It is nearly impossible to attribute the American City Beautiful movement to any one person or event; it was fueled by many factors. But it is quite likely that its fuel was ignited by a single poem. Can that be right?
There is a disconcerting passage of Scripture that starkly illuminates the concept of sacredness. I vacillated over whether to draw upon it for this post, but couldn’t divine (pun intended) how this might take shape apart from it.
It’s the story of Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant (in 1 Sam. 6 and 1 Chr. 13). For the uninitiated (or those only initiated by Raiders of the Lost Ark), the Ark was an ornate chest of sorts containing a number of sacred objects collected during the Israelite’s miraculous escape from Egypt: some manna, a staff that budded (and once turned into a snake), and the tablets of the law. Above all, however, it was said to be inhabited by God’s Presence.
During Israel’s early monarchy, the Ark was relegated to an almost superstitious object—toted into battle like a talisman. God caused this misuse of the Ark to result in its being captured by Israel’s Philistine enemies. It was eventually returned and took up interim residence in a hamlet called Beth Shemesh, at the house of a man named Abinadab.
Then reverent king David decreed that the Ark should find a more honorable home in Jerusalem. He entrusted the task of transport to two men named Ahio and Uzzah, Abinadab’s sons. In a profoundly practical frame of mind, these two men hoisted the Ark up onto an oxcart—sending it along in much the same fashion as it had come to them. (See 1 Sam. 6)
And so it was that the dwelling place of God’s Presence came bumping along out of Beth Shemesh en route to Jerusalem, heaved lurchingly along by oxen. At a point just outside Jerusalem the cart hit an uneven patch of road, and the Ark began to teeter. Observing this, Uzzah reached out and braced it with his hand. Here we encounter the episode that is likely troubling for us, and was undoubtedly troubling for those present.
A man once discovered a chrysalis tucked under a shrub in his yard. Upon inspection, he found a moth trapped inside. The little pod rocked back and forth in the mulch as the insect strained in seeming futility to be free of it. The sight of the moth’s wings bound awkwardly by the unyielding silken straps, and of its mortal struggle, moved the man to compassion—it looked to all the world to be dying. With a nearby twig he began delicately nudging away the bonds; carefully picking and prying the suffering moth from its dire enclosure.
At last, the moth was extracted. It stumbled awkwardly across the uneven ground. Its gangly, asymmetrical wings curling inward like fallen autumn leaves. The man used the same stick to place the moth up on a broad green leaf and left it to its liberation.
The next day, the man came back out and wandered over to the location of the dramatic rescue. He found the moth lying just beneath the leaf where it had been left. It was motionless—dead. Its wings still scrunched malformed atop its thorax. The man concluded wrongly it had been diseased, not knowing that it was he who was responsible for its untimely ruin. Continue reading “wrestling”
“I, Patrick, a sinner…”
Thus begins The Confession of St. Patrick; an account that illustrates the cosmic power of forgiveness.
Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was a Welsh-Briton, who, as a “young man, almost a beardless boy … was taken captive” by Irish raiders and sold into slavery on the harsh, barbaric Irish isle. He was only 16. This took place somewhere in the middle of the 5th century, as the Roman empire suffered its rapid decline and the so-called Dark Ages began.
For 6 years he was harshly worked against his will in the land of his captivity, before making a dramatic escape. He returned home by boat to Wales and was reunited with his family and community. He then did the unthinkable. He returned to Ireland!
I was watching a conversation this past November between Bill Kristol (founder of The Weekly Standard) and Jonah Goldberg (of The National Review). They were discussing conservatism in the age of Trump. The interview came out on November 5. Goldberg was lamenting the present acrimonious climate of political discourse in our nation and he described how “one of the most repugnant things” is the way in which adherents to political sides wait with baited breath after mass shootings to find out whether it fits their particular partisan agenda in order to to utilize the tragedy as political fodder.
He prefaced his comment in an way that disheartened me, and you’ll see why in a second. He said,
One of the most repugnant things. . . Hopefully when this airs there won’t have been a recent mass-shooting, because it will seem like I’m talking about it—but there hasn’t. The most recent one was a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. . .
I was struck for one reason, shaken for another. I was struck by the fact that Goldberg took for granted that there would likely have been another mass-shooting in the days following his interview—this spoke volumes! But I was shaken because, as I mentioned, the interview was released on November 5, and, on that same day, a man clad all in black entered a rural church in Sunderland Spring, TX and gunned down 26 churchgoers with a modified AR-15. Parents were killed, children were killed, families were utterly and irreparably decimated.
It has been a fascinating year, I must say.
Back in July of 2015 I was sitting on a sailboat off the shoreline of Chicago with a friend from out of town and another friend—the owner of the boat. It was a beautiful blue and breezy summer day, and we were drifting blissfully along overlooking the shimmering, sun-bathed skyline. I was playing tour guide.
“So that’s the Sears Tower—AKA the Willis Tower. That one over there is the John Hancock. The glassy one right in the middle? That one’s the Trump Tower.” I paused. Then added with a grin, “You know? Our next president.”
My visiting friend smiled back knowingly. “Well. You never know.”
I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “Wayeell… some-times ya do.” And so we drifted along. I had no idea the strange saga I was about to watch our nation undergo.
I was sitting at an American-style cafe in Hanoi having hamburgers with a few Vietnamese English-language students and a couple other Americans. We were part of a partnership program with a local foreign language university, in which native English speakers taught and tutored Vietnamese students. We often received social invitations for outings from our students, and this was one such occasion. During the course of the meal, one of the Vietnamese students made a joke that none of us Americans understood. This had happened quite a bit during our time there. Though we’d made some half-hearted efforts to grasp one-another’s humor, we tended to simply smile benevolently and move on. I determined then and there that this time would be different!
“Ok, Ok. Back up. I want to understand this joke; I need to. We’re gonna talk this out until we understand why that was funny,” I said emphatically.
And so we circled back. At each point of ambiguity, we clarified. We defined terms and gave background and returned again and again to the simple question: Why is that funny? This went on for 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually the group of Vietnamese students were all exchanging puzzled glances, as were my group of American companions. We all began laughing at our utter futility in achieving any shared understanding of the humor of this joke—despite our determined efforts!
We had failed my challenge spectacularly, and so resumed eating. Eventually someone brought up a new topic.
During my life I’ve been inculcated to value empathy over sympathy. To see it as superior. Sympathy, I’ve gathered, is some distant brand of pity, absent of real understanding. What we ought to practice is empathy; a personal involvedness of putting one’s self into the shoes of the other. I’m just not sure I agree with that anymore. I suspect sympathy is the more rare of the two, and certainly the more needed.
The tune is not very timeless, but the lyrics still communicate. In James Taylor’s 1991 song Shed a Little Light, he wrote
Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us,
All men and women living on the Earth.
Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood, that we are bound together
There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist
There is a hunger in the center of the chest
There is a passage through the darkness and the mist
And though the body sleeps the heart will never rest
Shed a little light, oh Lord, so that we can see, just a little light, oh Lord.
Wanna stand it on up, stand it on up, oh Lord,
Wanna walk it on down, shed a little light, oh Lord.
I don’t know that a nation like ours with a history like ours or a present like ours can turn our thoughts often enough to the otherworldly, redemptive vision of Martin Luther King. Certainly of all the things you might trip into today, be you off work, on work, occupied or otherwise, wouldn’t it be important to spend 10 or 15 minutes swept into the sacredness of King’s vision for justice and equality, but, above all brotherhood and sisterhood? I think so. Don’t neglect to find such a moment during this day. For we forsake those things we forget, even, especially the proverbial first things.
I’m reprinting below the entire text of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I reflected on it during Friday’s post and gave a bit of its backstory.
I have a bit of a habit of using Monday’s post as a venue for reflecting on art. Can an open letter extolling the expounding upon the biblical and social urgency of racial justice be considered art? Can it be called beautiful, evocative, important, inspiring? In the case of this epistle, the answer is yes to all and so much more. It has its own animate power and presence, the same as any masterpiece. Like van Gogh or Bach, it can stop you in your tracks. If this is not art, than our definition of art must grow. The same could be said of the way this text belongs in many important categories. If you live in America and have never ventured into this text, you are poorer for it. If you are a Christian and have never annexed King’s vision for justice into your own, you have needlessly retarded your spiritual growth. If both are true of you, I would urge you to make this a matter of sacred responsibility—I mean that.
Canadian aboriginal leader George Erasmus noted,
Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community.
Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.
King’s letter offers us a needed path to common memory and, thus, a path to real community—within our society and within the church. How needed this is in these days!
It was King himself who grieved that the most segregated hour in America was 11 am on Sunday morning. How might the American church offer any prophetic energy or insight within our nation if this remains unchanged? It cannot.
And so, without further adieu, I am providing the full text of King’s letter below. May we walk upon its light. Continue reading “MLK | Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. What then is the mother of necessity? What I mean is, how is it that we come to determine something necessary, imperative or indispensable? How do certain things find their way into that conceptual compartment?
More importantly, how does the right stuff find its way there? Because, if necessity is the mother of invention, then we will only ever apply the potency of our human inventiveness to those things we perceive to be truly necessary.
And is this where justice resides for us; for you; for me? If not, how might it be birthed into our domiciles of necessity?
Annie Dillard recounts a riveting—if unsettling—phenomenon of nature in her splendid work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In the pages of 19th century naturalist and entomologist J. Henri Fabre’s journals are found some peculiar habits of pine processionary caterpillars.
Pine processionaries are moth caterpillars with shiny black heads, who travel about at night in pine trees along a silken road of their own making. They straddle the road in a tight file, head to rear touching, and each caterpillar adds its thread to the original track first laid by the one who happens to lead the procession.
Fabre housed a group of pine processionaries in his conservatory for observation, where he initiated an experiment demonstrating, in Dillard’s words, their “blindered and blinkered enslavement to instinct.” By modifying the silk track in their glass enclosure, he created a closed circuit. Fabre wanted to determine how long they might travel its futile track. “To his horror,” Dillard reports, “they march not just an hour or so, but all day.” Day after day Fabre observes them slogging in their futile orbit of “imbecility”. A time or two they reorganize, yet, in tragic form, wander again onto their cruel circuit and resume their “dismal parade.” Fabre puts food and water alongside their path to no avail. Deprived of moisture and nutrients, the hapless column of insects processes to their collective demise.
Fabre notes with incredulity the lack of “any gleam of intelligence in their benighted minds.”
Dillard is more disquieted still,
It is the fixed that horrifies us, the fixed that assails us with the tremendous force of its mindlessness…
It is motion without direction, force without power, the aimless procession of caterpillars round the rim of a vase, and I hate it because at any moment I myself might step to that charmed and glistening thread.
Our world is thoroughly laced with such charmed, glistening yet altogether deadly threads, onto which all are prone to wander. Isn’t it? Maybe you suspect you are straddling one such thread presently. How does one find one’s way off, and, perchance, liberate others in the process? Continue reading “Imagination”