural disasters happening so frequently, as a sign of what was called “the end times.”

Back then, I would speak about the “Rapture,” when Jesus will supposedly appear in the sky and magically, mysteriously, all true Christians will disappear from earth, ascend, invisibly, to meet him in the sky and then be transported to heaven while everyone else left here will suffer unbearable torment and eventually die and go to hell.

My congregation loved this stuff and I have to say there was a sort of excitement in telling them all of the incredible details of this dramatic event, which I mostly got from fundamentalist paperback books and from the sermons of older conservative ministers. But truthfully, I had no idea what I was talking about. None of it really made any sense to me, but I thought it was my duty to warn people anyway. It became a part of the, I’m afraid to say, nonsense, that as a young minister I felt obligated to buy into.

A few years later I stopped speaking about all of that and focused more on real-life issues. There were members of my congregation dealing with enormous personal problems—mental illness, physical disabilities, loss, divorce, chronic illness, and death. They did not need some fantastic drama they might see in a science fiction movie to help them escape their problems. They needed tangible comfort and care.

I realized along the years that the idea that God was always going to somehow rescue Christians out of their messes, keep them from suffering, make them well and successful, was mostly baloney. I finally realized that following the life of Jesus and keeping him as an example of real human compassion and living, was not a way to escape problems but a way to face and deal with them honestly, courageously, with intelligence and understanding.

There’s no real mystery to that, just common sense. No having Jesus inside you running your life for you. No divine protection from all of life’s disasters and heartaches. No waiting around for a spectacular event that transports you out the real world into a fabrication formed in the mind of J.N. Darby, a 19th century Irish clergyman who created elaborate charts of the timeline of the Rapture and who by the way believed the invention of the telegraph was a sign of the end of the world.

Darby and other more modern end time ministers and authors led the Rapture cause and left a lot of young ministers like myself bewildered trying to interpret their puzzling details about how the world would end and how Christians would be spared any danger or distress.

I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the church these days. I suspect there are still some out there, most likely TV preachers, who still promote this stuff. Ministers who still use fear and fantasy to keep people coming and giving, and who declare believers exempt from any of the horrors of “the last days.”

For many in Mexico, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Keys, Houston and elsewhere, the end has already come. There was no rescue and no protection for the godly. There was no heavenly Rapture, no escape into glory from the chaos below. Ironically, the devoted were all gathered up into the whirlwind just like everyone else, and afterward, left to bury their dead and clean up what was left of their shattered lives.

This is not cynicism or atheism. This is just helping us see that whatever faith we may profess in whatever God or gods, whatever religious group we may belong to, whatever sacred book we read and honor, none of that spare us from life’s harsh realities. Christians, believers of all kinds, even children, and babies, perished in the violence of Harvey and Irma, and in the collapsing buildings in Mexico. Those who got out alive were simply fortunate, not divinely privileged.

There is a nameless character in David Levithan’s fascinating book, “Every Day,” who says, “If you stare at the center of the universe, there is coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us. That’s why we have to care about each other.”

I don’t know if you call that religion or what, but it certainly is human. And that is what is needed in times of disaster and terror. Taking care of one another.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Could There Be a Sweeter Arrangement?

I recently spent the weekend with my son, Luke, in southwest Oklahoma. He manages a large ranch there set in the hills of vast trees and rugged trails. I love going there because, for one thing, I get to spend time with him and his dogs, Maggie and Gus. And for another, I get to get out of the city and enjoy the peace and quiet of the country.

The ranch is a majestic spot set on nearly 3,000 acres and Luke has transformed it into a real paradise. The grounds around the ranch house, the barn, the shed, and the corral are immaculate. Big trees stand by the house and shade the nearby fire pit. It’s a perfect spot for morning coffee or friends around a fire at night.

There are cattle and horses that Luke tends to and across the rolling hills deer graze and raise their heads to stare if Luke and I pull up in the gator. Then they take off, running elegantly into the woods.

There are various tanks on the ranch, both large and small ponds. In the largest one Luke and I have fished and have jumped in to swim in the clear warm water.

Luke often takes me in the gator and we feed the cattle, drive over the roads he has cleared and graded, up steep narrow paths through thick sections of timber. We have seen deer, turkeys, armadillos, and wild hogs.

The weekend I was there recently we went over to property Luke has purchased across the road. He has his own cattle there and on Saturday afternoon we saw his first new calf. As we drove near the protective momma, we saw the calf was maybe only an hour old. It was just starting to stand up.

I love being there. It is therapeutic, healing, and invigorating. To be away from the roar of traffic, from the endless delays of construction throughout the city, from the long lines at the supermarket, and from the anonymity and isolation of urban life, is a delight for me.

There, on the ranch, the air is clean, the scenes are beautiful, the day unfolds quietly, softly, at an easy pace. I feel no stress. Luke and I chat about this and that, we laugh out loud at things we tell one another, and at times, we talk seriously about life and God and family. We grill. Luke is an amazing cook and there’s always a feast when I’m there. We ride the meandering hills. We listen to country and western music as we cruise through the trails and check deer feeders and follow the slow-moving cattle, some gathered in clumps under trees, calmly chewing and looking at us with big eyes of wonder.

“What are they thinking about?” I say to Luke. He hasn’t a clue. Neither do I. But there is something gentle in them that restores me.

Back at the ranch house I play with Gus and Maggie. Those dogs. What beautiful creatures they are. Such amazing companions. They know me so well now that when I arrive they are there to greet me. Gus jumps around and wants me to chase him while Maggie settles at my feet waiting for rubs across her head. Which I am happy to give.

Late in the evening Luke and I land in the TV room. We munch on snacks and watch a movie. Gus lays next to me on the love seat finally winding down while Maggie lays at Luke’s feet snuggled near him on the sofa.

When I am with Gus and Maggie I often think of Mary Oliver’s great lines, writing about her little dog:

“He puts his cheek against mine
And makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

He turns upside down, his four paws
In the air
And his eyes dark and fervent.

‘Tell me you love me,’ he says.

‘Tell me again.’

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
He gets to ask.
I get to tell.”

The ranch is my hideaway. Luke, Maggie and Gus, are my family there. It is a place of enormous welcome, quiet, exhilaration, and love.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

Thursday, September 7, 2017

When from Our Better Selves We have Too Long Been Parted

The remarkable Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, once wrote,

“This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent. 
I know what it means to beget monsters 
And to recognize in them myself.” 

It is an appropriate indictment of our own day and of our own selves.

I keep telling myself that what we are experiencing in our country is just a phase, something we have gone through before, where people who turn loathsome and violent, enormously greedy and arrogant, will change. That these dark clouds of hostility hovering over us will pass and the sunlight of decent behavior will shine again.

But there is something alarmingly stubborn about the indignity, prejudice, violence, division and hatred among us. We seem stuck in a continuous atmosphere of rancor and bitter estrangement. And it is disturbing and frightening that our leaders seem incapable or not interested in changing the nation’s oppressive mood.

Our media, in all of its forms, is clearly geared to keep in front of us the most outrageous acts and words of angry and disgruntled Americans. National and local news, Sunday news shows, political commentators on television, radio, and the Internet endlessly stir the pot and keep us angry at one another. And that, too, fuels the tiresome discord we feel and face.

Social media, now an embarrassing assortment of deranged talk, bullying threats, and bizarre vulgar comments, fills anyone who stays connected to it with feelings of mental and emotional exhaustion, and the fear that we are losing our humanity.

I’m still convinced that the majority of Americans are good, decent people, responsibly going to their jobs and taking care of their families. But I can’t dismiss what seems to be a continuous and growing inclination of people to angrily disagree, fight verbally and physically, and behave without any consideration of the feelings or even the lives of others.

I have always respected law enforcement and like many boys I thought being a cop would be a great honor. But today’s police forces seem, in too many instances, out of control, intimidating to all citizens, bullying and without any limits to what they do, and unafraid even if they themselves clearly break the law.

This is not being addressed by politicians, judges, or law enforcement. And that it continues to go on week after weary week only serves to keep society at large edgy, resentful, and unwilling to trust the police or the courts.

The dead end that Washington and Congress have become; the indifference to white supremacists by our president, the cynical ending of DACA, the horror and rage that was Charlottesville, the sour and acrimonious debate over Confederate statues and so forth, all tend to make us a country of people delusional and alienated.

Dr. Jeff Gusky, an emergency room physician, National Geographic photographer and author, believes we are experiencing what he calls a “human emergency” based on unhealthy choices we are making regarding technology, social media, and a pace of living that is frenetic and irresponsible. Dr. Gusky has studied photographs and the history of World War I and sees frightening similarities to our current abnormal behavior.

In his book, “The Hidden World of WWI,” he writes about the willingness for people to see enemies as subhuman and that war and killing were perfectly acceptable means of preserving what was considered a higher standard of living. He believes that today our own way of thinking and living has diminished our humanness, that our politics and social behavior have cut us off from reality and have disabled our moral compass. His goal is to help us see how modern life affects conscience. He wants America to discard this imperialistic, superiority attitude that drives us and embrace being human and imperfect. The obsession to be always right must end.

It is a worthy and noble effort. We need voices like Dr. Gusky calling us out of this destructive path we are on, to realize how today we create monsters, to see how we too can become them, and to embrace again those grand ideals and values that represent our better selves.

Wordsworth’s great lines are fitting:

“When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign is Solitude.”

We need a rest from the insanity around us. We need to think of how to change. And then we must do it. One by one, and together.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Promise of Something New

The world is yearning. America is yearning. We are yearning. I am yearning. What is this longing in us? What necessary thing is it that we yearn to know or have or experience?

Writer, essayist, and editor, Rebecca Solnit, has written:

“For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

These are beautifully haunting words. Haven’t we seen the distant horizon and felt its pull, its mystery? That distance, as Solnit describes it, “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

Such powerful thoughts. That “blue at the far edge of what can be seen,” lures us and, perhaps, taunts us. It is the distance from what we know and what we want to know. The space of our ambitions, or deeper, our cravings for a better world, a better society, a better self.

The political mess in this country heightens these feelings. We look out over the landscape of our government and we see chaos, sleazy conduct, petty disputes, contemptible manipulation, horrendous incompetence, and it all looks hopeless for decades to come.

We seem as a nation to be marching backwards at the commands of leaders embroiled in ego fights, in money making, in hype and hypocrisy. And the blue at the far edge beckons us beyond this nonsense to “the color of there seen from here.”

Hurricane Harvey arrived to give us a poignant perspective. Harvey showed us that Nature wields a force greater than our high-rise buildings, our glass enclaves, our luxury cars and super freeways, and the seemingly invincible structures of home and safety.

We look at the videos and photos of the devastation and despair, the ruin and coming blight, the faces of dread and disorientation, and many in the flood no doubt see “the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.”

This, too, calls us to some far place away from the dangers of life, away from the scary realities of hurricanes and disasters that threaten our delicate sense of security, the thin layer of impregnability that we cover ourselves with daily.

Those distant horizons, those far away mountains, hail our courage, they charm and persuade us to strength, to determination, to facing the worst undaunted, whether floods or political collapse or spiritual doubt.

They remind us there is always more beyond what is at our feet, more than we can at the moment fully see, out in the mystery and space of our longings and desire, out into the promise of something new, if only we can stay aware of it, if only we can keep stepping toward it.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

Thursday, August 24, 2017

What I Learned from the Daughters of God

When I was a boy, I was loved by the sweetest women in the world. My Mom, of course, beautiful in every way was one. Smart, devoted, lovingly and fiercely protective of her family. But then also, on my Dad’s side, there was my grandmother, Maude, whom I called Nana. Quiet and reserved, small and lovely, she was a tender presence. By my Aunt Laura, who was fun and beautiful with a contagious laugh, generous and open-hearted. By my Aunt Mary, tiny and petite, poised and gracious. By Aunt Florida, snow white hair and the most winsome smile, a deeply self-confident woman.

On my mother’s side, there was my grandmother, Ruby, whom I called Momo. Quite simply, a saint. I adored her. My great-grandmother, Joanna, whom I called Gammy. A gifted pianist, the first female American Indian graduate in the school of music at Bacone College. Her embrace was arms of love. And there were my Aunt Emerald and my Aunt Jackie, wonderful women of grace and affection.

These women taught me never to be afraid of my emotions, of tears, of joy, of passion. They showed me the rich nurture of affection, how that hugs and kisses from them were expressions, from their hearts, that I was cherished, that I counted, and that they cared deeply for me. They called me Timmy, and sweetie, and honey, and sugar, and baby and all kinds of terms of endearment. And I began to think of myself as prized and beloved when I was with them.

They taught me the value of faith and were the daughters of God to me. I learned from them to respect women, to appreciate a woman’s grace and charm; to honor femininity and the dignity of women. They also taught me to value a woman’s creativity, her mind, her inner strength, her ability to endure sorrow, loss, and disappointment; her determination to be heard, to be equal, to be independent and one’s own self.

I have written about the men in my life and they were great forces of strength and character for me. But these women, they taught me lessons that only the wise and the keenly aware and the sensitive can teach. To this day, they remain enduring examples for me of what it is to be human and caring, gentle, intelligent and perceptive.

Our relationship with one another as women and men is a mysterious and humbling experience. There are obvious differences between us. And yet, there are also similarities that by some innate compulsion bring us together. This is true for gay couples as well. There is a profound need within all of us to connect with others. To love and be loved. To find healthy ways to express our affections, to care, to learn from one another, to be inspired and challenged by another in order to grow into newer and more authentic definitions of ourselves.

The women in my life taught me this.

There are women who bravely stand up to misogyny, to sexual harassment and abuse, to the myth of their inferiority, and become political activists, social workers, therapists, teachers and other professions, and they help keep alive the force that women have to change things for the better, for themselves and for others.

Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland who went on to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.”

We need women with that kind of vision and courage.

The women in my life were not activists, or feminists, though all of them were women of enormous gifts, inner strength, and character. Author and mystic, Joseph Campbell, described the women in my life in a comment about compassion: “Compassion is just what the word says; it is ‘suffering with.’ It is an immediate participation in the suffering of another to such a degree that you forget yourself and your own safety and spontaneously do what is necessary.”

That was my mother and grandmothers, my great-grandmother and my aunts. We need women with this dynamic capacity. They can promote significant change as well. 

What I learned growing up was that women are a powerful and wonderful part of our lives. The women I grew up with tutored me, with their words and actions, in the delicate yet tenacious meaning of womanhood, and in the process, helped me discover what it is to be a good man.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

Monday, August 21, 2017

We Need Hope and Openings

I didn’t vote for President Trump but I did try to give him the benefit of the doubt once he was elected. I often held back from any real criticism simply because I thought he might very well shake up our political system in a way that would set it back on some reasonable track, away from the career politicians who have all but demolished it.

I was wrong.

President Trump continues to demonstrate no real interest in politics. He has no legislative goals other than to make certain existing laws harsher, more punishing. He is not impressed with the Republican leadership in Congress and has so far refused to be cowered by any of them. That, I do find somewhat refreshing. Those guys have ignored the country for far too long, hiding behind pretended concern, while voting and plotting to do nothing about immigration reform, police brutality, the militarization of police, Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Yemen, race relations, Israel’s merciless regime, the catastrophic refugee problems, gross economic inequality in this country, the working poor, homelessness, and well, the list is endless.

And don’t get me started on the Democrats. They hold no place of honor or respect for me, either. I’ve given up on them.

The Charlottesville protests were a clear sign that a long-held prejudice and rancid anger still resides in the hearts of some of our people; in fact, too many of them. White supremacists, the KKK, and Nazi groups do not represent any viable American value. They are hate groups. Some of them may genuinely believe they are superior to Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. Some may truly think the old South monuments to Civil War Confederates hold some kind of respect for them. But these are beliefs of a dying breed. The South lost the Civil War. The Confederate government was vanquished and ended. Slavery was defeated. Emancipation became law. And the Declaration of Independence made it clear that all American citizens, all of us, have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” without limits or restrictions of any kind. That means race, religion, class, rich, poor, whomever, we all have equal rights to the promises of our Constitution, to the Declaration of Independence, and to the Bill of Rights. All of us.

President Trump has fumbled the essential requirement of leadership and that is to hold the nation together in times of crisis. His rhetoric, his tweets, his news conference comments, are too often divisive, juvenile, reactive, and incendiary. There is no place for white supremacists or Nazi sympathizers in this country. These groups do not represent any mindset or standard of conduct that is in any way consistent with our core American values as stipulated in all of our national documents.

We must have a president that understands and honors this. We cannot be the “United” States of America if our leader fails to call us to live up to our best ideals and to reject any notion that skin color, or cultural mores, or religious beliefs, or economic factors, or political party, or sub-group associations suspend any of us from the responsibility to be decent Americans first and foremost. That together, we succeed, and divided we fail, utterly.

I have lived my entire life in the South. I grew up with segregation and then desegregation. I saw the meanness of prejudice in my school, in the churches I attended, in the soda shops, movie theaters, and everywhere else. The Blacks and Mexicans were not accepted as typical Americans. They were banished to their own part of town, usually run down and poverty-stricken with few city services and no one in city government interested in fairness for them. I saw this growing up and I never understood it. I still don’t. How can we treat other human beings in our own country with arrogant indifference or worse with rage and violence simply because of the color their skin or the color of ours?

Thankfully, many minorities today have a much better life and more opportunity than most of their ancestors. But it came at a great sacrifice from some courageous and intelligent and responsible leaders. Dr. King was one of the most significant and brilliant of those leaders in the country. He shamed us with his nonviolence and his beautiful words and ultimately gave his life for equal rights.

Political writer and author, Rebecca Solnit, has written in her excellent book, “Hope in the Dark,” “It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

We need a president and leaders who not only know how to give us those kinds of perspectives and possibilities but who want to do it, for all of us. We desperately need that hope and those openings.

© 2017 Timothy Moody

Friday, August 11, 2017

Jim, Can You Hear Me?

(This week was my brother's birthday. This is for him.)

The weeks have scurried on and turned into months now
and still you are gone, but, here as well.

There are remembrances of you,
photos, emails, and memorials, both small
and large.

Your voice is in my memory and now and then
I hear you speak, recalling old phone conversations where
together we cursed politicians, phony preachers, a sleeping
church, and, where we replayed the last major golf tournament,
Tiger’s life collapse, Phil’s implausible shot, Rory’s power swing,
and Spieth’s relentless grit and skills.

We grieved Mom’s difficult life, Dad’s mysterious remoteness, and our own
flaws and foibles and foolishness.

And, there is your laughter, still floating in my
consciousness; a laugh that drew you up, shoulders raised, head
lifted, eyes closed, a sort of breathless moment of immobility,
slow motion seconds of you drinking in great gobs of elation and
jubilance ending in coughing spells and tears.

You had substantial years of joy and love and fulfillment. There
was a wife, and beautiful children, and towards the end, grandchildren,
who made you nervous because you felt so lousy, but whom you
cherished and must have in your quiet moments wished you could
show them how much.

There was a career, a purpose; there were achievements
and your presence left in the hearts of others.

After your funeral—in the church hallways, at the cemetery, in cars
taking people to their homes—your name was spoken in reverence, with affection from old classmates, from lifelong friends, from church members,
and from your family, our hearts heavy with your absence.

Later in the evening, a small crew of us who knew you best and loved
you most celebrated you with food and drinks. You were remembered
over and again; we laughed; we cried; we honored you and gave thanks.

You would have scolded our over indulgences, as was your way. But you
would have laughed along with us without hesitation; you would have
cried too, and on the lounge chairs where we sat you would have reached
over to hug us one by one.

Even now, I feel that embrace and all is well.

© 2017 Timothy Moody